TOKYO -- A country that was until recently ruled by a military junta saw the sharpest improvement of any nation worldwide in a new global democracy index, while the world's biggest democracy got its lowest ever score.
Previously classified as a "hybrid regime," Thailand moved up to "flawed democracy" status after holding an election last March -- five years after a caretaker government was deposed in a military coup, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2019. The Southeast Asian nation scored 6.32 on a scale of zero to ten, pushing it up 38 places to 68th in the world last year.
While India remained in Asia's Top 10 democracies, a controversial citizenship law and political repression in the new union territories of Jammu and Kashmir saw its score drop from 7.23 to 6.90 -- its lowest since 2006 when the index was first published.
Asia's average score held steady at 5.67, higher than the global average of 5.44 -- the lowest since 2010. An election in Taiwan last month was held against the backdrop of disinformation, cyberattacks and foreign interference, and a general election will be held in South Korea in April, with polls likely in Singapore and Myanmar later in the year.
But the EIU was fairly positive in its outlook, saying pro-democracy movements in places such as Hong Kong in the developing world show "potential for democratic renewal."
A voter turnout of over 70% boosted Thailand's score, showing that the populace still believes in elections, according to the Asian Network for Free Elections, or ANFREL.
But election rules were skewed "to secure an electoral outcome that would not be too disruptive to the ruling establishment," ANFREL, which sent observers to the Thai election, said in a report.
A lack of transparency in canvassing and confusion about election results run the risk of turning Thai voters away from the process. And while many political parties were allowed to compete last year, the stifling of opposition groups continues in Thailand -- the Future Forward Party recently survived a court petition that threatened to disband it.
Aside from electoral process, the index also factors in public participation in civil society, political parties, and demonstrations.
A low public participation score of 7.99 kept Japan in the "flawed democracy" category -- a rating of more than 8.00 is needed to be classified as a "full democracy."
"It's a reflection of control and attacks on the media, online discourse of the Netto Uyoku [Japanese right wingers who are active online] against liberty and minorities, in addition to the strengthened control of the government over civil liberties through education," said Maiko Ichihara, visiting scholar at Stanford University's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.
Despite the spread of the #MeToo movement and civic participation through outlets such as Change.org, the likelihood of Japanese taking to the streets remains weak compared to South Korea, which scored 8.00 overall, Ichihara added.
Persistent mass protests did not keep Hong Kong from slipping two places down the ranking, joining fellow city-state Singapore in 75th place. The EIU linked the protests in Hong Kong to a precipitous decline in the other components of a democracy, and the government crackdown on civil liberties risks a further downgrading.
Declining civil liberties played a role in India's slide in the rankings. Any positive movement from last year's elections were offset by New Delhi's curtailing of Jammu and Kashmir's autonomy, the restriction of internet access and troop deployment to quell public unrest. New citizenship rules that are widely seen as discriminatory against Muslims could curtail electoral participation.
The index found that people are still widely supportive of the idea of democracy, but unsatisfied with the practice of it. There was little or no progress in improving the functioning of government, with low scores across the world in transparency, accountability, and anti-corruption measures.
Japan bested the U.S. by 0.03 point, while New Zealand and Australia maintained their place as the Asia-Pacific region's only two full democracies.
The region's laggards remain the authoritarian regimes in Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and China, which saw the greatest decline in total score due to discrimination against minorities, particularly in Xinjiang, and heightened surveillance impinging on individual freedoms.
Singapore's score dropped due to a fake news law wielded against opposition parties. By contrast, Malaysia's standing improved after scrapping its own version of the law. Despite elections last year, the EIU said Indonesia's score may fall if politicians continue to call for abolishing direct elections and a return to the system of parliament selecting the president.
Norway topped the global table with a score of 9.87, followed by Nordic peers Iceland and Sweden.