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Democracy’s global decline is slowing down, says Freedom House report

A woman cuts her hair during a demonstration in front of the Iranian embassy in Brussels, Belgium on Sept. 23, 2022, following the death of Mahsa Amini. Image: Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

In its recent annual report on the state of freedom and democracy in the world, Freedom House concludes that “the global struggle for democracy approached a possible turning point in 2022”. According to the think tank based in Washington D.C., “the gap between the number of countries that registered overall improvements in political rights and civil liberties and those that registered overall declines was the narrowest it has ever been through 17 consecutive years of deterioration.”

In a comment published by the Washington Post, Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, and Arch Puddington, the organization’s “senior scholar emeritus”, commented that the report “offers hope” that the world could be standing “on the threshold of a democratic comeback”. In many countries, though, the situation was harsh and suppression intensified.

After 17 years, trend of decline close to a turnaround

In specific terms, the report finds that a total of 34 countries showed improvements in political rights and civil liberties in 2022, compared with 35 that lost ground. Two countries suffered downgrades in their freedom status according to this assessment. Peru moved from “free” to “partly free”, and Burkina Faso moved from “partly free” to “not free”. Two countries, Colombia and Lesotho, earned upgrades in their freedom status, moving from “partly free” to “free”. Overall, out of 195 countries and territories covered in the report, there are now 84 rated as free (2022: 83), 54 as partly free (2022: 56) and 57 not free (2022: 56). 

Number of countries that improved or declined since 2005. Source: Freedom in the World 2023, p. 3

Freedom House notes that the “most serious setbacks for freedom and democracy were the result of war, coups, and attacks on democratic institutions by illiberal incumbents”. The Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine is seen as an effort “to scuttle that country’s hard-won democratic progress”.

As the report points out, “in his desire to destroy democracy in Ukraine”, Russian President Putin has caused thousands of deaths and injuries of Ukrainian civilians as well as solidiers on both sides, destroyed critical infrastructure, displaced millions of people and intensified “already harsh repression within Russia”.

Another case of “the worst excesses of unchecked power” the report refers to is the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. In terms of overall ratings, Freedom House places China and Myanmar near the absolute bottom, taking into consideration, among other things, the suppression of minority groups in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, in the case of China, and of the Rohingya, in the case of Myanmar.

According to the report, events in 2022 provided “fresh evidence of the limits of authoritarian power”. In the assessment of Freedom House, the influence of authoritarian governments at the United Nations and other international organizations “faltered” and democratic countries helped the Ukraine to “beat back” the Russian aggression. Among other things, the report refers to Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council in April and Iran’s removal from the UN Commission on the Status of Women in December due to the Iranian government’s brutal and deadly suppression of protests.

Based on a different methodology and different data, another annual assessment presented recently by V-Dem concluded that a record number of 42 countries is currently autocratizing while only 14 democratize, offering a bleaker picture. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s report, presented in February, which again uses a different approach, registered after years of democratic regression since 2015 a “point of stagnation” in 2022.

Andreas Bummel
Andreas Bummel is Executive Director of Democracy Without Borders and co-authored the book "A World Parliament: Governance and Democracy in the 21st Century"