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Washington, March 4, 2020 — Democracy is under assault around the globe, and the effects are evident not just in authoritarian states like China, Russia, and Iran, but also in countries with a long track record of upholding basic rights and freedoms. While protest movements in every region have illustrated widespread popular demand for better governance, they have yet to reverse the overall pattern of declining freedom, according to Freedom in the World 2020, the latest edition of the annual country-by-country assessment of political rights and civil liberties, released today by Freedom House.
Countries that suffered setbacks in 2019 outnumbered those making gains by nearly two to one, marking the 14th consecutive year of deterioration in global freedom. During this period, 25 of the world’s 41 established democracies experienced net losses.
The report also found an alarming global erosion in governments’ commitment to pluralism, a defining feature of liberal democracy. Ethnic, religious, and other minority groups have borne the brunt of recent state abuses in both democracies and authoritarian countries. Left unchecked, such violations threaten the freedom of entire societies.
The two most glaring examples are China, where the regime’s multiyear campaign of cultural annihilation against the Uighur minority and other predominantly Muslim groups has been well documented, and India, which earned the largest score decline among the world’s 25 most populous democracies in this year’s report. India has long been viewed as a potential democratic counterweight to authoritarian China in the Indo-Pacific region, but the current Indian government’s alarming departures from democratic norms are blurring the values-based distinction between Beijing and New Delhi.
As part of a pattern of Hindu nationalist policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India issued an exclusionary citizens’ register in one state and adopted a discriminatory citizenship law at the national level, then used aggressive tactics to suppress the protests that ensued. The central government also abruptly revoked the autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority state, and initiated a sweeping security crackdown to enforce the change. As a result, Indian Kashmir, which is assessed separately in Freedom in the World, experienced one of the five largest single-year declines of the past decade anywhere in the world, and the territory’s freedom status dropped from Partly Free to Not Free.
Democratic processes in the United States are under threat as well. While the country’s score remained flat this year, it has declined by eight points on a 100-point scale over the past 10 years. Troubling signs during 2019 included rule changes that weakened the rights of asylum seekers, new evidence of electoral interference, and escalating clashes between the executive branch and Congress over their respective powers. Defiance of congressional authority lay at the heart of the impeachment process against President Donald Trump, who ordered current and former officials to defy all of Congress’s subpoenas for documents and testimony about his attempt to extract a political favor from the president of Ukraine. At the same time, the administration has sent contradictory messages about the deterioration of democratic institutions and respect for human rights abroad.
“India and the United States are the largest and perhaps the most influential democracies in the world, and their drift from liberal democratic ideals is sending exactly the wrong message,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “If major democratic powers fail to set strong examples and provide constructive leadership, it will be impossible to reverse the global trends that threaten freedom for all societies.”
Protesters around the world call for change
The eruption of mass protests across a variety of political environments last year underscored the universality of the human desire for basic freedoms and good governance. In Free, Partly Free, and Not Free countries and territories alike, people took to the streets to express discontent with existing political systems and demand changes that would lead to better, more democratic outcomes. Significant protest movements took place in Hong Kong, Algeria, Bolivia, Chile, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan, among other places. However, these movements frequently ran up against deeply entrenched interests, and thus far they have not brought about a major improvement in global freedom.
“The unchecked brutality of autocratic regimes and the ethical decay of democratic powers are combining to make the world increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president for research. “Without greater support and solidarity from established democracies, protest movements calling for freedom and reform are more likely to succumb to authoritarian reprisals.”
Freedom in the World 2020 assesses the political rights and civil liberties of 210 countries and territories worldwide. The report focuses on developments that occurred between January and December 2019.
- Of the 195 countries assessed, 83 (43 percent) were rated Free, 63 (32 percent) were Partly Free, and 49 (25 percent) were Not Free. The share of Free countries has declined by 3 percentage points over the last decade, while the percentage of Partly Free and Not Free countries rose by two and one points, respectively.
- The gap between setbacks and gains widened. People in 64 countries experienced deterioration in their political rights and civil liberties in 2019, while those in just 37 countries experienced improvements. The difference was smaller in 2018, when 68 countries declined and 50 made gains.
- The countries with the year’s largest gains and declines were concentrated in Africa. Benin, Mozambique, and Tanzania suffered from flawed elections and state repression of dissent, while Sudan, Madagascar, and Ethiopia benefited from progress toward reform and more democratic rule.
- Most established democracies have experienced declines over the past 14 years. Of the world’s 41 established democracies as of 2005, defined as those that had been rated Free for each of the previous 20 years, 25 have since suffered net score declines.
- Mass protests yielded mixed results for each country or territory’s overall score. For example, Hong Kong slipped by four points due in part to acts of repression by police and progovernment thugs. Sudan’s score improved by five points after its protest movement paved the way for a power-sharing transitional government.
- As democratic states display faltering support for freedom on the international stage, authoritarian powers have expanded their global influence through proxy wars, election interference, and censorship beyond their borders.
“The report shows clearly once again, democracy is in decline,” said Abramowitz. “Political rights and civil liberties are threatened in free societies and repressive ones alike. It is possible to turn the tide on this trend, but it is going to take concerted efforts from governments, pressure from the people, and partnership from the business community.”
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. Stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter.