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Global Freedom Is in Decline, But What About Democracy?

Democracy is more resilient than many people realize, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t worrying signs on the horizon.

By Yana Gorokhovskaia

April 2024

In 2023, a wide range of freedoms came under attack around the world. People were prevented from exercising their chosen religion in Afghanistan, punished for criticizing authorities in Russia, and intimidated at opposition rallies in Madagascar. These incidents and others like them led global freedom to decline for the eighteenth consecutive year, according to Freedom in the World 2024.

As the examples above suggest, deterioration in freedoms was largely concentrated among weakly democratic or authoritarian regimes. Countries rated Partly Free and Not Free accounted for the majority — 37 of 52 — of those that registered a decline on the 100-point scale used by Freedom in the World. By contrast, only sixteen countries rated Free saw their scores worsen (in only one case by a large-enough measure to drop out of the Free category), and more than three-fourths of the world’s 83 Free countries had no change. The stability that Free countries displayed in 2023 affirmed a longer-term trend that has emerged from the data: Among democracies, significant backsliding is rare. Over the last decade, only eleven countries rated Free have had to be downgraded to Partly Free.

Can friends of democracy therefore rest easy in the knowledge that democratic institutions are resilient and cases of catastrophic democratic deterioration infrequent? Not quite. The declines in Free countries last year mirrored the broader antidemocratic trends that harmed freedom across all regime types globally. And even though, historically, few countries have exited the Free category, the causes that drove those cases of severe democratic decline are making themselves felt in a growing number of countries around the world.

Shared Problems for Democracy and Freedom

Fewer Free countries experienced declines in political rights and civil liberties than did Partly Free or Not Free countries last year. Strikingly, however, the sources of deterioration were similar across democratic and nondemocratic systems alike, suggesting that democracy and freedom face a set of interlinked challenges. These challenges include efforts to undermine elections and limit the right to protest, as well as the threat posed by corruption. The manipulation of elections was one of the leading causes of the global decline in freedom in 2023. In most cases, contests that were already designed to unfairly favor the incumbent were further choreographed to eliminate even the most remote possibility of an incumbent loss. This was the case in Cambodia, where Hun Sen’s regime barred the main opposition parties from the ballot. It was also the case in Zimbabwe, where the ruling party used a fake document to engineer the banning of fifteen opposition legislators from their seats in the 280-member lower house of Parliament.

The Polish parliamentary elections showed that the problem is appearing in democracies, too. October’s parliamentary contest in Poland was marred by the misuse of state resources. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) not only deployed the state-run media for support, but also leveraged a narrow Sejm majority to place a referendum on the same ballot as the parliamentary vote. This maneuver, a first in Polish history, was meant to mobilize the conservative PiS base while providing a way around campaign-finance laws. In the end, these tactics failed, and an alliance of centrist parties was able to unseat PiS. But the use of such measures was worrying. Poland, long a leading success story from the Third Wave of democratization, is now showing signs of democratic deterioration.

In Not Free and Partly Free countries such as Ethiopia and Mozambique, security forces launched violent crackdowns on protesters. In democracies, however, freedom of assembly was curtailed not through violence but by legal restrictions. For example, in the United Kingdom, the passage of the Public Order Act gave police power to arrest participants in peaceful protests deemed to be interfering with key national infrastructure or causing a serious disruption. The law, which has already resulted in a six-month jail sentence for a climate protester who participated in a march against oil extraction, has been condemned by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In Germany, local authorities issued preemptive bans on pro-Palestinian protests, citing that country’s unique approach to limiting free speech that may be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

Corruption emerged as one of the most serious challenges in countries struggling to uphold democratic norms last year. In Guatemala, the peaceful transfer of power was imperiled by a deeply corrupt regime that used the courts and prosecutors to try to prevent Bernardo Arévalo from assuming office following his victory in the presidential election. Likewise, corruption also drove declines among established democracies.

In Croatia and Malta, authorities interfered with investigations into public malfeasance. Norway’s score declined from 100 for the first time since 2005 in the wake of corruption scandals that implicated leading politicians. In Israel, the government tried to weaken judicial independence at the same time that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a corruption trial.

Attacks on political rights and civil liberties that were widespread among Partly Free and Not Free countries also affected democracies across the world last year, demonstrating that the problems of democracy and autocracy are not unique, they are shared.

Catastrophic Democratic Decline

While setbacks of the kind we saw last year are a cause for concern, catastrophic declines among democracies remain rare. Over the last decade, only eleven countries have slipped from Free to Partly Free. The problems that eroded democracy in these countries — violence, illiberal leaders, and attacks on pluralism — are worth closer scrutiny because they are now appearing in a growing number of countries.

One of the biggest dangers to both democracy and human security around the world comes from organized crime. Criminal violence jeopardizes safety, makes participation in democratic institutions dangerous, and can lead to the elevation of leaders who restrict freedom in pursuit of order.

In recent months, Haiti’s government and state institutions have been paralyzed by gang violence. An election to replace Prime Minister Jovenel Moïse is badly needed to restore legitimacy to the government. But how to hold such an election safely is unclear. The experience of Ecuador’s snap election last year, during which political candidates and government officials were assassinated and the remaining candidates had to wear body armor and limit campaigning, illustrates the challenges posed to foundational democratic institutions by criminal violence. In 2023, Ecuador was downgraded to Partly Free.

El Salvador’s steep decline suggests that Ecuador is now on a perilous path. In 2019, El Salvador moved from Free to Partly Free due to escalating criminal violence and intimidation. President Nayib Bukele, who came to power at the same time on promises to control crime, implemented a state of emergency. Since then, Bukele’s efforts to combat organized crime have resulted in massive rights violations, including the arbitrary detention of more than seventy-thousand people. Although addressing violence made Bukele popular, he has remained in office by consolidating power through changes to the Constitutional Court and election rules, further hollowing out El Salvador’s democratic institutions in the process. In February 2024, Bukele won reelection with nearly 85 percent of the vote.

Efforts by illiberal leaders to undermine democratic institutions are another serious threat to democracy, responsible for pushing countries from Free to Partly Free over the last decade. Senegal’s democratic decline has been driven by multiple presidents who have used the courts to keep political rivals from contesting elections. President Macky Sall ultimately ceded power at the beginning of April 2024, but only after putting his biggest political rival on trial and attempting unilaterally to postpone the 2024 presidential election. Similar tactics have been adopted by Benin’s President Patrice Talon. Both Benin and Senegal had been downgraded to Partly Free in 2019.

In Europe as in Latin America and Africa, leaders have come to power through elections and then gradually but substantially chipped away at democratic institutions. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has used state resources to diminish the ability of opposition parties to compete, and has also targeted unions and civil society organizations. The country slid from Free to Partly Free in 2018, and its scores have continued to decline (though it remains, for now, in the Partly Free category). Last year, police tear-gassed students protesting in support of the country’s teachers, and the government has recently enacted a law that resembles anti–civil society legislation commonly found in authoritarian countries. The new law gives authorities wide-reaching powers to investigate individuals and organizations suspected of receiving foreign funding.

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party have used state resources to dim the opposition’s electoral prospects, harass political opponents, and intimidate independent media outlets through smear campaigns and lawsuits. The country declined from Free to Partly Free in 2018. In Montenegro, which was rated Free from 2009 to 2015 but declined to Partly Free in 2016, the long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists and its leader Milo Ðukanović facilitated attacks on independent media and restricted the freedom of assembly years before they attempted to change electoral rules to their advantage.

Tunisia, once the only seen as the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring, has become a textbook example of growing authoritarianism through the consolidation of executive power. Rated Free between 2014 and 2020, the country declined to Partly Free in 2021 when President Kaïs Saïed, elected only a year prior, suspended parliament and dismissed the prime minister. Since then, repression has only continued to escalate. Even when they fail, power grabs by executives are dangerous. In 2022, Pedro Castillo attempted to avert his imminent impeachment through an autogolpe in Peru, plunging the country into political instability and precipitating a second decline from Free to Partly Free in just five years.

Like violence and efforts by leaders to undermine democratic institutions, attacks on pluralism are a major driver of the kind of democratic decline that can push a country from Free to Partly Free status. In the Dominican Republic, citizens of Haitian descent have long been targets of systematic discrimination. A court decision ten years ago retroactively denationalized those born on Dominican soil of noncitizen parents (mostly immigrants from neighboring Haiti). After having been ranked Free since 1998, the Dominican Republic slid to Partly Free in 2015, and remains there. The recent violence in Haiti has amplified anti-Haitian sentiments and resulted in escalating deportations, including of unaccompanied children.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has promoted Hindu nationalism and overseen the adoption of discriminatory policies affecting the country’s Muslim population. At the same time, authorities have chipped away at freedom to dissent by using colonial-era sedition laws to prosecute journalists and ordinary citizens for criticizing the government. With general elections set to run from 19 April to 1 June 2024, tax authorities in February froze the accounts of the Indian National Congress (the main opposition party), threatening its ability to campaign effectively.

Democracies are remarkably resilient. But the rare cases of democratic decline described above are important to track because the drivers of deterioration (violence, illiberal leaders, and attacks on pluralism) are spreading.

Political candidates in Mexico, which is preparing for a June 2024 general election, have been attacked, kidnapped, and even killed by gangs in recent months. Meanwhile, leaders who have come to power through free and fair elections are increasingly attempting to bend or even break election rules. Recently, Croatia’s President Zoran Milanović announced his intention to run for the more powerful post of prime minister without resigning from his current office, as is required by the country’s constitution. When the Constitutional Court barred him from running, he declared that “the rivers of justice are coming.” Political rhetoric rejecting pluralism is also proliferating, including among far-right political parties set to run in the June 2024 European Parliament elections.

Global democracy has proven largely enduring while global freedom has declined substantially. While democracy and freedom may not be synonymous, they are intertwined. The same set of threats, from election manipulation to corruption, is placing rights at risk both outside democracies and within them. The drivers of democratic decline, moreover, are spreading. Yet there is reason to be hopeful. Because people around the world face similar threats, they also have grounds on which to come together in a common cause. Greater freedom and stronger democracy are best pursued together.

Yana Gorokhovskaia is research director at Freedom House.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Cem Ozdel/Anadolu via Getty Images




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