‘Dual threat’ from authoritarians, populists saps democracy, watchdog says


The resurgence of authoritarian powers and the emergence of “populist and nationalist forces” in democratic states have prompted a deterioration of democracy and growing threats to civil liberties, U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House warned today.

“The troubling impression created by the year’s headline events is supported by the latest findings of Freedom in the World,” the report states. “A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016, compared with 36 that registered gains. This marked the 11th consecutive year in which declines outnumbered improvements.”

The degree of democratic backsliding threatens to undermine the international order, the report adds.

“We see leaders and nations pursuing their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints or regard for the shared benefits of global peace and freedom,” said report co-author Arch Puddington. These trends are “starting to undo the international order of the past quarter-century” and have undermined respect for fundamental freedoms and democracy, he said.

Key Findings

  • With populist and nationalist forces making significant gains in democratic states, 2016 marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
  • There were setbacks in political rights, civil liberties, or both, in a number of countries rated “Free” by the report, including Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, and the United States.
  • Of the 195 countries assessed, 87 (45 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 49 (25 percent) Not Free.
  • The Middle East and North Africa region had the worst ratings in the world in 2016, followed closely by Eurasia.

One of the most disturbing findings is the degree of democratic regression in the advanced democracies.

“While in past years the declines in freedom were generally concentrated among autocracies and dictatorships that simply went from bad to worse, in 2016 it was established democracies—countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system—that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks,” the authors note. “In fact, Free countries accounted for a larger share of the countries with declines than at any time in the past decade, and nearly one-quarter of the countries registering declines in 2016 were in Europe.”

Russia was one of the principal forces behind the democratic downturn, the report states, citing the Kremlin’s “stunning displays of hubris and hostility” by interfering in the political processes of the U.S. and other democracies, escalating military support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and its illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory.

“Russia already has a very repressive environment, but somehow it still seems to get worse each year,” says Freedom House analyst Sarah Repucci. “This year, we were especially concerned with control over parliamentary and regional elections and the basic total extinction of a liberal opposition in the legislature, and we are also concerned about NGOs that Russia considers to be ‘foreign agents’ or undesirables and through that is able to basically silence NGOs that have any kind of independent voice in the country,” she told RFE/RL.

Growing danger

“In 2016, populist and nationalist political forces made astonishing gains in democratic states, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, and grave atrocities went unanswered in war zones across two continents,” write Freedom House analysts Puddington and Tyler Roylance.

All of these developments point to a growing danger that the international order of the past quarter-century—rooted in the principles of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law—will give way to a world in which individual leaders and nations pursue their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints, and without regard for the shared benefits of global peace, freedom, and prosperity.



  • Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s combination of strong-arm rule and dire economic mismanagement pushed his country to a status of Not Free for the first time in 2016. Venezuela had served as a model for populist regimes in the region, but today it epitomizes the suffering that can ensue when citizens are unable to hold their leaders to account.
  • The likeminded regime of President Daniel Ortega brought Nicaragua to its lowest point in more than 20 years. With Venezuela, Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the Americas on an extended downward trajectory.
  • The peace agreement in Colombia, which was rejected in a popular referendum but then revised and passed into law, augurs well for a democracy that has long been crippled by violence.


  • Repressive rulers in Thailand, China, Malaysia, and the Maldives reined in free speech and assembly during 2016 to smother public criticism of their own crimes and abuses.
  • Peaceful and widespread protests against President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and her subsequent impeachment were a demonstration of democratic strength in the face of corruption.


  • Eurasia was divided between a more democratic-oriented fringe and a core of rigid autocracies in 2016. While Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova struggled to build on fragile democratic gains, leaders in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan took steps to shore up their power amid economic and political uncertainty.


  • Internal strains in European countries, combined with external pressures like Russian interference and the migrant crisis, made it clear that the continent can no longer be taken for granted as a bastion of democratic stability.
  • The rise of antiestablishment parties in Poland, France, Germany, and elsewhere is changing Europe’s political landscape and shifting the debate in ways that undermine the fundamental values of democracy.
  • In the Balkans, fair election processes and the rule of law further deteriorated as the European Union neglected its role in promoting democracy among aspiring member states.

Middle East and North Africa

  • The conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Syria demonstrated the depths to which human freedom can fall after decades of authoritarian misrule, corruption, and erratic foreign interventions.

Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Ethiopia experienced its worst political upheaval in many years, when protests by the Oromo people over ethnic and land rights broadened into a general eruption of popular discontent and security forces used disproportionate and lethal force against protesters.
  • In a bright spot at year’s end, Ghana consolidated its position as one of the most stable democracies on the continent when opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo defeated incumbent John Mahama in the December presidential election.

Check out the Freedom in the World 2017 Quiz for a chance to test your knowledge of 195 countries, political trends both worrisome and encouraging, and the current state of freedom and democracy.

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