This year's Freedom House (FH) Freedom in the World Report is an anniversary edition: the first was published exactly 50 years ago, in 1973, and since then, Freedom House has been ranking the level of civil rights and political freedoms in various countries based on surveys conducted by experts worldwide. On the whole, this year's report echoes the very pessimistic report produced by V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), which claims that the decline of global democracy has reached an all-time high and that the current level of democracy is essentially the same as it was in 1973 when FH released their first report. The V-Dem report has previously been covered by Re: Russia. However, the data published by FH suggests that this is not the case. While confirming that the world is at the pinnacle of an ‘authoritarian renaissance,’ it notes that there have been some indications over the past year that the protracted recession of global freedom may have reached its nadir.
FH experts have also observed signs of growing opposition to authoritarian tendencies in various countries, including some deemed among the most authoritarian: anti-government protests in Iran, mass demonstrations in China over Covid restrictions, and anti-government demonstrations in Cuba (this trend was also noted by the authors of the V-Dem report). However, the underlying diagnosis remains the same: authoritarian regimes and the general trend towards a restriction of rights and freedoms continue to wield considerable power and remain resilient.
As examples of the impact of this trend, the FH report cites the recent resurgence of military coups, which were previously considered an anachronism relegated to the second half of the twentieth century and the Cold War era. In 2022 Lieutenant Colonel Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba led a military coup in Burkina Faso, deposing the elected president and suspending the constitution. He was succeeded by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, who dismissed the transitional government, closed the country's borders, and issued orders restricting the functions of civil society organisations. Peru’s President, Pedro Castillo, attempted to avoid impeachment by suspending Congress and declaring a nationwide curfew. Castillo's coup attempt was unsuccessful, but it posed a severe challenge to Peruvian democracy. The report also notes Thailand, where a military coup took place in 2014, and Guinea, where a military junta has held power since 2021. These countries have seen a rapid erosion of rights and liberties and the direct repression of civil society organisations, the media, and political activists.
Besides military coups and juntas (a takeovers from the outside), freedom in 2022 was threatened by the attempts by leaders who had previously gained power democratically to maintain it undemocratically (takeovers from within), according to the FH report. In this regard, the most dramatic example is Tunisia, which is the only country that was able to consolidate a relatively democratic regime for the entire decade following the Arab Spring.
This year, however, Tunisia has seen the third most significant drop in its freedom rating of any country, after President-elect Cais Said fired the country’s prime minister and suspended its parliament in 2021, dissolved this legislature in 2022, and was granted approval for a new constitution by a dubious referendum that expanded his presidential powers and eliminated legislative and judicial control over the executive. The December parliamentary elections, which were boycotted by most opposition parties, saw a voter turnout of just 11%.
In El Salvador, in an attempt to stay in office, President Nayiba Buquele abolished the ban on consecutive presidential terms, formed a new Constitutional Court made up of members from his inner circle, declared a state of emergency, and curtailed anti-corruption legislation. Moreover, according to the FH report, the victory achieved by Viktor Orban's party in Hungary’s parliamentary elections last year has been linked to continued government pressure on the media, judiciary, and non-profit organisations.
Finally, another dramatic challenge to freedom is the excess of repression employed by the de facto authorities in occupied territories or war zones. Citizens' rights and liberties are particularly under threat in such regions. FH points to the Russian occupation of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, as well as to Afghanistan and Ethiopia as examples of these challenges. The ongoing civil conflict in northern Tigray has resulted in abductions, extrajudicial killings, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of people from their homes on the basis of their ethnicity.
The violations of free expression has also been a major contributor to the global democratic decline. The number of countries and territories that scored 0 out of 4 on the media freedom index has increased from 14 to 33 over the course of the past 17 years, and journalists are constantly under attack from autocrats and their supporters. In 2022, media freedom came under pressure in at least 157 countries and territories. The freedom of expression index has also declined, against a backdrop of increased invasions of privacy by governments, the persecution of people for their opinions, and the prevalence of incentives for people to self-censor, both online and offline.
However, the experts at FH believe that ‘the struggle for democracy may be approaching a tipping point.’ According to their report, the gap between the number of countries that registered an overall improvement in their political rights and civil liberties in 2022 (34, according to FH) and the number that registered a general deterioration was the narrowest it had been in the past 17 years of political recession. For example, in 2021, the ratio was 25 to 60; in 2020, it was 28 to 73; and in 2019, it was 37 to 64. There has, specifically, been a reduction in the number of cases where a deterioration of freedoms has occurred; in the previous 17 years, there were at least 50 such cases each year.
The events of the past year have shown that autocrats tend to make mistakes that open up opportunities for democratic forces (according to the well-known concept formulated by Daniel Treisman, ‘mistakes’ by autocrats are among the most common triggers for democratisation). Corruption and a focus on political control at the expense of competence expose the limitations of the authoritarian models offered by Beijing, Moscow, Caracas, and Tehran. In contrast, stable democracies and free countries have demonstrated their ability to come together quickly and effectively. As democracies have reaffirmed the value of multilateral engagement, authoritarian influence in the UN and other international organisations has been challenged. Ukrainians have been able to halt the advance of the Russian army with material assistance from Western democracies. In China, the ruling party's onerous and politicised COVID-19 policy has been reversed under pressure from mass civil protests.
In a number of countries, the mechanisms of free and competitive election have helped to consolidate democratic regimes. Due to successful competitive elections, Lesotho and Colombia improved their status from 'partly free' to 'free' in the FH rankings last year. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro won the run-off presidential election last June, defeating political forces linked to the former President Alvaro Uribe, who had dominated the country's politics since the early 2000s. Meanwhile, in Slovenia, a competitive election with the highest turnout in 20 years resulted in the defeat of a right-wing government that had threatened media freedom and other democratic standards. Kenya held the most transparent presidential election in the country’s history, according to observers, because the country's political leadership avoided the boycotts and incitement to ethnic violence, which had derailed previous elections.
In the first FH report published in 1973, 44 out of 148 (or 30% of countries surveyed) were classified as ‘free,’ 24% as ‘partly free,’ and 46% as ‘unfree.’ Today, 84 of 195 countries (43%) are classified as ‘free,’ 28% as ‘partly free,’ and 29% as ‘unfree.’ To put it another way, the situation has flipped. Experts have noted that during this time, many consolidated democracies have not just blossomed from profoundly repressive environments but have also shown remarkable resilience in the face of new challenges.
FH's observations began at a time when the world was experiencing what became known as the ‘third wave of democratisation.’ The Regime of the Colonels in Greece ended in 1974, and Spain began its journey towards democracy a year after the death of Franco. The largest countries in Latin America, which had long been regarded as a continent of authoritarian power, were liberated from military and civilian dictatorships in the 1980s. Military dictatorships fell successively in Argentina and then in Brazil. For a long time, Uruguay had one of Latin America's bloodiest military regimes, but it is now considered one of the world's most stable and economically prosperous democracies, on par with Norway, Finland, and the Netherlands: Uruguay has a higher level of freedom than Australia, Germany, or the United Kingdom, according to FH’s index for 2022.
The late 1980s and early 1990s are widely regarded as the apex of this wave of democratisation. This was the time when South Africa became a democracy, Taiwan became a democracy after a series of free elections, South Korea consolidated its democracy, and, of course, the communist regimes of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc fell. In 1992, 40% of countries were considered ‘free,’ 40% were considered ‘partly free,’ and 20% were considered ‘unfree.’ However, this process of democratisation stalled: by 2007, the proportion of ‘free’ countries had peaked (46%), but alongside this the ratio of ‘unfree’ countries witnessed a slight increase (to 23%). Following that, the world entered a period of democratic recession.
The Arab Spring in the early 2010s sparked enthusiasm among supporters of democracy, but these revolutions were defeated and subsumed into an authoritarian renaissance. Almost nowhere did they result in long-term democracy. Meanwhile, China and, to a lesser extent, Russia claim to be economically successful authoritarian regimes, offering the world an authoritarian-nationalist alternative to democracy that can be emulated elsewhere.
In order to illustrate the profile of democratic recession better, we have constructed our own index based on FH data. Every year, FH counts the number of countries classified as ‘free,’ ‘partly free,’ or ‘unfree’ based on their methodology. The index value is calculated by deducting the number of ‘free’ countries from the number of ‘unfree’ countries and ‘partly free’ countries, with a deflator of 0.5 (because they are ‘partly free’).
As we can see, the processes of democratisation and autocratisation appear to be undulating phenomena that occur in waves. Despite being a national event in each country, deeply rooted in local contexts and agendas, a step in one direction or the other nonetheless corresponds with supranational trends at the same time. The global cycle of democratisation lasted for more than 30 years. But the post-democratic recession that followed has only been taking place for approximately half of that time. On the one hand, the balance between democracy and non-democracy has drifted back to zero during this time. On the other hand, this index dipped from 17 points in 2007 to -1.5 points in 2020; its decline was most intense between 2017 and 2020 (when it dropped 4 points annually), after which it returned to zero for two years. However, such temporary reversals were also observed in 2012 and 2017 and are not yet indicative of a change in the trend.