Global democracy has endured a battering over the past decade, and those who hoped for a brighter century may be wondering when to expect relief, note Mark Lagon, the president of Freedom House, and Arch Puddington, the group’s senior vice president for research. Every year since 2006 more democracies have experienced erosion in political rights and civil liberties than have registered gains, as we find in our annual Freedom in the World report. In all, 110 countries, more than half the world’s total, have suffered some loss in freedom during the past 10 years, they write for the Wall Street Journal:
Authoritarian states have ratcheted up internal repression, and the most powerful dictatorships—China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia—have extended their antidemocratic influence abroad. Especially disturbing is the way indirect effects of oppression and misrule have seeped into established democracies in North America, Europe and elsewhere. A surge in terrorism has not only brought death and mayhem to millions in the Middle East. It also has empowered nativist and extreme nationalist politicians in major democracies such as France, and reignited demands for more surveillance and less tolerant policies toward immigrants.
Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies
The world was battered by crises that fueled xenophobic sentiment in democratic countries, undermined the economies of states dependent on the sale of natural resources, and led authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent, contributing to the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, the report states:
- The number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year—72—was the largest since the 10-year slide began. Just 43 countries made gains.
- Over the past 10 years, 105 countries have seen a net decline, and only 61 have experienced a net improvement.
- Ratings for the Middle East and North Africa region were the worst in the world in 2015, followed closely by Eurasia.
- Over the last decade, the most significant global reversals have been in freedom of expression and the rule of law.
The Freedom in the World 2016 report found that there has been a “protracted democratic slump (that) represents a major break from the steady and at times spectacular gains registered from 1975 to 2000.”
“This [year’s] decline was the result of several factors, including the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as other areas which are not only intensifying the humanitarian crises in these countries but also generated unprecedented numbers of refugees and fostered terrorist groups that inspired or organized attacks,” Jennifer Dunham, the director of research for the report, told RFE/RL.
The slowdown in the Chinese economy and lower commodity prices took a toll, said Puddington, co-author of the report.
“In many countries with authoritarian governments, the drop in revenues from falling commodity prices led dictators to redouble political repression at home and lash out at perceived foreign enemies,” he said.
“Democratic countries came under strain from terrorist attacks and unprecedented numbers of refugees – problems emanating from regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war.”
The Freedom House report echoes some of the principal findings of the newly-released Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, which concludes that “an increased sense of anxiety and insecurity in the face of diverse perceived risks and threats—economic, political, social and security—is undermining democracy.”
However, some events from 2015 offer cause for optimism, Lagon and Puddington observe:
First, Latin American anti-democratic populists retreated. Elections in Argentina and Venezuela appeared to interrupt a regional pattern in which bombastic, polarizing rulers cowed independent judges and legislatures, attacked the media, and created economic chaos for the underprivileged citizens they ostensibly championed….
Elections also delivered much-needed course corrections in some parts of Africa and Asia. Voters in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, replaced incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan with Muhammadu Buhari …In Myanmar, a huge turnout produced a landslide victory for longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy, a remarkable turnaround in a country that until recently ranked among the world’s most repressive. In Sri Lanka, authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted at the ballot box, then rejected again months later as a candidate in parliamentary elections.
In each of these cases, voters overcame tilted electoral playing fields, histories of political violence against the opposition, or fears about what lies ahead when dictatorships give way to normal politics.
“The phenomena listed here reflect two drivers of change: citizen activism and global economic pressures on dictatorships. Notably absent was solidarity or action from the U.S. or Europe,’ they suggest.
“Current trends suggest that authoritarianism is not the future. The question is whether the world’s democracies are prepared to encourage and build on the opportunities for freedom that are now emerging.” RTWT