In their recent annual report on the state of global freedom, Freedom House in Washington D.C. provided worrying figures. Stating that “democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades”, the report explains how, over the last year, countries across the world have experienced precipitous declines in freedom. In all regions of the world, democratic backsliding has been witnessed, and in total 71 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This continues twelve years of a consistent global decline in democracy. According to Freedom House, since the global slide began in 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline, and only 62 have experienced a net improvement.
“The right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law … are under assault and in retreat globally.”
The number of countries designated as “free” now stands at 88, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and more than 2.9 billion people—or 39 percent of the global population. The number of countries qualifying as “partly free” stands at 58, or 30 percent of all countries assessed, and they were home to nearly 1.8 billion people, or 24 percent of the world’s total. A total of 49 countries are deemed “not free”, representing 25 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living in these countries stood at nearly 2.7 billion people, or 37 percent of the global population, though more than half lives in just one country: China.
For the 2018 edition of its report, Freedom House made the criteria for countries to qualify as an “electoral democracy” more rigorous. The number of electoral democracies now stands at 116 whereas in the previous year the report counted 123.
The rise of right-wing populist parties
It is in the established democracies that some of the more troubling signs have arisen, as democratic structures are put under pressure by “social and economic disparities, partisan fragmentation, terrorist attacks, and an influx of refugees that has strained alliances and increased fears of the ’other’.” These challenges have led to a rise in right-wing, often authoritarian parties, who promise order, security and stability, at the cost of openness, fairness and accountability. As the report points out, right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017. In addition, states that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories—Turkey and Hungary, for example—are sliding into authoritarian rule.
The US withdraws from the democratic struggle
The retreat from the global stage, and seeming shift back towards isolationist, nationalist policies under the US administration under Donald Trump have been a catalyst of this trend. According to Freedom House, “the accelerating withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to promoting and supporting democracy” was a major factor in the global decline in 2017. This has been matched by ”a faster erosion of America’s own democratic standards than at any other time in memory”, which are exemplified by a president who, among other things, has defended his questionable actions by assaulting the integrity of the free press, judiciary and lawmakers if they disagree with his decisions and often outright fabricated assertions.
Autocracies rise to the opportunity
While the United States retreats from the role of a global protector of democracy, autocracies like Russia and China have risen to opposing roles; viewing the rise of democracy within their own countries as a threat, they have set out to discredit it globally. Using sophisticated campaigns of misinformation and propaganda, Russia has undermined the principles of democracy overseas, destabilised democratic institutions such as the EU, and exported their autocratic practices, particularly to developing countries. China on the other hand, seeks not to undermine, but to control; using its considerable economic wealth it has already taken a leading role in many developing parts of Africa, and encouraged other governments to adopt its authoritarian governance system.
Anomaly or start of a downward trend?
Nonetheless, it would pre-emptive to mourn the passing of global democracy. The Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s first Global State of Democracy report that was published in November, for instance, found that “democracy has made major progress since 1975 and the world continues to see stable levels of democracy”. According to their assessment, 68% of governments worldwide are chosen through genuinely contested elections, up from 62% ten years ago (see our recent blog). Indeed, despite the main conclusions drawn from their data, Freedom House include a telling graph with this year’s report, which shows how global freedom is still considerably higher than it was even 20 years ago.
It is too early to say whether the decline in democratic standards that Freedom House describes is an anomaly or a start of a major downward trend. The annual report by Human Rights Watch which was also published these days stresses the strong popular pushback against authoritarian forces in many countries.
Image: from the cover of the “Freedom in the World 2018” report