FIRST, the good news. In case anybody underestimates the significance of our general election last May, it is worth noting that in the recently released Democracy Index 2018, Malaysia’s overall score improved from 6.54 to 6.88.
This pushed up our global and regional ranks from 59th and 9th to 52nd and 8th.
The report accompanying the index describes Malaysia as one of Asia’s “clear bright spots”.
And now the not-so-good news. Though better, the numbers were not enough to lift the country out of the class of flawed democracies. According to the index methodology, a full democracy requires a minimum score of 8.
If it is of any comfort, out of the 167 countries covered by the index, only 20 – most of them in Europe – qualified as full democracies and they are home to merely 4.5% of the world population.
The rest live under flawed democracies (55 countries), hybrid regimes (39 countries) or authoritarian regimes (53 countries).
And Malaysia’s annual scores have been rising steadily. In 2006, when the index was first compiled, our score was 5.98.
However, the report offers more to chew on than these figures.
But before that, we need to understand the index, which is published by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a research and analysis outfit that is in the same group as The Economist newspaper (yes, it does not consider itself a magazine).
The EIU says the index is “a snapshot of the state of democracy worldwide” based on five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture.
After the scoring, the countries are sorted out into the four types of regimes.
The EIU defines a full democracy as a country in which basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected. Also, its political culture tends to be conducive to the flourishing of democracy.
A flawed democracy has free and fair elections, and respect for basic civil liberties.
But the country falls short of a full democracy because of significant weaknesses in other aspects of democracy, such as problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture and low levels of political participation.
Naturally, things are worse under hybrid regimes.
The EIU offers a list of typical woes. Elections have substantial irregularities. Opposition parties and candidates have to deal with government pressure. Corruption is widespread. The rule of law and civil society is weak. Journalists are harassed and the judiciary is not independent.
It does not take a lot of imagination to figure out how bad an authoritarian regime is supposed to be. According to the index, Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Myanmar, North Korea and Saudi Arabia are among the dozens of authoritarian regimes.
The Democracy Index 2018 report focuses on political participation, saying its growth is evident in almost every region of the world.
“The results indicate that voters around the world are in fact not disengaged from democracy.
“They are clearly disillusioned with formal political institutions but have been spurred into action,” says the EIU in the report.
It is indeed important for us to fully appreciate the importance of political participation.
It means something that the voter turnout for GE14 was an impressive 82.32% although it was a Wednesday. Many Malaysians wanted to have a say in the polls, and it resulted in a change of government.
But political participation is way more than showing up at the polling places.
It is also about membership of political parties and organisations; people’s interest in and engagement with politics; having representation and a voice in the political process; and preparedness to take part in lawful demonstrations.
As the report points out, apathy and abstention are enemies of democracy.
Forget the ranks and the scores. If we can have only one takeaway from the Democracy Index 2018 report, it ought to be this: “Democracies flourish when citizens are willing to participate in public debate, elect representatives and join political parties.
“Without this broad, sustaining participation, democracy begins to wither and become the preserve of small, select groups.”