In a region dominated by autocratic governments, South Korea has been held up as a shining example of a liberal Asian democracy. But a report released by the Economist Intelligence Unit on Thursday has dealt a blow to that image with its finding that the country is no longer a “full democracy.”
In its Democracy Index 2015, released Thursday, the research and analysis firm found the country to have regressed to a “flawed democracy” last year. Among 167 states and territories, South Korea ranked the 22nd most democratic, just outside the top-20 grouping of “full democracies.”
The EIU defined flawed democracies as countries where there were “free and fair elections and, even if there are problems (such as infringements on media freedom), basic civil liberties are respected,” but democratic weaknesses remained. Such flaws included “problems in governance, an underdeveloped political culture, and low levels of political participation.”
Countries were given a score of between 0 and 10 based on their performance across five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. These categories were assessed using 60 indicators, including public faith in government, the pervasiveness of corruption, and the existence of free and fair elections.
The EIU did not mention the reasons for South Korea’s slide in the rankings, apart from suggesting that a split in the liberal opposition, caused by prominent politician Ahn Cheol-soo’s bid to form a new political party, made it unelectable. Within South Korea, however, critics of President Park Geun-hye have long accused her of having anti-democratic tendencies, pointing to her administration’s clampdown on protests and defamation suits against detractors.
The EIU did not respond to The Diplomat’s request for comment.
With any index, the contention resides in the details, and the EIU’s methodology is not beyond scrutiny. Its own report acknowledged that there is no one accepted definition of a democracy.
In approaching the question, the EIU used a much broader definition of democracy than used by others, including Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House, which compiles a similar index.
Rather than confine itself to political freedoms and civil liberties, the EIU also looked at less obvious — and potentially more controversial — markers such as “societal consensus and cohesion,” election turnout, and the proportion of women in parliament.
Whether it takes this evaluation seriously, South Korea can at least take comfort in knowing that it still came out as the most democratic nation in Asia. Its score of 7.97 — a drop of just 0.09 from the year before — left it one place ahead of its former colonizer and enduring rival Japan.