The ‘free world’ keeps shrinking

By Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post

Three-quarters of the people on earth live in countries where freedom is declining. That’s one of the grim takeaways in an annual report produced by Freedom House, the Washington-based pro-democracy think tank and watchdog. This year’s survey, published Wednesday, marked the 15th consecutive year of global democratic backsliding — “a long democratic recession,” in the organization’s words, that is “deepening.”

Freedom House grades individual countries on 25 indicators that evaluate the health of a given nation’s democracy (or lack thereof). The cumulative score then enables the organization, which has been in operation since 1941, to rank a given country as “Free,” “Partly Free,” or “Not Free” (see map below). Of the 195 independent countries evaluated, 73 saw aggregate score declines and only 28 saw growth.

That margin is the widest of its kind in the past decade and a half. Moreover, 54 countries are now labeled “Not Free,” or about 38 percent of the world’s population, the highest share since 2005. Less than 20 percent of the world’s population lives in countries now classified as “Free.”

The most dramatic decline in the Freedom House rankings belonged to the Central Asian state of Kyrgyzstan, where an electoral fiasco in October led to mass protests, the annulment of parliament and the de facto takeover of the country by populist nationalist Sadyr Japarov, who is now steering the former Soviet republic in the authoritarian direction of its neighbors. Freedom House judged Kyrgyzstan to be “Not Free.”

As in previous years, major pro-democracy protests rocked various parts of the world. But from Algeria to Belarus to Hong Kong, “regimes that protests had taken by surprise … regained their footing, arresting and prosecuting demonstrators, passing newly restrictive laws, and in some cases resorting to brutal crackdowns, for which they faced few international repercussions,” noted Freedom House. Of 39 countries and territories that experienced pro-democracy protests in 2019, 23 saw their scores in decline the following year.

Perhaps the most eye-catching decision was Freedom House’s downgrading of India — the world’s largest democracy — from “Free” to “Partly Free.” The report highlighted the steady erosion of Indian democracy under the watch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose role the organization associates with increasing pressure on human rights groups, intimidation and harassment of journalists and academics, policies that stigmatized and harmed religious minorities, particularly Muslims, and the politicization of the Indian judiciary.

“Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all,” observed Freedom House.

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic also became a vehicle for governments from Hungary to El Salvador to the Philippines to quash dissent, ban demonstrations and undermine political transparency. “The impacts [of measures there] will outlast the health crisis … and lead to limits on freedom long into the future,” Sarah Repucci, one of the co-authors of the report, said in a Tuesday briefing.

In this year’s report, titled “Democracy Under Siege,” the organization called out the “malign influence of the regime in China, the world’s most populous dictatorship,” pointing to not only its repressive policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, but also the effect its rising clout abroad is having in undermining human rights accountability in international forums and strengthening alliances between autocratic governments.

For years, Freedom House was seen by some critics on the left as a platform for Cold War moralizing, a cog in a larger Washington apparatus aimed at justifying American hegemony. But Freedom House also took issue with the United States.

Though still classified as “Free,” the United States fell down the rankings by three points, finding a perch closer to countries such as Romania and Panama than Western European partners such as France and Germany. That’s a consequence of a decline that began before the term of President Donald Trump but grew more discernible while he was office.

“The final weeks of the Trump presidency featured unprecedented attacks on one of the world’s most visible and influential democracies,” noted the report. “After four years of condoning and indeed pardoning official malfeasance, ducking accountability for his own transgressions, and encouraging racist and right-wing extremists, the outgoing president openly strove to illegally overturn his loss at the polls, culminating in his incitement of an armed mob to disrupt Congress’s certification of the results. Trump’s actions went unchecked by most lawmakers from his own party, with a stunning silence that undermined basic democratic tenets.”

This atmosphere of crisis has global implications. Though “the spread of authoritarianism is a phenomenon that is proceeding quite nicely on its own,” Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, told Today’s WorldView, the “outsize role” of the United States as one of the world’s oldest and most influential democracies still matters.

“After the events of the Capitol, from a propaganda point of view, we handed a big victory to autocrats,” he said.

To help address America’s democratic backsliding, Freedom House’s Repucci noted the need for significant political reforms that would expand voting rights, reckon with histories of racial discrimination in U.S. elections and set up independent districting commissions that would move the country away from the partisan gerrymandering that helps fuel polarization. Democratic lawmakers are pushing legislation that would address some of these concerns. But Republicans in state legislatures are also advancing dozens of bills that would restrict ease of voting.

There is “very serious work to do as a country,” Abramowitz said, reiterating his hope that Washington “heed the warnings that are coming out of this report.” (With Ruby Mellen)


*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor


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