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BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A greater number of countries are sliding towards authoritarianism, while the number of established democracies under threat has never been so high, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) said on Monday.

Populist politics, the use of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions to silence critics, a tendency of countries to mimic the anti-democratic behaviour of others, and disinformation used to divide societies are mainly to blame, the Stockholm-based intergovernmental organisation said in a report.

"More countries than ever are suffering from 'democratic erosion'," IDEA said in its 2021 study on the state of democracy, relying on data compiled since 1975.

"The number of countries undergoing 'democratic backsliding' has never been as high," it said, referring to the regressive turn in areas including checks on government and judicial independence, as well as media freedom and human rights.

Afghanistan, which was taken over by Taliban militants in August after international troops withdrew, is the most dramatic case this year, while Myanmar's February 1 coup marked the collapse of a fragile democracy. Other examples include Mali, which has suffered two coups since 2020, and Tunisia, where the president has dissolved parliament and assumed emergency powers.

Large democracies such as Brazil and the United States have seen presidents question the validity of election results, while India has witnessed the prosecution of groups of people critical of government policies.

Hungary, Poland, Slovenia and Serbia are the European countries with the greatest declines in democracy. Turkey has seen one of the largest declines between 2010 and 2020.

"In fact, 70 per cent of the global population now live either in non-democratic regimes or in democratically backsliding countries," the report said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in authoritarian behavior by governments. The study said that there was no evidence that authoritarian regimes were better at fighting the pandemic, despite Chinese state media reports to the contrary.

"The pandemic provides additional tools and justification for repressive tactics and silencing of dissent in countries as diverse as Belarus, Cuba, Myanmar, Nicaragua, and Venezuela," the report said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

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