The world sees expansion of authoritarian rule

According to the new report, Freedom in the World 2022, autocracy is making gains against democracy and is encouraging more leaders to abandon the democratic path to security and prosperity, with countries that suffered democratic declines over the past year outnumbering those that improved by more than two to one.

Authoritarians in every region are working together to consolidate power and accelerate their attacks on democracy and human rights. Political rights and civil liberties have declined worldwide for each of the past 16 years, raising the prospect that autocracy could overtake democracy as the governance model guiding international standards of behavior.

Checks on abuse of power and human rights violations have eroded within nations and international organizations alike, dealing a serious blow to democracy’s foundations and reputation. 

Authoritarian regimes in China, Russia, and elsewhere have gained greater power in the international system, and freer countries have seen their established democratic norms challenged and fractured. The military coup in Myanmar and the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan ended fragile experiments in elected civilian rule and led to the steepest country declines for the year, with a dramatic 19-point drop in Myanmar’s score on the report’s 100-point scale, and a similarly alarming 17-point loss for Afghanistan.

A total of 60 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties over the past year, while only 25 improved. Fewer countries experienced net improvements in 2021 than in any other year since the current period of global democratic decline began. As of February 24, some 38 percent of the world’s people live in countries rated Not Free, the highest proportion since 1997. Only two in 10 people live in Free countries.

“Democracy is in real danger all over the globe,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Authoritarians are becoming bolder, while democracies are back on their heels. 

“Democratic governments must rally to counter authoritarian abuses and support the brave human rights defenders fighting for freedom around the world. At the same time, democracies should also be looking inward to strengthen their own institutions and prevent homegrown efforts to undermine the separation of powers and the integrity of elections, which are both indispensable to democracy.”

Key findings

Authoritarian leaders are increasingly collaborating with one another to spread new forms of repression and rebuff democratic pressure.

  • Chinese and Russian envoys to the United Nations have worked to water down the international response to the military coups in Myanmar and Sudan, and Moscow has sought to strengthen economic ties with the junta in Myanmar.
  • The governments of Russia, China, Turkey, and others have economically supported the Maduro regime in Venezuela, offsetting sanctions imposed by democracies for its rigged elections and crackdowns on the opposition.
  • The Kremlin has continued to prop up Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s dictatorship in Belarus since providing propagandists and security assistance to help suppress opposition protests following the country’s fraudulent August 2020 presidential election.

The 16-year decline has affected all geographical regions and democratic indicators, including the rule of law and freedom of expression and belief. Eurasia and the Middle East have experienced the greatest declines in average score overall during this period.

  • Three countries received the best possible aggregate score of 100: Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
  • The largest one-year score improvements for 2021 included Côte d’Ivoire, which is rated Partly Free and gained 5 points, and Ecuador, which gained 4 points and earned a status of Free.
  • The largest one-year score declines for 2021 took place in Myanmar, which is rated Not Free and lost 19 points, and Afghanistan, which is also Not Free and lost 17 points.
  • The largest 10-year decline was in Mali, which is rated Not Free and has lost 40 points over the past decade.
  • Of the 56 countries designated as Not Free, the three with the worst aggregate scores were South Sudan (1), Syria (1), and Turkmenistan (2).

In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power.

  • The largest 10-year score declines among democracies were in Hungary (Partly Free, −19), Nauru (Free, −16), Poland (Free, −12), India (Partly Free, −11), and the United States (Free, −10)

Freedom status changes.

  • Ecuador and Peru improved from Partly Free to Free after they completed successful elections and orderly transfers of power.
  • Tunisia declined from Free to Partly Free due to President Kaïs Saïed’s antidemocratic power grab in July. Tunisia had previously been the only country to emerge from the Arab Spring with a rating of Free.
  • Guinea and Haiti were downgraded from Partly Free to Not Free in connection with a military coup and the president’s assassination, respectively.

As international norms shift toward autocracy, uncompetitive elections organized by dictatorships have become increasingly farcical.

  • Sham elections, in which potential opposition candidates were sidelined by politically motivated prosecutions and other obstacles designed to fortify incumbents, took place in Russia in September, Nicaragua in November, and Hong Kong in December.
  • Other settings where Freedom House identified no-contest elections in 2021 include Congo (Brazzaville), Iran, Kazakhstan, Syria, and Uzbekistan.

“Authoritarians are becoming more brazen in their attacks on human rights at home and abroad, which should be a call to action for everyone who values their own rights and the rights of their fellow human beings,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president of research and analysis at Freedom House. 

“Autocrats in Beijing and Moscow want to co-opt the label of ‘democracy’ to boost their own credibility while undermining actual democracy worldwide. It’s high time for democratic governments to move from rhetoric to action. Global freedom and prosperity are at stake.”

Highlights from the report’s analysis

The promotion of autocratic norms

  • Countries in every region of the world have suffered from new authoritarian abuses in recent years, including countries that had previously been considered beacons of hope for democratic progress, such as Sudan, Myanmar, and Tunisia.
  • The leaders of China, Russia, and other dictatorships have succeeded in challenging the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security, while encouraging authoritarian approaches to governance.
  • Military coups were more common in 2021 than in any of the previous 10 years, taking place in Myanmar, Chad, Mali, Sudan, and Guinea.
  • Of the 47 nations elected to the UN Human Rights Council for 2022, 15 are rated Free, 18 are rated Partly Free, and 14 are rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2022.

Antidemocratic alliances

  • While many democracies have continued to respond to sham elections and coups with measures like sanctions and the withholding of aid, the impact has been diluted by autocratic alliances.
  • Authoritarian governments have also cooperated when using transnational repression to silence their own exiled dissidents through tools like detention, rendition, Interpol abuse, coercion by proxy, and digital surveillance.
  • In some cases, collaboration between authoritarians has put entire ethnic groups at risk. Turkey was once a haven for China’s persecuted Uyghur population. But Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increasingly shifted his stance to meet Beijing’s demands: Turkish authorities have made it harder for Uyghurs to obtain and keep permanent residence permits, and several hundred have been detained in deportation centers.

The threat within democracies

  • Even as freedom faces global threats, democracies are being eroded from within by illiberal forces, including unscrupulous politicians willing to corrupt and shatter the very institutions that brought them to power. This was arguably most visible last year in the United States, where rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6 as part of an organized attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election.
  • Although the United States’ total score did not change for events in 2021, with two declines balanced by two improvements, the country’s freedom score has declined by 10 points over the past decade. The United States remains a Free country that benefits from a strong rule-of-law tradition and robust civil society, but it has left the higher echelons of the Free category and now ranks alongside states with weaker democratic records, such as Romania, Croatia, and Panama.
  • Freely elected leaders from Brazil to India have taken or threatened a variety of antidemocratic actions, and the resulting breakdown in shared values among democracies has led to a weakening of these values on the international stage.

“What gives me hope is that, in spite of these declines, global demand for freedom and democracy remains as strong as ever,” Abramowitz added. “From Sudan to Myanmar, ordinary people continue to risk life and livelihood to demand their rights and liberties. Democratic governments and societies must support this fundamental desire for freedom and build a world in which it is ultimately fulfilled.”

Photo credit: iStock/ Drazen Zigic

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