February 17, 2017

Decline of freedom continues in 2016 amid rising populism and autocracy

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WASHINGTON – Populist and nationalist forces made significant gains in democratic states in 2016, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, according to “Freedom in the World 2017,” Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties.

The report finds 2016 to mark the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

“We see leaders and nations pursuing their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints or regard for the shared benefits of global peace and freedom,” said Arch Puddington, one of the report’s co-authors. “These trends are accelerating and starting to undo the international order of the past quarter-century, including the general respect for long-established norms for fundamental freedoms and democracy.”

“In past years we generally saw declines in freedom among autocracies and dictatorships, but in 2016 it was established democracies that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks,” Mr. Puddington said. Among the countries rated “free” by the report, there were declines in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia and the United States.

Reporting on Eurasia, Freedom House said: “Most countries in Eurasia rank at or near the bottom of Freedom House’s ratings for political rights and civil liberties. While a few – such as Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine – have struggled to democratize and pursue European integration in recent years, they face strong resistance from Russia and anti-democratic elements within their borders. Freedom House’s programs in the region support courageous activists in their struggle to strengthen basic human rights, provide independent news and analysis, and combat grave violations of the rule of law.”

Ukraine was judged to be “partly free” in terms of both political rights and civil liberties, while the Russian-occupied Crimea – which was listed and evaluated separately – was determined to be “not free.” (See separate article, “Scoring Ukraine in ‘Freedom in the World,’ ” on page 7.)

In its overview of the situation in Ukraine, “Freedom in the World 2017” reported: “Ukraine continues to recover from the disorder that surrounded the ouster of Viktor Yanukovych from the presidency in 2014, as well as the related crisis sparked by Russia’s occupation of Crimea and military support for separatists in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine. The authorities’ failure to prosecute extensive high-level corruption has undermined the popularity of the government and affected reform efforts in a wide range of sectors. In the sphere of civil liberties, political pressure and attacks on journalists have threatened freedom of the press.”

A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016. Only 36 registered gains. For the period since the 11-year slide began in 2006, 109 countries have seen a net decline, and only 60 have experienced a net improvement.

The report describes major democracies mired in anxiety and indecision after events such as Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, a series of anti-democratic moves by the new government in Poland, gains by xenophobic nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe, and the U.S. presidential victory of Donald Trump.

At the same time, Russia displayed stunning hubris and hostility as it interfered in the political processes of the United States and other democracies, escalated its military support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria and solidified its illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. China also flouted international law, and unscrupulous leaders from South Sudan and Ethiopia to Thailand and the Philippines engaged in human rights violations of varying scale with impunity.

Key global findings

• Of the 195 countries assessed, 87 (45 percent) were rated free, 59 (30 percent) partly free, and 49 (25 percent) not free.

• As nationalist and populist parties gained strength in Britain, Germany, France and other democracies in 2016, the resulting breakdown of the traditional right-left division called into question whether stable governments and strong opposition parties will endure.

• Ratings for the Middle East and North Africa region were the worst in the world in 2016, followed closely by Eurasia.

• Free countries accounted for a larger share of the countries with declines than at any time in the past decade, and nearly one-quarter of the countries registering declines in 2016 were in Europe.

• Consequential referendums in countries including Colombia, Britain, Bolivia, and Italy gave voice to voters but also represented a radical reduction of democracy to its most skeletal form: majority rule. Referendums often serve as an end run around the structures and safeguards of democracy, and their prominence can be interpreted as another sign that global democracy is in distress.

• Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraced an unvarnished form of authoritarianism in response to a failed coup attempt in July, including the arrest of nearly 40,000 civilians, the imprisonment of dozens of journalists, the shuttering of hundreds of media outlets and NGOs, the arrest of the leaders and hundreds of officials from the third-largest party in the Parliament, and the firing of more than a hundred thousand civil servants.

• Persistent fears over the upsurge in terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States stoked public hostility toward Muslim minorities and immigrants, deepening existing social rifts and threatening civil liberties.

• Recent developments in Poland and Hungary have raised the possibility that some of the most remarkable transitions from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and ’90s will be substantially reversed by elected populist leaders.

Freedom House also reported this on the “Worst of the Worst.” Of the 49 countries designated as Not Free, the following 11 have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties (beginning with the least free): Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, Somalia, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic and Saudi Arabia.

In the summary of key regional findings, the report notes the following:

• Eurasia was divided between a more democratic-oriented fringe and a core of rigid autocracies in 2016. While Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova struggled to build on fragile democratic gains, leaders in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan took steps to shore up their power amid economic and political uncertainty.

• Internal strains in European countries, combined with external pressures like Russian interference and the migrant crisis, made it clear that the continent can no longer be taken for granted as a bastion of democratic stability.

• The rise of antiestablishment parties in Poland, France, Germany and elsewhere is changing Europe’s political landscape and shifting the debate in ways that undermine the fundamental values of democracy.

Among the countries that may experience important developments in the coming year and deserve special scrutiny, Freedom House cited the United States, where Mr. Trump’s unorthodox presidential campaign left open questions about the incoming administration’s approach to civil liberties and the U.S. role in the world.

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. The full text of its report on freedom worldwide may be found at www.freedomintheworld.org. 

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