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Freedom in the World report: 2023 was 18th consecutive year of decline

Guatemala, Guatemala, 100323-Hundreds of indigenous protesters march to defend democracy and against manipulation of elections results.

Since 1973, Freedom House has published its annual report that assesses the level of political rights and civil liberties around the world, gathering data and information from around 210 countries and territories. 

The “Freedom in the World 2024” report was released on February 29th, titled “The Mounting Damage of Flawed Elections and Armed Conflict”. According to the report, 2023 marked the 18th consecutive year of global freedom decline, with a concerning scale of deterioration. Political rights and civil liberties were undermined in 52 countries, affecting one-fifth of the world’s population, while only 21 showed improvements. The downturn in rights and freedom was mostly due to attacks on pluralism, with flawed elections and armed conflicts being the main causes, as the title suggests.

The manipulation of elections contributed to the decline of freedom scores in 26 countries and took various forms. Incumbents attempted to control electoral competition, hinder their political opponents, or prevent them from assuming power after election day in countries such as Cambodia, Guatemala, Poland, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. Elections were disrupted by violent criminal organizations in Ecuador, and military coups occurred in Niger and Gabon.

Number of countries that improved or declined since 2005. Source: Freedom in the World 2024, p. 2

Additionally, 2023 witnessed new episodes of shocking conflicts, such as the one in the Gaza Strip between Hamas and Israel, the military offensive of Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, and ongoing conflicts like Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine and civil wars in Myanmar and Sudan.

According to data released on Freedom House’s website, out of the 210 countries and territories covered in the report, there are now 84 rated as free (2023: 85), 59 as partly free (2023: 58) and 67 as not free (2023: 67). Furthermore, the organization based in Washington D.C. rated 110 out of 195 countries as “electoral democracies”, the same figure as in the previous year. In 2022, the number stood at 115.

Regional trends

The decline in global freedom occurred across the six regions highlighted by the report. Africa experienced a decline in freedom scores for the 10th consecutive year, with coups and flawed elections being prominent. Elections in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, and Madagascar faced accusations of electoral fraud and episodes of political violence. Conflicts in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo were characterized by human rights abuses and the wave of coups continued in the continent in Niger and Gabon.

In the Americas, no country showed improvements in freedom, with nine recording score declines. The negative trend was driven by political repression and increases in criminal violence. Ecuador, for example, transitioned from Free to Partly Free due to a significant rise in violent crime perpetrated by organized criminal groups.

The deterioration of freedom in the Asia-Pacific region was marked by efforts to undermine pluralism and political opposition, such as the exclusion of pro-democracy candidates from district elections in Hong Kong and the opposition’s boycott of an electoral campaign in Bangladesh.

Worst rated “Not Free” countries in the last decade sorted by region. Source: Freedom in the World 2024, p. 11.

Eurasia witnessed a dramatic decline in freedom in 2023, characterized by the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and increased repression in Russia during the second year of the full-scale Russian war against Ukraine. Nagorno-Karabakh experienced the largest decline in freedom in 2023, transitioning from Partly Free to Not Free after a blockade and military offensive by the Azerbaijani regime led to the capitulation of its separatist government and the de facto expulsion of its ethnic Armenian population.

In Europe, the freest region in the world, freedom declined due to worsening government performance, marked by growing concerns regarding corruption and lack of transparency.

Finally, in the Middle East, the region with the least freedom in the world, hosting 90% of its population in countries and territories categorized as Not Free, the already repressive status quo was deepened by the conflict in Gaza. This conflict contributed to an overall decline in freedom for Israel, Gaza, and the Middle East in general in 2023.

Positive events

Despite the overall decrease in global freedom during 2023, some positive developments occurred. For instance, Liberia successfully conducted unassisted elections, and progress was made with regard to LGBT+ rights in several African countries despite setbacks in others. Fiji experienced the world’s largest score improvement in the Asia-Pacific region due to a smooth transfer of power after elections in late 2022, leaving behind an autocratic legacy. Citizens and elected governments in Eurasia took steps to distance themselves from Moscow’s authoritarian influence, with countries like Moldova and Armenia leading the way. Poland’s newly elected government is promoting an important reform agenda, which may reverse a decade-long decline in democracy, and multiple advances in LGBT+ legislation were made in Europe..

Despite the negative trends that create an unfavourable environment for democracy, especially during the most important electoral year in human history, there is still room for hope. The report is not only descriptive but draws some policy recommendations to face the escalation in the decline of freedom. The report emphasizes that “by drawing strength from diversity, protecting dissent, and building international coalitions to support their norms and values, democratic forces can still reverse the long decline in global freedom”.

Rodrigo Lima
Rodrigo Lima is a MSc student in International Development Studies at Wageningen University and an intern at Democracy Without Borders