Democracy is "stagnating" in Europe and retreating worldwide at unprecedented levels according to the latest annual Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
The average global score for democracies fell from 5.48 out of 10 in 2018 to 5.44 in 2019 — the worst level since the study was created in 2006.
This backslide has "ignited popular protests, especially in emerging market regions", the latest report notes. "2019 was a year of protest across the developed and developing world."
The Democracy Index survey ranks 165 independent states and two territories, looking at various factors such as electoral process and pluralism, the functioning of government, political participation, political culture and civil liberties.
Joan Hoey, Director for Europe and editor of the report said: "If 2016 was notable for the populist insurgency against the status quo in the developed democracies, 2019 was defined in large part by a wave of popular protest in the developing world."
"Both expressed a demand for more popular sovereignty and better political representation and both hold out the potential for a regeneration of democracy."
Europe accounted for seven of the top 10 countries — with Norway, Iceland and Sweden in the top three, and New Zealand the highest-ranked non-European nation.
North Korea was ranked lowest of all, and Belarus and Russia the lowest-ranked European countries.
Democracy 'stagnated' in Europe
"A regression or stagnation of democracy has been reflected in the declining average scores for the advanced democracies of the US and Europe over many years," the report said, citing causes including "a widening gap between political elites and parties on the one hand and national electorates on the other ... and a decline in civil liberties, including media freedom and freedom of speech."
Overall, it said, the average regional scores for Asia and eastern and western Europe "stagnated in 2019."
In Western Europe, France and Portugal were promoted from “flawed democracy” to “full democracy” but Malta moved in the other direction.
Malta's downgrade came after the scandal of the murder of a journalist in which an aide to the Malta's PM was involved.
France's improvment came despite dozens of protesters suffering serious injuries from police weapons.
Arab Spring 'reversed'
The 2019 decline is partly due to "sharp regressions" of democracy in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as "a lesser one in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region"
Latin America was the "worst-performing region" last year, according to the report: its score fell 0.11 points to 6.13. Sub-Saharan Africa, meanwhile, kept falling from "an already low base", by 0.10 points between 2018 and 2019.
"The democratic deterioration in the MENA region was more modest but followed a trend of steady regression since 2012, when the gains of the Arab Spring began to be reversed", the Index report says.
There is also an improvement in Algeria, which has moved from the "authoritarian regime" category to that of "hybrid regime" following the resignation last year of President Bouteflika.
El Salvador and Thailand have also moved up, from "hybrid regime" into the club of "flawed democracies". Senegal, however, went the other way.