WASHINGTON, DC, Feb. 5, 2019 – Challenges to American democracy are testing the stability of its constitutional system and threatening to undermine political rights and civil liberties worldwide, according to Freedom in the World 2019, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of fundamental freedoms, released today by Freedom House.
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Having observed similar patterns in other nations where democracy was ultimately overtaken by authoritarianism, Freedom House warns that the resilience of US democratic institutions in the face of such an assault cannot be taken for granted.
“The greatest danger comes from the fact that American democracy is not infinitely durable, especially if a president shows little respect for its tenets,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “We have seen democratic institutions gradually succumb to sustained pressure elsewhere in the world, in places like Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. Antidemocratic rhetoric and the rejection of democratic constraints on power can be first steps toward real restrictions on freedom.”
“Challenges to democracy in the United States have outsized effects beyond American borders,” Abramowitz added. “Other nations watch what is happening in the United States and take cues from its leaders’ behavior. The ongoing deterioration of American democracy will accelerate the decline of democracy around the world.”
“The weakening of democracy in the United States did not begin with Donald Trump, but the president’s rhetoric and actions have undermined key safeguards, including the rule of law and confidence that elections are free and fair,” Abramowitz said. “Congress urgently needs to exercise robust oversight over the administration, oversight that has been virtually absent the past two years. Citizens must be alert to infringements on their rights and demand that their elected representatives protect democratic values at home and abroad.”
The current US score puts American democracy on a level with Greece, Croatia, and Mongolia, well below the other large, long-standing democracies such as Germany and the United Kingdom.
The findings on the United States are part of a grim assessment of global democracy from Freedom House. A total of 68 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties during 2018, with only 50 registering gains. Freedom in the World 2019 documents the weakening of democratic norms around the world, especially regarding elections and the human rights of migrants. The past year was the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The share of Not Free countries has increased over this period, and a crisis of confidence in long-standing democracies has intensified.
Hungary, once lauded as a success story of postcommunist transition, fell to Partly Free status for 2018, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán presided over the most dramatic decline ever charted by Freedom House within the European Union. In Central America, Nicaragua dropped to Not Free amid a ferocious crackdown on a nationwide antigovernment protest movement, which exacerbated the region’s already substantial migration crisis.
“The impact of this sustained decline in global freedom is being felt here at home,” said Abramowitz. “Repressive conditions abroad have helped drive asylum seekers to the United States’ borders and led to foreign interference in American elections, the heart of American democracy.”
Over the period since the 13-year slide began in 2006, a total of 116 countries have seen a net decline, and only 63 have experienced a net improvement.
“This continuing pattern of global democratic decline should be of real concern to Americans,” said Sarah Repucci, senior director of global publications. “The United States is most secure when it can rely on a large community of like-minded democracies. Dictators know their power grows when they reach across borders to undermine free nations. If the balance continues to tip toward dictatorship, the free societies that remain could find themselves isolated in a more dangerous and chaotic world.”
KEY GLOBAL FINDINGS
- Of the 195 countries assessed, 86 (44 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 50 (26 percent) Not Free.
- The United States currently receives a score of 86 out of 100 points. While this places it below other major democracies such as France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it is still firmly in the Free category.
- In 2018, the United States suffered a decline in the rule of law, as government policies and actions improperly restricted the legal rights of asylum seekers, discrimination became evident in the acceptance of refugees for resettlement, and immigration enforcement and detention policies were excessively harsh or haphazard.
- In contrast, conditions for freedom of assembly in the country improved, with an upsurge in civic action and no repetition of the previous year’s protest-related violence.
- Ethnic cleansing and related abuses are a growing trend, leading to a large jump over the past 13 years in the number of countries (3 to 11) that receive score reductions due to egregious efforts to alter the ethnic composition of their territory.
- In many struggling democracies, antiliberal leaders’ verbal attacks on the media contributed to broader declines in press freedom and growing physical threats against journalists. At the same time, rulers elsewhere have been emboldened to take far more aggressive action in response to critical coverage.
- A growing number of governments are reaching beyond their borders to target expatriates, exiles, and diasporas. Freedom House found 24 countries around the world—including heavyweights like Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia—that have recently targeted political dissidents abroad with practices such as harassment, extradition requests, kidnapping, and even assassination. Saudi Arabia’s murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey put a spotlight on authoritarian regimes’ uninhibited cross-border pursuit of their perceived enemies.
- Although the countries with net declines in this report (68) again outnumber those with net gains (50), the gap between them is smaller than in the previous year, and in 2018 more countries earned large improvements (more than 5 points) than in 2017.
- In Angola, Armenia, Ethiopia, and Malaysia, politicians unexpectedly responded or were forced to respond to public demands for democratic change, serving as a reminder that people continue to strive for freedom, accountability, and dignity, even in countries where the odds of success seem insurmountable.
- Hungary dropped from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, affecting the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, and the private sector. However, the year ended with vigorous dissent from thousands of protesters who took to the streets to denounce Orbán’s abuses.
- Serbia also dropped from Free to Partly Free due to election irregularities, legal harassment and smear campaigns against independent journalists, and President Aleksandar Vučić’s de facto accumulation of extraconstitutional powers.
- Nicaragua fell from Partly Free to Not Free as authorities brutally repressed an antigovernment protest movement with arrests and imprisonment of opposition figures, intimidation and attacks against religious leaders, and violence by state forces and allied armed groups that resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Countries in the Spotlight for 2019
The following countries saw important developments during the survey period that affected their democratic trajectory, and deserve special scrutiny in 2019.
- In a region dominated by entrenched elites, Armenia made a breakthrough with the victory of reform-minded leader Nikol Pashinyan in snap elections that were called after unpopular incumbent Serzh Sargsyan attempted to evade term limits and extend his rule.
- Right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro captured Brazil’s presidency after expressing disdain for democratic principles and promising extreme measures to wipe out corruption and violent crime.
- Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, fortified his near-total grip on power in lopsided general elections that came after authorities dissolved the main opposition party and shuttered independent media outlets.
- President Paul Biya of Cameroon—who has been in office for over three decades—extended his rule through deeply flawed elections, while violence accompanying an ongoing crisis in the Anglophone region threatened to erupt into civil war.
- In China, over a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Hui were forced into brutal “reeducation” centers, and a rubber-stamp decision by the National People’s Congress cleared the way for President Xi Jinping to remain in office indefinitely.
- Following sustained protests in Ethiopia, the ruling party installed a reformist prime minister who lifted a state of emergency, released political prisoners, and permitted more open political debate.
- Despite allegations of fraud and a controversial recount, Iraq underwent a peaceful transfer of power following competitive parliamentary elections.
- In Poland, the conservative Law and Justice party has laid waste to the country’s legal framework—and the underpinnings of its democracy—in its drive to assert control over the judiciary.
- In Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena’s attempt to unilaterally dismiss the prime minister threatened recent democratic gains, though the Supreme Court exhibited its independence by declaring the move unconstitutional.
- In Tanzania, the government arrested prominent opposition leaders, stifled antigovernment protests, and pushed for legislation that further strengthens the ruling party’s stranglehold on politics.
Worst of the Worst
Of the 50 countries designated as Not Free, the following 13 have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties (beginning with the least free): Syria, South Sudan, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, North Korea, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Central African Republic, and Libya.
KEY REGIONAL FINDINGS
In addition to those listed above, the following countries saw developments of regional significance.
- Venezuela suffered yet another steep decline in freedom as President Nicolás Maduro extended his authoritarian rule with a profoundly flawed presidential election, and as the country’s economic and humanitarian crises persisted.
- Democratic improvements have continued in Ecuador since the 2017 election of President Lenín Moreno, including a more relaxed government stance toward media criticism, a ban on holding office for those convicted of corruption, and a constitutional referendum that restored presidential term limits.
- Hopes for democratic reform rose in Malaysia after an opposition alliance unexpectedly defeated incumbent prime minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition, which had ruled the country for decades.
- While Pakistan’s elections were competitive, the military’s influence over the courts and the media was widely thought to have tilted the contest in favor of the new prime minister, Imran Khan.
- Bangladesh’s weak electoral system further deteriorated, as security forces cracked down on the opposition ahead of parliamentary voting, election-day irregularities were widespread, and interparty violence resulted in more than a dozen deaths.
- Uzbekistan—formerly one of Freedom in the World’s “Worst of the Worst”—experienced another year of tentative improvement, as the government continued to release political prisoners and ease restrictions on NGOs.
- Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev each secured new presidential terms, benefiting from strong-arm tactics that included the repression of independent media and civil society, the abuse of state resources, and the persecution of genuine political opponents—as well as outright fraud.
- Violence reached the press in Slovakia, where investigative reporter Ján Kuciak was shot to death in his home after uncovering corrupt links between government officials and organized crime.
- President Milo Đukanović of Montenegro continued to consolidate state power around himself and his clique, subverting basic standards of good governance and exceeding his assigned constitutional role.
- In Turkey, simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections took place under a two-year state of emergency that was later lifted, though authorities continued to engage in purges of state institutions and arrests of journalists, civil society members, and academics.
Middle East and North Africa
- Political repression worsened in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claimed to have been reelected with 97 percent of the vote after security forces arbitrarily detained potential challengers.
- In Saudi Arabia, after the government drew praise for easing its draconian ban on women driving, authorities arrested high-profile women’s rights activists and clamped down on even mild forms of dissent. Evidence also mounted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had personally ordered the assassination of self-exiled critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, dashing any remaining hopes that the young prince might emerge as a reformer.
- The consolidation of democracy in Tunisia—the only Free country in the Arab world—continued to sputter, as freedoms of assembly and association were imperiled by legislative changes and the leadership’s failure to set up a Constitutional Court undermined judicial independence and the rule of law.
- Nationalism strained Israel’s democracy as lawmakers approved changes that effectively downgraded the constitutional status of non-Jewish citizens and allowed the interior minister to revoke the residency of Jerusalem-based Palestinians for “breach of loyalty.”
- There was a tentative opening in Angola, where new president João Lourenço took notable actions against corruption and impunity, reducing the outsized influence of his long-ruling predecessor’s family and granting the courts greater independence.
- Zimbabwe’s political system essentially returned to its precoup status quo, as President Emmerson Mnangagwa used deeply flawed general elections to reclaim a modicum of legitimacy following the military’s 2017 ouster of longtime president Robert Mugabe, and his ruling ZANU-PF party showed few signs that it was committed to fostering genuine political competition.
- In Uganda, long-ruling president Yoweri Museveni’s administration sought to constrain dissent by implementing new surveillance systems and instituting a regressive tax on social media use.
- Senegal’s reputation as one of the most stable democracies in West Africa was threatened by new procedural barriers that could limit the opposition’s participation in upcoming elections.
To view the summary of findings, see the report here: www.freedomintheworld.org.
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.