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. Their 2022 report was a warning. A total of 60 countries experienced a decline in freedom in the last year. Only 25 improved. The number of people living under authoritarian regimes is 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 — are being eroded faster than they are being built.
The other notable change is 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,” it says, “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, have 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.
“Only global solidarity among democracy’s defenders can successfully counter the combined aggression of its adversaries.”
2022 Freedom Report, Freedom House
Democracies are faring only somewhat better. 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.
As authoritarians extend their reach, the report says, “Undemocratic leaders and their supporters in democratic environments have worked to reshape or manipulate political systems, in part by playing on voters’ fears of change in their way or life… They have promoted the idea that, once in power, their responsibility is only to their own demographic or partisan base, disregarding other interests and segments of society and warping the institutions in their care so as to prolong their rule. Along the way, the democratic principles of pluralism, equality, and accountability—as well as basic stewardship and public service—have been lost, endangering the rights and well-being of all residents.” It notes that while authoritarian regimes have made attempts to impose a facade of electoral credibility, leaders who fear losing power in a democratic system have taken to sowing distrust in elections.
Antidemocratic figures within democracies have engaged in increased cooperation as well. Eduardo Bolsonar, the son of Brazi’s president at the time of the report, is a member of a far-right nationalist group founded by Steve Bannon. Far-right Fox News personality Tucker Carlson spends time in Hungary and has “warmly” introduced his millions of American viewers to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s xenophobic propaganda and contempt for democratic principles.
“Those countries that have struggled in the space between democracy and authoritarianism, meanwhile, are increasingly tilting toward the latter. The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail.”
The report doesn’t mean that all is lost or that we are going to wake up tomorrow in a fascist world. But it does mean that if we don’t wake up and look beyond our borders, something has been sliding away from us in the last decades, and it is picking up speed. If you are an American, this is so far beyond a fight between Democrats and Republicans. This is, once again, the global fight for freedom and democracy. And we are all in the fight.
Some highlights from the report. Please note this is not a comprehensive assessment of global human rights or democracy. It is a report on changes and trends in the year prior to the report’s issuance. Some areas—Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others—have never qualified as stable democracies so would not be included in the Freedom Report. Their status has not changed in the last year. This does not mean we are not paying attention.
The Freedom Report was written before the 2022 US Midterm elections. It notes the January 6 attack on the US Capitol as “the culmination of a month-long campaign by outgoing president Donald Trump to cast Joe Biden’s victory as illegitimate and fraudulent” and a “well organized effort to block the certification of election results that involved dozens of state and local officials from the Republican PArty and was promoted by the then president himself.” Though the insurrection was ultimately unsuccessful, “the same forces continue to exert significant influence on the US political system.”
Poland’s Law and Justice party has undermined the rule of law by packing the country’s top course with loyalists who reliably uphold its policies and decisions. In October and November, 2021, the Polish constitutional court rules that it can ignore European Union (EU) legislation and judgements.
During 2021, Belarus in Eastern Europe “facilitated the passage of thousands of migrants—the vast majority of them from Iraq—into Minsk and then to the borders of EU countries that had given shelter to exiled Belarusian opposition figures. The mass arrivals led to militarized responses, illegal pushbacks, and violations of asylum procedures by the governments of Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania. Thousands of migrants became stranded in the border area in harsh weather conditions, contributing to a number of deaths… The pressure applied by Minsk encouraged democracies to act in contradiction with their values, opening them to charges of hypocrisy and driving a wedge between critics and defenders of the response.”
The 2022 Freedom Report was issued before perhaps the starkest indicator of the rise of illiberal leaders in Western democracies, the election of Giorgia Meloni and the Brothers of Italy neo-fascist party in Italy, which four years ago had only 4% of the vote in Italian elections.
In February, 2021, the new Parliament of Myanmar was about to be sworn in. The preferred party of the country’s powerful military, the Tatmadaw, had been soundly defeated. The National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, whom the military had held under house arrest for more than 15 years, had increased their already strong position and had secured enough seats to form the next government.
The response from the military had been to declare the election a fraud, re-arrest Suu Kyi and other opposition leaders, declare a State of Emergency, and appoint Min Aung Hlaing, one of their own, as Prime Minister.
When the streets filled with protesters, the military response was to open fire. As of June 23, 2022, more than 2,000 protesters had been murdered, another 14,000 arrested, and 700,000 displaced from their homes. On July 25, 2022, the Tatmadaw executed four of the jailed dissidents, included an elected lawmaker, after a closed door trial in a military court.
Facing International condemnation and censure, Tatmadaw leaders have forged deeper ties to Russia and have become increasingly dependent on Russia for military equipment and supplies.
By the December 2021 Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong the CCP—the Chinese Communist Party—and its allies in the Hong Kong government enacted a “patriot’s law” that allowed a pro-China panel to vet and elect political candidates, allowing the panel to exclude candidates based on political criteria and effectively removing all opposition from the city’s parliament. Prior to the elections multiple opposition leaders were arrested and detained under the draconian National Security Law, and independent media outlets forced to shut down. “It surprised no one,” the report states, “when pro-Beijing candidates dominated the new legislature, despite a long history of robust voter support for pro-democracy candidates.”
India has continued a decline of political rights and civil liberties under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wtih notable opposition figures facing arrest and surveillance.
Weeks before a transitional government was scheduled to come under full civilian control the military seized power in October 2021 and declared a state of emergency. Massive protests were met by a violent response by security forces that killed scores of people. Sudan remains under full military control.
A September 2021 coup deposed President Alpha Condé after he amended the constitution to run for a third term. The country is now under the rule of entirely unelected officials.
In May, 2021, Mali experienced its second military coup in less than a year after the transitional president and prime minister attempted to form a new government that excluded key military officers.
Tunisia was a little recognized success story when, in 2014, the country emerged from the Arab Spring having cast off its dictatorship and began building a promising democracy. The Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, leaders of the country’s largest labor union, the union of Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights Leagues, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, had been negotiators and the driving force in the transition. The quartet won the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for their work.
With little international support, the new democracy faltered under a failing economy and surging coronavirus cases. In 2021 President Kais Saied unilaterally dismissed the prime minister and indefinitely suspended the Parliament to rule by decree.
President Daniel Ortega won a new term as President in November 7, 2021, after imprisoning nearly 40 opposition figures including 7 potential presidential candidates. His administration has shuttered independent media and blocked political parties, and harassed civil society organizations until they closed their doors.
Ortega took a page from Russia and instituted a foreign agents law, requiring all media, NGOs, activists, and bloggers who receive funds from abroad to register as “foreign agents” and identify themselves as foreign agents in anything they publish, opening the door to government raids, confiscation of computer equipment, the threat of imprisonment, and other forms of harassment.
The regime canceled the registration of nearly 50 organizations, effectively quashing independent civil society.
The Ortega family and Murillo family, the family of the First Lady, now rule the country as autocrats.
President Nayib Bukele took office in 2019. In 2021, after his allies won a legislative supermajoirty, he and his allies have systematically undermined the democratic institutions intended to check executive power. They have abused anti-corruption mechanisms to arrest former officials without creditable evidence, and attempted to dismantle public oversight systems. Bukele used his control of the legislature to replace magistrates from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and nearly 200 other judges. The new court then overturned the constitutional ban on presidential reelection allowing Bukele to run in future elections.
El Salvador instituted a “foreign agents” law similar to Nicaragua’s.