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How do you measure democracy? Leiden political scientist collaborates on international freedom report

Wouter Veenendaal, a political scientist at Leiden University, is an analyst for the Freedom House report. Freedom House is an American non-profit organisation dedicated to democracy, political freedom and human rights. In short, the report describes the degree of freedom and the state of democracy around the world. But how do you measure such a thing?

Report by 130 international analysts

Freedom House is a well-established NGO based in Washington D.C., which specialises particularly in tracking and reporting the level of freedom in the world. One way they do this is through the annual Freedom House report, for which over 130 international analysts conduct research. One of them is Wouter Veenendaal, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Institute of Political Science. He recently gave an interview about this at De Nieuws BV on Radio 1; you can listen to the whole interview here.

Veenendaal is an analyst for the four European microstates: Andorra, Liechtenstein, San Marino and Monaco. He has done field research in these countries himself, which is also why he was asked to be an analyst for these states. He has now been working for the Freedom House report for six years. Veenendaal: 'In short, you are asked every year whether there have been developments that should make a country's score go up or down.'

Democratic backsliding in the world

What exactly is analysed to give a score to a country's democracy? Veenendaal stresses that Freedom House does not exactly measure democracy, but freedom: two concepts that he knows are linked. Furthermore, Freedom House uses a list of some 25 indicators based on which they measure freedom: 'That ranges from the rule of law, to free and fair elections, to women's rights, to journalists' rights.'

'Over the past 17 years, Freedom House measures that democracy is in decline worldwide.'

'In history, you see that there have been waves of democratisation,' Veenendaal describes. According to him, we are currently still in a receding wave, as Freedom House measures over the past 17 years that democracy is in decline worldwide. 'And you can contrast that with the period from the 1970s' to the 1990s' when democracy was growing worldwide.'

Freedom in European microstates

Based on those indicators, countries are assessed, resulting in a ranking. According to Veenendaal, countries are also constantly compared with each other: 'to see if it is fair how we rate countries compared to other countries.' And in addition, comparisons are also made over time.

To make his own reports on Europe's four microstates, Veenendaal mainly keeps an eye on the news coming out of those four countries. Besides that, he also looks at how other organisations then react to it. 'In San Marino, laws were passed two years ago to curb the independence of judges,' Veenendaal outlines. 'Then you see a very strong reaction to that from the European Council. You take that into account when assessing the score for San Marino for that year.'

Veenendaal emphasises that it is mainly about looking at trends: 'Actually, you shouldn't rely so much on very big affairs, unless of course things happen that immediately bring down a country's score. You look mainly at trends, at things that just happen several times in a row over a longer period of time.'

Interview Wouter Veenendaal radio 1

What about the Netherlands?

Although Veenendaal does not analyse the Netherlands himself, he does know of our country's score: the Netherlands currently has a score of 97%. 20 years ago, however, it was 99%. How can that difference be explained?

According to Veenendaal, it has to do with two indicators. One is how we treat refugees and migrants in the Netherlands. This is also where other European countries are deteriorating, like Denmark. Stricter laws are being passed in these countries where, according to Freedom House, the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers are compromised. This leads to the lower score.

And what is Veenendaal’s favourite indicator of the list? 'That is the one on 'free and fair elections',' he points out. 'Because that is the core concept of democracy, also as scholars around the world define democracy.'

This article was written based on an interview (in Dutch) with Wouter Veenendaal on Radio 1. Listen to the whole interview here.

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