Report: Global Freedom Has Been Declining for Nearly a Decade

A third of the world's population lives in countries without political rights and civil liberties, according to a new study.

A pro-Europe Ukrainian protester stands guard atop a barricade at Independence Square in Kiev (Reuters/Marko Djurica)

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:

Freedom House

"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").

"Some of the countries that experienced democratization in the '70s, '80s, and '90s are beginning to give evidence of fragility," Puddington said, pointing to Argentina and Hungary as examples.

There are some bright spots in the survey. Freedom House reports that the number of electoral democracies in the world increased by four in 2013 (as you can see in the graph below, democracies as a percentage of total countries shot up in the early 1990s, and has ebbed and flowed slightly ever since). Tunisia, a fragile success story of the Arab Spring, posted the biggest score increase of any country in the study, primarily on the strength of improving civil liberties.

I asked Puddington what he made of recent street protests in countries like Thailand that have sought to oust democratically elected leaders through demonstrations rather than elections. Is a new, anti-democratic form of protest gaining strength around the world?

"There is a tendency for some people to look at protests as a substitute for politics," he noted, adding that this phenomenon has undermined the political opposition in Egypt. But he also attributes the trend to leaders in countries like Turkey and Ukraine believing "that if they have a 52-percent majority, that allows them to do anything that they want." When those leaders overreach and threaten democracy, people understandably take to the streets.

Not everyone agrees with Freedom House's portrayal of the state of global freedom. Setting aside the questions of how best to define 'freedom' methodologically and whether Freedom House's position as an advocacy organization colors its findings, Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist, has questioned whether the data the NGO generates really point to a "democratic recession." The major gains of the early 1990s, for instance, may have been a function of the transition from a Cold War era to a post-Cold War era, not some organic democratic surge that has since been stifled.

As Ulfelder writes:

Other things being equal, attempts at democracy are much more likely to fail in poorer countries than in richer ones, and they usually fail in their second, third, or even fourth election cycles–that is, between four and 20 years after they start. In other words, the slippage we’ve seen in the past several years is happening where and when we would have expected it to happen, given that so many of those democracies were “born” in a wave of transitions that occurred in the early 1990s. If those reversals were to continue until they had reversed most or all of the post-Cold War gains, then we should be both surprised and alarmed. In the meantime, while we can and should care about each reversal for its own sake, we should also be careful to keep short-term shifts in proper perspective so we can avoid making historical mountains out of line-chart molehills.

Put another way: While evaluating Freedom House's valuable findings, keep the long view in mind as well. Discrete blows to democracy—Egypt's coup, Ukraine's anti-protest law—are often apparent in months, days, sometimes instantaneously. But assessing the overall health of democracy around the world can take far longer.