A new study finds the number of democracies in the world remained relatively stable in the past few years, but the quality of democracy appears to be deteriorating.

The Bertelsmann Foundation Transformation Index, or BTI, measures the progress made by 128 developing and transition countries as they move toward democracy and a market-oriented economy.

Sabine Donner is one of the BTI's senior project managers.  She says of these 128 countries, 76 meet the requirements to be considered democracies.  This is based on the robustness of their established power structure, political freedoms, system of checks and balances, civic culture and such.

But, Donner cautions, not all democracies are equal.  Of the 76 democracies studied in this report, for every well-functioning democracy, there are two that fall short.   She says 23 of these democracies do not display any significant deficiencies.

"The remaining 53 countries, though, are classified as so-called defective democracies.  In these countries, political and civil rights and effective separation of powers are not adequately ensured, although relatively free and fair elections are held," she said.

And, she says, 16 of these nations, including Russia, Haiti and Kenya, have what she termed "significant problems" with the rule of law.

"They have a limited equality of opportunity for voices of opposition and only conditionally representative political structures," said Donner.  "As a result, those are the countries that are classified as highly deficient, and let's say some of them on the brink toward autocracies,"she added.

The study says experts observed autocratic tendencies in Russia and Venezuela; the erosion of the rule of law in Nicaragua and South Africa; and the violent ousting of democratically elected governments in places such as Thailand and Mauritania.

Bertelsmann's experts say, at first glance, there is nothing to suggest that a shift toward autocracy is under way.  Still, Donner says there is more going on beneath the surface.   

"The proportion of highly defective democracies has grown by - has doubled actually. In other words, although the number of democracies remains stable, the quality of several political systems is showing significant erosion," said Donner.

According to the BTI, five highly defective democracies are in Latin America - Haiti, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Colombia and Ecuador.  Five are in Africa - Burkina Faso, Kenya, Angola, Lesotho and Burundi.   Four are in Asia - Nepal, Sri Lanka, Thailand and the Philippines, and there is also Russia.

In the Middle East, Iraq has the perhaps dubious distinction of being the region's lone highly defective democracy.  Hauke Hartmann, also a senior project manager on this index, explains about Iraq, which just held its second national election since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

"Iraq is for the first time ever in the BTI considered to be a democracy - a highly unstable democracy, a very deficient democracy, but yet a democracy.  The extent of stability is sufficient to label the country as such," said Hartmann.

Hartmann calls the Middle East a "zone of fragility."  He says Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen, as well as South Asia's Pakistan and Afghanistan, are considered fragile or even failing states.

"The situation in Afghanistan, as you all know, is particularly grim," he said.  "This is of course due to the security situation as President [Hamid] Karzai can only claim to be the mayor of Kabul and is certainly not able to claim the monopoly on the use of force in most of the country's provinces," said Hartmann.

Donner says as democracy erodes, the effect can be seen on core institutions of political participation, such as media freedom.  

Donner said this is the first time in the BTI's 15 years that analysts observed what she called a "drastic decline" in freedom of expression in some countries.

"There are countries in every world region where the freedom of the press, freedom of opinion has declined significantly," Donner said.

She said many African countries suffer from these setbacks, but she stressed it is actually a global trend.  

The analysts noted that the assessment period lasted from early 2007 to early 2009, and it was during this time that a long period of economic growth ended.  The analysts say governments tend to abandon reforms when countries' economies appear to be strong.