In 2013, for the eighth year in a row, more countries registered declines in political rights and civil liberties than gains. Even as the number of electoral democracies in the world increased, nations like the Central African Republic, Mali, and Ukraine suffered devastating democratic setbacks. Thirty-five percent of the world's population, living in 25 percent of the polities on the planet, found themselves in countries that aren't free. As we enter a year in which more people will vote in elections than ever before, democracy appears to be in a holding pattern around the world—if not outright retreat.
These are the sobering conclusions of the 2014 "Freedom in the World" report, released on Thursday by Freedom House. The Washington, D.C.-based NGO divided 195 nations and 14 territories into three categories—"free," "partly free," and "not free"—and mapped its findings:
"There just haven't been any really significant breakthroughs in the important authoritarian powers that resisted democratization in the past 30 years—Russia, the other Eurasia countries, the Middle East, China, Iran, Venezuela," Arch Puddington, vice president for research at Freedom House, told me.
The leaders of these countries, Puddington added, have learned from the collapse of the Soviet Union not to make major, uncontrollable reforms, and from the Color Revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia not to permit a pro-democracy, oppositional civil society to flourish. They are "modern authoritarians," according to the report's terminology, who "[d]evote full-time attention to the challenge of crippling the opposition without annihilating it, and flouting the rule of law while maintaining a veneer of order, legitimacy, and prosperity."
When, for instance, Hugo Chávez's shadow of a successor in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, wanted parliament to grant him the right to rule by decree in November, he sidelined the opposition lawmaker standing in his way by drumming up corruption charges against her.
"He didn't say, 'I'm the leader, I'm the caudillo'—no, no, they did it legally, they went through the courts, they have a court system that's packed in their favor, they have a parliament that they control," Puddington said.
The Freedom House report calls particular attention to increased repression in post-Arab Spring Egypt, where military leaders who overthrew the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi in July are now cracking down on political opponents and fast-tracking a political transition. Syria, meanwhile "is the worst-ranked country in the world—it's worse than North Korea," Puddington said.
The organization scores countries by first assessing them on various measures of political rights and civil liberties, then placing them on a scale of 1 (most free) to 7 (least free). And Puddington noted that while the Middle East registers the worst civil-liberties scores of any region, Eurasia, including countries like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, performs the worst on political rights.
"This is a part of the world that has declined to the point where it is really, pretty much, at rock bottom on a global scale. And Russia sets the tone for the region," Puddington said, citing Moscow's recent ban on Americans adopting Russian children, restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs, posthumous trial of Sergei Magnitsky, and prohibition of homosexual "propaganda."
As I've noted before, a longitudinal look at Freedom House's annual surveys suggests that democratic advancement actually peaked at the turn of the 21st century, and has more or less flatlined ever since. In the graph below, which shows the percentage of countries that Freedom House has labeled “free,” “partly free,” and “not free” in its reports from 1989 to 2013, you can see how the world settles into a kind of stasis at roughly 45 percent free, 25 percent not free in the late 1990s (freedom's low point, at least since the organization started publishing surveys in 1972, came in 1975, when 40 countries, or 25 percent of the world's nations, were labeled "free").