Last November, Myanmar went to the polls for the third time since democratization, but it might well be the last. On 1 February, a military coup led by Myanmar’s commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing successfully seized control of the south-east Asian country, taking a step away from the promised democracy which the Myanmarese people had been hoping for after decades of military rule.

Myanmar isn’t alone. According to data published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, democracy is at its lowest point since records began in 2006. Whilst unclear how much of this can be explained by the Covid-19 pandemic, the data suggests that 2020 isn’t the first year that the Democracy Index has delivered the bad news: the global average has been on the decline since 2014.

This year, the Economist Intelligence Unit classified only 23 countries as full democracies, home to a mere 8.4% of the world’s population. This compares to 57 countries, or 35.6% of the global population, identified as living in an authoritarian regime. Other countries, such as France and Austria, lie somewhere in between, being classified as either “flawed democracies” or “hybrid regimes”.

The EIU attempts to give several explanations for this decline. Perhaps the most obvious of which, coronavirus, is also the most significant. It is usually the authoritarian countries where governments can enact lockdowns and other restrictions with ease, such as in China and the middle-east, that have been the most effective at suppressing the virus. China suffered only 3 deaths per million people, one of the lowest death rates in the world. This isn’t the case with democracies such as the UK and US, which have spent months haggling over the specifics of a lockdown, giving the virus only more time to continue with its spread. Without the threat of being voted out, authoritarian governments have the option to act decisively (albeit coercively), while retaining public confidence in a less democratic system, something that China has repeatedly not failed to point out.

Another reason the EIU cites as an explanation for the decline in global democracy is what it calls “attempts to curb freedom of expression”. The censorship of lockdown sceptics - not just in traditionally authoritarian countries, but also in liberal countries - meant that not a single country improved on its civil liberties score. Away from the pandemic, the EIU also referenced the increased polarisation and divisions seen throughout America in the aftermath of its election perhaps best exemplified by January’s insurrection of the Capitol Building in Washington DC, a symptom of the “extremely low levels of trust in institutions and political parties” across America.

It’s not just the wealthy countries. Mali and Togo, both African countries, have faced jihadist insurgencies and territorial disputes, dropping down 11 and 15 places respectively. In fact, in 2020 North Africa recorded its second-biggest reduction in its regional average score.

"I think this report shows just how fragile democracy is," explained Jeremy Greene of the Kingston Institute for Global Development. "It's something which we take for granted without any afterthought, and I hope this report shines a light on the fact that the liberal world needs to do a much better job at promoting democracy."

But it’s not all bad news. This year’s star-performer, Taiwan, became a “full democracy” after a successful election demonstrated the resilience of its democracy despite the increasingly hostile threat from China. Furthermore, political participation scores are up across the board, especially with America’s 2020 election being the most expensive in history.

Nevertheless, there is no denying that the democratic institutions our society is built around have reached a low point. Whether this trend is temporary or permanent, it should serve as a reminder to the liberal world that our political system is not everlasting.