For democrats around the world, there is good news and bad news in the recently released Freedom House survey, “Freedom in the World 2019.” The good news—and we could really use some on the freedom front—is that things haven’t gotten dramatically worse. Or as The Economist Intelligence Unit found in its own annual Democracy Index, “Democracy stopped declining in 2018.” For the thirteenth year in a row, more countries declined in the Freedom House survey (68) than improved (50), but that ratio was not as bad as in many of the last dozen years, when it was often two to one in the wrong direction. No countries clearly entered the ranks of democracies, but Armenia and Malaysia took huge strides in that direction, and save for the tiny nation of Comoros, there were no more reversals of democracy. In fact, the overall ratio of “free” to “not free” countries at the end of 2018 (1.7 to 1) was not much worse than it was in 2005 (2 to 1), the last year before the onset of this extended democratic recession.
Beyond the dramatic alternations in power in Armenia and Malaysia (where in each case democratic forces mobilized impressively to defeat long-ruling parties), there were other hopeful signs. Two illiberal leaders misjudged their chosen successors, who now are turning their countries in more hopeful directions. In Ecuador, where President Rafael Correa was dragging the fragile democracy dangerously close to authoritarianism, his successor, Lenin Moreno, has restored presidential term limits and a greater climate of freedom for independent media. In Angola—one of the world’s most corrupt and badly governed countries—thirty-eight years of plundering rule by President José Eduardo dos Santos ended in September 2017 when he passed power to longtime ruling-party stalwart, João Manuel Gonçalves Lourenço. To most people’s surprise, the former Defense Minister has moved against the extreme levels of nepotism and venality in Angola. This stops well short of systemic change but has produced a big uptick in freedom.
The most hopeful positive change has been elsewhere on the continent, in Ethiopia, where nearly three decades of authoritarian rule by the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) has come under intense challenge from a population fed up with corruption, oppression, and ethnic exclusion. In the face of a wave of popular protests, and in apparent desperation, the regime felt compelled last year to hand the reins of government over to an ethnic outsider within its ranks, the young and dynamic Abiy Ahmed. Since coming to power in April, Ahmed has released political prisoners, loosened media controls, and implemented a wave of other reforms—including appointing one of the most respected opposition figures to head the country’s electoral commission—in advance of elections due for 2020. Entrenched authoritarian interests and deep ethnic divisions threaten this liberalizing project. But with 100 million people, Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa, and if it became a peaceful, multiparty democracy, the implications for the continent would be enormous.
If you look at the public opinion data, it’s not that surprising that three of the six significant gainers in freedom last year were in Africa. The latest (2016-2018) round of the Afrobarometer survey continues to find robust public support for democracy, with more than two thirds of Africans on average saying that democracy is always preferable to any other form of government. When people are presented with the Winston Churchill proposition—that “democracy may have its problems but it’s still the best form of government”—public opinion surveys worldwide find overwhelming support, averaging over 80 percent in Africa and East Asia, and about 70 percent or higher in Latin America and the Arab world. The problem, as people generally recognize, is that this is too often not what their leaders are providing.
And that brings us to the bad news. While six countries significantly improved in 2018 (by at least three points on the 100-point Freedom House scale), 19 countries took a sharp turn for the worse. And the significant decliners included five of the biggest emerging-market countries:
- China, which has seen growing concentration of power, the rise of an Orwellian surveillance state, and a chilling assault on the rights of Uighur and other Muslim minorities;
- Pakistan, which saw electoral alternation, but under the influence of a military establishment that continues to exercise predominant power, tilting the last election to its ally, the former cricket star, Imran Khan;
- Bangladesh, where democracy has still not recovered from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s abuse of power in advance of the previous 2014 election, with a fresh wave of assaults on the opposition and (according to Freedom House) “widespread irregularities and interparty violence” again deeply marring the December 2018 election;
- Brazil, where a deeply illiberal, rightwing populist congressman, Jair Bolsonao, swept to victory in the October presidential election amid a sweeping corruption scandal that has discredited the entire political class; and
- Egypt, where the brutal military strongman, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, arranged for his reelection in a completely farcical and meaningless March poll, and then yesterday gave the country a Valentine’s Day present: a landslide parliamentary vote for a package of constitutional amendments that could keep him in power till 2034 while further concentrating power in the military.
Perhaps democratic norms and institutions will rein in illiberal executive ambitions in Brazil (a country in deep economic and political trouble) about as well as they have done in the U.S. But as the new Freedom in the World survey stresses, in an unprecedented focus on “US freedom in decline,” there is plenty to worry about in the United States, where the total freedom score fell three points in 2017 due to President Donald Trump’s attacks on the judiciary, the media, truth, public faith in the electoral process, and norms of ethical conduct. As a result of this deterioration—which owes as well to deepening polarization and which began well before Trump came to office—the U.S. now ranks 52nd in political and civil freedom among the 195 countries that Freedom House assesses each year. It didn’t decline further in 2018, but who knows what will happen after this year of presidential emergency and a potentially deepening crisis around the Mueller investigation.
Freedom matters everywhere in the world. Smaller countries are significant not only for themselves but for the demonstration effects they can generate in their regions. Thus, when a smaller country has a breakthrough, like the electoral earthquake that brought down the Yahya Jammeh dictatorship in Gambia in 2016 or the more recent stunning turn in Armenia, it is something to celebrate, encourage, and support. Nevertheless, the more consequential stakes lie in the bigger countries, and this is where the rest of the picture is more sobering. Three of the biggest countries—India (the largest democracy in the world), Indonesia (the largest democracy in the Muslim world), and Nigeria (the most populous country in Africa)—are holding elections in the next three months (in fact, Nigeria’s poll is tomorrow). There is pressure on religious tolerance (and other liberal values) in India and Indonesia, but democracy itself does not appear in danger. With its weak rule of law—made weaker with President Muhammadu Buhari’s unconstitutional removal of the Chief Justice last month—and chronic election malpractices, Nigeria does not meet the minimum standards of electoral democracy. Yet the survival of multiparty constitutional government over the past two decades in a country that had previously suffered six military coups and a civil war has been a noteworthy development.
Beyond these three countries and the five listed earlier, there are 19 countries with over 50 million people. Seven of these are liberal democracies: Japan, Germany, UK, France, Italy, South Korea, and the United States. These hardly seem in danger of breaking down, but beyond America, the European ones face rising stresses from immigration and illiberal challengers to norms of tolerance and inclusion. Of the remaining 12, there are only three democracies—Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa—and each of them have declined in quality in recent years due to serious problems of corruption and the rule of law. In Turkey, democracy has been thoroughly crushed by a now unapologetic strongman ruler—Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Nearly five years after the May 2014 coup, Thailand is still waiting for the military to hold elections and leave power; after that, the Royal Thai Army, under General Prayuth Chan-ocha, seems to be planning to reprise its previous role of ruling from behind the façade of a semi-parliamentary regime. In Myanmar as well, the military continues to dominate the levers of political power following the 2015 elections, and the hopes for a timely transition to real democracy have faded. Despotism is deepening in Russia; Vietnam and Iran remain highly authoritarian regimes; elections have just produced a patently fraudulent victory for the regime’s favored candidate in the “Democratic” Republic of Congo; and according to Freedom House, in Tanzania freedom has continued to steadily contract due to “mounting repression of the opposition, media outlets, and social media users who are critical of the increasingly authoritarian president, John Magufuli.”
Put differently, if you look past the seven advanced industrial democracies among these 27 largest countries, you find four democracies straining under the weight of corruption and crime (Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, and South Africa); four countries where elected leaders have stifled democratic institutions or possibilities (Russia, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Tanzania); four countries where, in different ways, the military effectively dominates (Pakistan, Thailand, Myanmar, and Egypt); three entrenched dictatorships (China, Vietnam, and Iran); three huge arenas of political pluralism (India, Indonesia, and Nigeria); one African country where the door to democratic reform seems to be closing again (the DRC); and one—just one—with a real but tenuous possibility of democratic progress (Ethiopia).
Unfortunately, this is a grimmer picture than one finds by just looking at the aggregate numbers. Big countries do generate bigger demonstration effects. It is a reason to cherish and defend democracy in India and Indonesia; to watch carefully what happens in Nigeria as it meets its imminent electoral test; to support civic and institutional efforts to fight corruption and bolster the rule of law; to pressure de facto military regimes to really withdraw from political power; and to bet heavily on the one possibility for a big breakthrough to democracy in the coming year: Ethiopia.