Freedom in the World: An Update

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Freedom in the World

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not an isolated event. Their aggression has broadened in recent years from incursions into Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and support of separatists in the Donbas region. Yet this historical moment is not simply about Russia and Ukraine. It symbolizes a shift in the balance of power between democracies and autocracies. The democratic recession has emboldened authoritarian regimes. It was inevitable for it to eventually lead to armed conflict and instability. 

This year’s edition of Freedom in the World is appropriately titled The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule. For the sixteenth year democracy continues to decline faster than it can recover. The report finds, “A total of 60 countries suffered declines over the past year, while only 25 improved. As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries.”

For years Russia and China have used sharp power to impose autocratic norms and manipulate democratic states. The invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point, because Russia now feels comfortable in the use of hard power. Depending on how everything turns out, China may follow Russia’s example and invade Taiwan. Meanwhile, liberal democracies face their own internal challenges. It’s unclear whether this will become a turning point or simply another unfortunate milestone in the democratic recession. It’s a reminder, as Larry Diamond notes, “there is nothing inevitable about the triumph of democracy. In this new era, the strategies and choices of democratic states and leaders will have consequences that resonate for decades.”

The Bad News

Over the past sixteen years global norms have shifted away from democratic values. In recent years the military coup had become a relic of the past, but saw a resurgence in 2021. Both Myanmar and Sudan saw militaries seize political power. More recently Burkina Faso suffered a military coup in January. In Tunisia the President seized political power in what many describe as an autogolpe or self-coup where an executive seizes political power. Executive takeovers have become increasingly common during the democratic recession, but the resurgence of military coups implies a further deterioration of democratic norms in the world. 

Another sign of shifting norms involves electoral behavior. Most countries continue to hold elections with varying degrees of fairness. Authoritarian countries often hold elections that are neither free nor fair, but work hard to give the impression of legitimacy. Recent elections in Iran and Nicaragua have stopped trying to pretend. They administered elections so uncompetitive they lacked any semblance of legitimacy. It’s another way democratic norms have slowly eroded around the world. 

Finally, democratic regimes face their own internal challenges. The assault on the US capitol was the manifestation of Donald Trump’s attempt to discredit the 2020 Presidential Election. It has continued to evolve into new laws and procedures in states that may challenge the democratic legitimacy of future elections. The United States in particular is genuinely at risk of further democratic backsliding even without the presence of Trump in the White House. 

Some Good News

Of course, twenty-five nations did make positive gains. The countries with the largest gains consisted of Côte d’Ivoire, Ecuador, Niger, and Honduras. It’s not surprising to find the bright spots for democracy in Latin America and Africa. Sub-Saharan Africa is a large and diverse continent consisting of 54 different countries. Many of its countries continue to have repressive regimes. Yet, despite its many challenges and setbacks it continues to offer hope through progress in places like Côte d’Ivoire and Niger. 

However, it is in South America where positive momentum is consistently found. This past year two countries in the world changed their status from partly free to free. They both belonged to South America. Ecuador made some of the greatest gains, while Peru did just enough to change its status as well. Last year’s report recorded Chile and Bolivia as among the country’s with the largest gains as well. With elections in Brazil and Colombia this year, an opportunity exists to build on its momentum. 

Ecuador is an important case for freedom, because it is an example of a country who has turned its back on authoritarian populism. Not long ago Ecuador was on an opposite trajectory under the leadership of Rafael Correa. However, his successor Lenín Moreno made the necessary reforms to embrace democracy once again. Last year’s election demonstrated the political environment was competitive as the opposition party won the presidency. Freedom House though emphasizes its score reflects more than the outcomes of elections. It details the important work done by civil society organizations such as Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo over the past year as well.

What Can We Do

Freedom House always gives a list of recommendations at the end of its annual Freedom in the World report. However, this year’s recommendations may come across as almost too timid after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Democracies have taken action to not simply speak out, but place serious sanctions on Russia. Indeed, over the next few weeks we will discover the extent to the free world’s resolve. However, it feels Russia has woken the world to the autocratic threat. 

At the same time it’s not clear whether the world is clear what it is prepared to defend.  The polarization in the United States is a divide as much about the nature and meaning of democracy as much as actual policy disagreements. The democratic recession arose in part out of dissatisfaction with democracy as presently constructed. However, it’s a mistake to believe it was dissatisfaction with democracy itself. The most common critique of democracy has always been that it’s not democratic enough. But to become more democratic, it will become necessary to better understand democracy. As Christian Welzel recently put it, “In order to be stable and liberal, democracy must be understood and appreciated by its citizens.”

Sarah Repucci, Vice President of Research & Analysis at Freedom House and the coauthor of Freedom in the World: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule, joins the podcast tomorrow to discuss the latest report and offer an update on the state of democracy. 

Further Reading

Anne Applebaum (2020) Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism

Zoltan Barany (2021) “Burma: The Generals Strike Back,” Journal of Democracy

Alexander Cooley (2015) “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Countering Democratic Norms,” Journal of Democracy

Larry Diamond (2022), “Democracy’s Arc: From Resurgent to Imperiled,” Journal of Democracy

Moncef Marzouki (2022) “Coup in Tunisia: Is Democracy Lost?,” Journal of Democracy

Moisés Naím (2022) The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century

John Polga-Hecimovich and Francisco Sánchez (2021) “Latin America Erupts: Ecuador’s Return to the Past,” Journal of Democracy

Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz (2022) Freedom in the World:2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule

Declan Walsh, Abdi Latif Dahir, and Simon Marks (2021) “Sudan’s Military Seizes Power, Casting Democratic Transition Into Chaos,” The New York Times

Christian Welzel (2021), “Why the Future is Democratic,” Journal of Democracy

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Sarah Repucci from Freedom House with an Update on Freedom in the World

Freedom House: Sarah Repucci Assesses Freedom in the World

More Episodes from the Podcast

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