While the world’s attention has been riveted on Ukraine and what move an emboldened Vladimir Putin will make next, diverse threats to democracy have intensified on other fronts as well. The story is not new. According to Freedom House, 2013 was the eighth consecutive year in which more countries experienced declines in political rights or civil liberties than improvements. Since 2005, democracy has ceased its decades-long expansion, leveling off at about 60 percent of all independent states. And since the military coup in Pakistan in 1999, the rate of democratic breakdowns has accelerated, with about one in every five democracies failing.
The downfall of several Arab autocracies in 2011 seemed to augur a new burst of democratic progress, but that progress has not materialized. While Tunisia has emerged as the first Arab democracy in 40 years, Egypt is more repressive now than at any time in the last decade of Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Since the end of 2010, more Arab countries have regressed in freedom and political pluralism than have advanced.
The democratic recession we’re witnessing has been particularly visible in big “swing states”—the non-Western countries with the largest populations and economies. Since the late 1990s, democracy has broken down in Russia, Nigeria, Venezuela, the Philippines, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Thailand, and Kenya. The Philippines is the one relative bright spot in the group today, with a democratically elected president, Benigno Aquino, committed to serious governance reforms. Russia has become not just a venal and despotic state, but a neo-imperial menace to its neighbors as well. Nigeria has reverted back to tragic levels of political kleptocracy and fraud, feeding political polarization, ethnic resentment, citizen alienation, and an increasingly virulent Islamic terrorist movement in the north. The grip of “Bolivarian socialism” has weakened in Venezuela as governance has deteriorated, violence has exploded, and the opposition has unified behind a liberal challenger first to Hugo Chávez and then to his designated successor. But it will be a pyrrhic victory for democrats if the Chavista regime falls and social order collapses alongside it.