Democracies Waning: Where We Are

Mar 24, 2023 | The Big Picture


Freedom House was established in 1941 by Democrat Eleanor Roosevelt, Republican Presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, to help evolve a world where democracy and rights were the norm, not the exception. A tall order. And they’re still at it.

Every year the organization issues a report on how we’re doing. They have recently issued their 50th Anniversary issue, Freedom in the World, 2023.

For perspective, Freedom House’s 2022 report was a warning. A total of 60 countries experienced a decline in freedom in 2021. Only 25 improved. The number of people living under authoritarian regimes was at the highest proportion in 25 years. Military coups were more common in 2021 than in any of the previous 10 years. Ideas that we consider “norms” of democracy — ideas like free and fair elections, or not going to prison for your ideas or words — were being eroded faster than they were being built.

The other notable change in the 2022 report was that while in the past autocratic regimes were largely isolated, today they, and those who have dreams of becoming autocrats, are cooperating on a level not seen before. “Authoritarian leaders,” the report said, “are no longer isolated holdouts in a democratizing world. Instead they are actively collaborating with one another to spread new forms of repression and rebuff democratic pressure. 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.” The governments of Russia, China, and Turkey, for example, provided trade and investment to the Venezuelan regime, offsetting sanctions imposed by democracies for its rigged elections and crackdowns on the opposition. During the 2020 protests against fraudulent elections in Belarus, the Kremlin dispatched Russian propagandists to take the place of striking journalists, and offered security forces to help violently disperse demonstrations.

Key findings of the 2023 report include:

Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year.

The report cites Russia’s war of aggression and devastating human rights abuses and atrocities in Ukraine, as well as new coups and other attempts to undermine representative governments in Burkina Faso, Tunisia, Peru, and Brazil.

Afghanistan’s Taliban regime barred girls from receiving an education in the midst of an ongoing economic and humanitarian crisis. The report notes the violent destruction of cultures, and attempts to change the ethnic composition of populations, in 21 countries and territories, including Ukraine, Ethiopia, and Myanmar. It cites repression and diminished liberties in Turkey, Myanmar, Thailand and others.

The struggle for democracy may be approaching a turning point.

The lurch toward authoritarianism reflected in the 2022 report seems to have slowed. Thirty-four countries made improvement in political rights and civil liberties in 2022, compared to 25 in 2021. Two countries, Lesotho and Colombia, moved from “Partly Free” to “Free.” Thirty-five experienced declines, compared to 60 in 2022. The report attributes this to more competitive elections and the rollback of pandemic-related restrictions that had affected freedom of assembly and freedom of movement.

While authoritarians remain extremely dangerous, they are not unbeatable.

“The year’s events showed that autocrats are far from infallible,” the report says, “and their errors provide openings for democratic forces. The effects of corruption and a focus on political control at the expense of competence exposed the limits of the authoritarian models offered by Beijing, Moscow, Caracas, or Tehran. Meanwhile, democratic alliances demonstrated solidarity and vigor.”

Authoritarian influence at the United Nations and other international organizations, it says, faltered in 2022 as democracies reaffirmed the value of multilateral engagement. Ukrainians, with material support from many democracies, beat back a vast Russian army that was hampered by decades of corruption. Facing unprecedented protests in November, China’s Communist Party’s abruptly dismantled onerous COVID-19 policies.

Infringement on freedom of expression has long been a key driver of global democratic decline.

Freedom House assigns a “media freedom indicator” of 0 to 4; the number of countries rated 0 has ballooned in the last 17 years from 14 to 33. “Infringement on freedom of expression has long been a key driver of global democratic decline.” It also mentions a decline in freedom of personal expression, both online and offline, noting greater invasions of privacy, harassment and intimidation.

The fight for freedom persists.

Fifty years ago, Freedom House rated 44 of 148 countries, approximately 30%, as Free. Today 84 of 195 countries, or 43%, are in the Free category. Democracies, it says, “have not only emerged from deeply repressive environments but also proven to be remarkably resilient in the face of new challenges. Although democratization has slowed and encountered setbacks, ordinary people around the world, including in Iran, China, and Cuba, continue to defend their rights against authoritarian encroachment.”

No setback, it says, should be regarded as permanent.


Other highlights:

  • In Turkey, a failed 2016 coup attempt has cast a long shadow over political rights and civil liberties. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) used the incident to justify the removal of key democratic checks and balances and the elimination of political rivals. This process continued in 2022, as Turkey prepared for a pivotal presidential election in the first half of 2023. Ahead of the vote, the government adopted a new law to control the selection of judges who will review challenges to election results, and approved a “disinformation” law that could further stifle opposition campaigns and independent media.
  • Democratic institutions suffered from abuses by powerful incumbents in 2022. After assuming office through elections, these leaders rejected the established democratic process and sought to rewrite the rules of the game to maintain their grip on power. Tunisia experienced the third-largest score decline of any country as a direct result of the actions of the elected president. Kaïs Saïed, who had unilaterally dismissed the prime minister and suspended the parliament in 2021, continued to consolidate power by formally dissolving the parliament in March. He then rolled out a new constitution that gave more authority to the presidency and dismantled legislative and judicial checks on the executive branch, securing approval for the document through a flawed referendum. December parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by most opposition parties, drew a voter turnout of just 11 percent and prompted calls from the opposition for Saïed to resign.
  • In El Salvador, the parliamentary supermajority gained by President Nayib Bukele’s allies in 2021 elections continued to help him undermine democratic controls.
  • The victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary’s April 2022 elections was facilitated by his government’s campaign since 2010 to systematically undermine the independence of the judiciary, opposition groups, the media, and nongovernmental organizations. Among other advantages, Fidesz benefited from legislative changes it had pushed through two years earlier, which raised the vote threshold that parties must reach to enter the parliament.
  • Since overthrowing Afghanistan’s elected government in 2021, the Taliban have presided over a catastrophic economic collapse, a surge in hunger and poverty, and mass emigration. Rather than taking steps that would reduce its international isolation, however, the regime has moved in the opposite direction. The Taliban authorities barred girls from attending secondary school in March 2022, effectively ending education for women after the sixth grade, and in December they ordered private and public universities to prohibit female students from attending classes, preventing women who already reached higher education from completing their studies. Also in December, authorities issued a decree banning women from working in national and international nongovernmental organizations. Lacking any recourse within the political system, Afghan women took their demands to the streets, where they were met with water cannons, beatings, and arrests.
  • In Ethiopia, the ongoing civil conflict centered on the northern Tigray region has resulted in, among other abuses, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes on the basis of their ethnicity. Like other countries and territories in the Not Free category, Ethiopia lacks many aspects of the rule of law that might protect its citizens’ fundamental human rights.
  • Moscow’s occupation of Crimea and eastern Donbas has entailed a long-standing campaign of forced ethnic change in those Ukrainian territories. Since 2014, many Crimean Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians have left the regions, driven not only by political persecution and the violence of war but also by overt policies of Russification, including encouragement of migration from Russia, transfers of local prisoners and conscripts to Russia, deportations of those who refuse Russian citizenship, and repression of the Ukrainian and Tatar cultures and languages within the education system. These practices were expanded to other parts of occupied Ukraine after the full-scale invasion, and augmented with horrific projects like the mass abduction and removal of Ukrainian children to Russia.
  • Forced ethnic change is also a matter of official policy for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which aims to deliberately break up the cultures and geographic concentrations of ethnic minority groups in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia. Among the 57 Not Free countries in the world, China ranks near the absolute bottom in terms of overall political rights and civil liberties. It is joined there by Myanmar, where the military has engaged in violent attacks on and expulsions of the Rohingya population as well as several other ethnic groups.
  • In Colombia, a broad coalition enabled Gustavo Petro to win the June presidential runoff vote, overcoming political forces associated with former president Álvaro Uribe, who has dominated the political scene since the early 2000s. The country had been making gains in respect for fundamental rights even before the election period, as the government granted temporary protection permits to more Venezuelan refugees and the Constitutional Court decriminalized abortion.
  • In Slovenia, a competitive election with the highest voter turnout in 20 years resulted in defeat for the right-wing populist government, which had repeatedly threatened media freedom and other democratic norms.
  • Kenya held what observers hailed as its most transparent presidential election ever, and the results were confirmed by an independent Supreme Court. The country’s political leaders notably refrained from the boycotts and incitement of ethnic violence that had disrupted some previous elections.
  • Few of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian allies have openly supported his war of aggression against Ukraine. CCP leader Xi Jinping has not endorsed the invasion or provided military support despite describing the bilateral partnership as having “no limits” early in 2022. The countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia are often seen as lying within Moscow’s geopolitical orbit, but Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have declined to recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory, and they have all complied with sanctions against Russian banks. The Kremlin’s most steadfast ally in the region continues to be President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, who is dependent on Russian support to maintain his own tenuous grip on power.

    Freedom of Press, Freedom of Expression

  • Freedom of expression, a fundamental component of democracy has, according to the report, been under sustained attack for 17 years.
  • In Russia, a multiyear media crackdown went into overdrive as the government sought to eliminate domestic opposition to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Russian independent journalists and outlets had long contended with laws that labeled them as foreign agents, extremists, or “undesirable.” In 2022, the expansion of criminal laws targeting the spread of false information related to the war empowered Roskomnadzor, the federal media and telecommunications regulator, to block websites more aggressively without a court order. Authorities blocked access to most of the independent media outlets that were still available in the country, including Ekho Moskvy, Dozhd, Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and Meduza. Some foreign journalists were also denied entry to Russia.
  • Moscow’s tactics have spread to Central Asia, where Kyrgyzstan has adopted many similar laws targeting the media. Kyrgyz authorities recently tried and failed to convict a prominent investigative journalist, Bolot Temirov, on dubious charges of forgery. In an outrageous violation of the rule of law, Temirov was summarily stripped of his citizenship and transported to Russia in late November 2022, despite the fact that he had been born in Kyrgyzstan.
  • Ordinary people are less free to express their views to others, whether online or off. Many governments have been quick to reapply existing repressive laws to the online sphere and adopt invasive technologies to monitor digital communication. The result is a pervasive sense of fear among civic activists, members of marginalized communities, and average citizens when discussing sensitive topics in public, semipublic, or private settings.
  • In Nicaragua, years of worsening crackdowns on opposition to the regime of President Daniel Ortega culminated in show trials of dozens of people—accused of crimes ranging from treason to spreading false news and undermining national integrity—based almost solely on evidence that they made critical remarks about the government.
  • Myanmar’s military junta executed prodemocracy activist Kyaw Min Yu, better known as Ko Jimmy, for speaking out against the 2021 military coup that displaced an elected civilian government.
  • In August 2022, a terrorism court in Saudi Arabia sentenced Nourah bint Saeed al-Qahtani to 45 years in prison merely for social media posts, just weeks after handing a 34-year sentence to another woman, Salma al-Shehab, for sharing posts by Saudi dissidents.
  • In Hong Kong, following Beijing’s imposition of the draconian National Security Law in 2020, authorities began pursuing national security and sedition charges against both political activists and ordinary residents for expressing dissent, for example by playing protest songs, clapping in court, or putting up posters.
  • At a time when the internet has become fundamental to people’s daily lives, virtually all online activities generate data that are subject to monitoring by authorities, whether directly or through commercial systems and advertising technology that can be exploited to reveal sensitive information. Many countries employ police units to search social media posts for banned forms of political, artistic, religious, or sexual expression. Networks of street cameras equipped with artificial intelligence can identify protesters and track their whereabouts. And the proliferation of spyware has made electronic surveillance potentially ubiquitous; even the presence of an internet-connected device can be enough to deter uninhibited discussion.


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