Did you know there are only 19 true democracies on the planet? According to the Economist’s Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) yearly ranking, fewer than 10 percent of all the countries in the world are “full democracies.” That means you’re statistically likely to be reading this from a place which didn’t make the hallowed top 20. Bummer.
Still, if you’re now looking around the dystopian wasteland you live in and wondering where it all went wrong, fear not! We’ve compiled a list of the top 10 fullest democracies on Earth. These are the nations that value free speech, that have a vibrant press, don’t allow mean-spirited defamation lawsuits, and give all people access to as much education and voting opportunity as they’ll ever need. Fed up with languishing just outside the top 20? (America.) Unhappy you only cracked number 14? (UK.) Try moving to one of these democratic wonderlands. Spoiler alert: nearly all of them are in northern Europe.
Landlocked Switzerland is an ongoing, highly interesting experiment in what happens when you take the concept of democracy and pump it so full of steroids it becomes a gigantic, unstoppable beast. This is a nation that doesn’t just conduct regular referendums, it conducts endless polls on nearly every aspect of life within its 26 cantons. Anyone can call a referendum on anything, you just need to be a Swiss citizen, and collect 100,000 signatures in 18 months. Then the whole country votes and lives by the results, even in cases that are patently ridiculous.
Amazing as this sounds – almost gets rid of the need for political parties, doesn’t it? – the system has its drawbacks. Because voters needed to approve giving women the franchise, for example, Swiss women were held back from voting until 1971. In one canton, the motion didn’t pass referendum until 1991. Other absurd votes have included giving all Swiss free money (rejected) and giving all Swiss six weeks paid holiday a year (also rejected). Man, who are the people saying no to free money and extra holidays?
Given its proximity to and history with Russia, you might expect Finland to suffer similar sorts of democratic failings as other Russian neighbors (the three Baltic states – Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia – don’t make the top 20; Ukraine and Belarus probably don’t make the top 100). Well, you’d be wrong, and probably not for the first time either. Despite being part of the Russian Empire up to the end of WWI, Finland has far more in common with its Nordic neighbors. Specifically, Finland conducts democracy like a freedom-lovin’ boss.
There are so many ways Finland leads the pack that it’s impossible to separate them all. First off, the country has historic, world-beating levels of female participation in politics, with some 60% of ministers being women. Then there’s Helsinki’s commitment to getting ordinary people involved in the daily business of government, like those times they held actual cabinet meetings in front of an audience of 600 people – and did it outside the capital, where real Finns could witness it. Freedom of the press is also so enshrined in law that the nation is ranked higher than the US for freedom of speech. Not bad for a cold country of under 5.5 million people.
For most of us living several thousand kilometers away, Australia isn’t somewhere we associate with world beating democracy. We’re far too busy associating it with drop bears and killer jellyfish and spiders so big they could cover your entire face. But for those who live there (and have managed to find a way to block the aforementioned face-sized spiders from their minds), the truth is as plain as day. The continent Down Under is one of the most democratic places to live in the world.
Australia has a founding myth as a free and open society, where everyone can have a “fair go,” and it certainly shows. The EIU gives the antipodean nation a perfect 10.0 on civil liberties, even after a decade in which anti-terrorism laws had some locals worried about surveillance. While Australia’s ranking could yet slip in the future, for now Canberra is laughing all the way to the major functioning democracy bank. Not that Australia is perfect. The country gets through so many Prime Ministers that it’s amazing the government continues to function at all. But what do Aussies care? They’re too busy enjoying the sea and sun in a desperate attempt to forget the lurking face spiders to worry about little details like that.
Oh, come on. You all knew Canada would be rearing its cold, ice-encrusted head on here somewhere, didn’t you? An attempt to imagine what America might be like if it was entirely filled with characters from Fargo, Canada has always had a reputation as a nice place where nothing much happens except snow and hockey. But behind the scenes, Canada is far from the friendly, boring place it’s always depicted as. As this ranking shows, there’s a well-oiled machine at the heart of government, ensuring freedoms are protected at all costs.
The Economist report highlights how Canada commits to freedom of expression, religion, and tolerance. The country led the charge on gay rights in North America, for example, and the rights of the French-speaking minority in Quebec are fiercely protected in law (despite the province’s repeated attempts to split off over the decades, but that’s an aside for another time). There are also solid rules governing the rights of minorities, which is good, as Canada kinda spent a lot of the first half of the 20th Century acting like those guys didn’t exist, and stealing their babies. Wow. That’s, uh, darker than we expected. Moving on…
Across the choppy Atlantic seas, the Emerald Isle is a place with a history as famous and as storied as any number of significantly larger countries. But is it really known as a beacon of democracy? Well, it certainly should be. Freedom of speech is enshrined in the Irish constitution, with only a small number of limitations where it might incite violence, or can be linked to stuff like the exploitation of children. That’s not quite as airtight as the guarantees in the American constitution, but it’s still fairly robust. Polls tend to show that the Irish reject even the slightest reduction in this freedom, no matter the cause.
It wasn’t always this way. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland, there were restrictions on what you could say on the radio or TV, if it related to the conflict or was deemed to promote terrorism. Thankfully, these controls were relaxed as the conflict wound down, rather than staying in place eternally (see: most western countries post-9/11).
Whenever there’s a list written for the internet about good countries doing good things, you can be sure that Denmark will feature on there prominently. The home of Hans Christian Andersen, Copenhagen, and Carlsberg is one of the world’s happiest countries, one of its most-livable, one of the nations with the best welfare states, and a world leader in green energy. Oh, and it just happens to have a thriving democracy. But then you probably already expected that, didn’t you?
Freedom of the individual is a core component of Danish law and society, and everything in the country reflects this. In some ways, Danes interpret this in a slightly different way from Americans or Brits, with an ultra-generous welfare state. Yet, on an individual level, the core concepts are identical. The country also scores ridiculously highly on gender balance in the workplace and in political life, and features so much transparency in government that visitors to Copenhagen risk walking smack into the parliament building, like birds hitting a window. Only less painful, because it’s clearly a metaphor.
4. New Zealand
New Zealand is what would happen if you took Canada, squashed it down to a fraction of its size, dragged it halfway across the world, and dumped it next to Australia. Oh, and took away hockey and replaced it with rugby. And swapped maple syrup for a monstrosity known as Vegemite. OK, the simile sucks on several levels, but hey! At least it works where democracy is concerned. New Zealand is so committed to freedom, it makes even Denmark look like a prison.
Indeed, New Zealand actually tops most rankings of freest countries in the world, with its long history of tolerance for gay people, giving women the vote before literally anyone else, and not oppressing their native population even while everyone else was indulging in some baby snatching and forced removal. On more practical matters of democracy, Middle Earth’s real-life twin scores highly, too. Government generally functions, minorities are represented, the leader is female (Jacinda Ardern), and the scenery is beautiful. Yeah, we know that last one has absolutely nothing to do with democracy, but give us a break, huh? We’re too busy drowning in jealousy and Vegemite to worry about little mistakes like that.
OK, from here on out it’s all Scandinavia. Big surprise. And our final Nordic dominance of this list begins with Sweden, a country that gave us Volvo, Ikea, and ultra-violent thrillers starring feminist heroes. Yep, Europe’s conscience is exactly as committed to upholding democratic principles as you’d expect (i.e. very). Incredibly, this actually represents a slide from its previous position. Back in 2006, Sweden was #1 in the entire world. Gee guys, what happened? You start excluding women from the Ikea canteens or something?
Interestingly, despite its democratic credentials, Sweden is home to one of the most openly corrupt instances of botched investigation in history. Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down exiting a theater one freezing night in 1986, and the culprit was never found. An enduring conspiracy theory has it that the police – who were slow to respond and bungled the investigation – were involved. Hmm. That’d knock Sweden down a few pegs on these rankings, if it was ever proven.
On paper, Iceland shouldn’t work as a country. It’s a sparsely inhabited lump of frozen rock about the size of England that seemingly only exists to periodically ignite in gigantic volcanic eruptions. It spent most of its life as a small fishing outpost, before becoming a casino banking mecca and then imploding in the 2008 crash. There are so few people that the entire population is smaller than the city of Anaheim, California. And yet, Iceland not only works, it works so well that only one other nation on Earth is more democratic than it.
Like many Nordic nations, Iceland has a long-standing commitment to equality and treating other human beings as human beings, rather than annoying lumps of flesh who consistently vote the wrong way. Women are represented well in politics, most of the citizenry are switched on and engaged with their democracy, and freedoms are guaranteed by law. In fact, the only place where Iceland really falls down is in its post-2008 habit of getting through governments faster than most of us change our pants (everyone only changes their pants twice a year, right?). Both the Panama Papers scandal and a secret deal to pardon a pedophile have caused Prime Ministers to fall or governments collapse in the last 22 months.
Is Norway the perfect country? It’s beautiful, wealthy, happy, and full of people so attractive that mingling with them is like getting an instant insight into the life of Joseph Merrick. Only Norwegians are also too nice to point out what a sallow, portly America/Brit/German/Australian you clearly are. See what we mean? Awesome place. Throw in one of the world’s best democracies and it’s easy to wonder why we aren’t all moving to Norway (answer: because it has one of the tightest immigration systems on the planet).
Norway’s commitment to democracy comes in many forms, but it’s plain to see in all walks of life. For example, voter registration is automatic in Norway, which is useful as difficult registration requirements are exactly why you’ll always hear people accusing certain US states of disenfranchisement. There’s also an incredibly high rate of political participation, meaning people would rather go out and vote than spend the afternoon splayed out on the sofa, their cheese-stained frame bloated by a diet of junk food and voter apathy. Despite our opening question, though, Norway isn’t perfect. Beer costs 10 Euros a bottle. Hmm. Maybe hold off on those moving plans, huh?