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Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies:
Global Freedom under Pressure
by Arch Puddington and Tyler Roylance
The world was battered in 2015 by overlapping crises that fueled xenophobic sentiment in democratic countries, undermined the economies of states dependent on the sale of natural resources, and led authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent. These unsettling developments contributed to the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
The democracies of Europe and the United States struggled to cope with the Syrian civil war and other unresolved regional conflicts. In addition to compounding the misery and driving up the death toll of civilians in the affected territories, the fighting generated unprecedented numbers of refugees and incubated terrorist groups that inspired or organized attacks on targets abroad. In democratic countries, these stresses led to populist, often bigoted reactions as well as new security measures, both of which threaten the core values of an open society.
The year also featured the slowdown of China’s economy and a related plunge in commodity prices, which hit profligate, export-dependent authoritarian regimes especially hard. Anticipating popular unrest, dictators redoubled political repression at home and lashed out at perceived foreign enemies.
However, in several important countries, elections offered a peaceful way out of failed policies and mismanagement. Voters in places including Nigeria, Venezuela, and Myanmar rejected incumbents and gave new leaders or parliaments an opportunity to tackle corruption, economic decay, and corrosive security problems. These fresh starts suggest that democratic systems may ultimately prove more resilient than their brittle authoritarian counterparts.
Democracies in distress
Whatever the underlying strength of their institutions, leading democracies betrayed a worrying lack of self- confidence and conviction during 2015.
Front and center was the democratic world’s inability to present a unified and credible strategy to end the murderous war in Syria and deal with the refugee crisis triggered by the conflict. Having failed to support the moderate opposition to authoritarian president Bashar al-Assad in the conflict’s early stages, the United States and Europe are now confronted with a crisis of global proportions. With its bewildering inter- play of regional powers, proxy forces, jihadist groups, and urgent humanitarian priorities, Syria represents the most complex challenge to peace and stability in years, and thus far the leaders of the free world have fallen short even as fundamental democratic principles come under threat in their own countries.
The impact has been powerfully felt in Europe. The surge of asylum seekers from Syria and other conflict zones in 2015 provoked a confused and often ugly debate among the member states of the European Union (EU). While a few European leaders, notably German chancellor Angela Merkel and Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven, were initially outspoken in welcoming those fleeing barrel bombs and terrorist massacres, others flatly refused to accept Muslim refugees on their soil. Such hostility grew especially acute after coordinated terrorist attacks by the Is- lamic State militant group killed 130 people in Paris in November.
Czech president Miloš Zeman called those arriving from the Middle East an “organized invasion,” while Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán asserted inaccurately that “all the terrorists” in the Paris attacks “are basically migrants.” Even in Germany, despite the government’s welcoming attitude, neo-Nazis and other xenophobes assaulted refugees and set fire to reception facilities. Other European governments maneuvered to evade responsibility, using fences with razor wire, draconian laws, and onerous financial demands to push the flow of migrants away from their borders.
In effect, the European establishment’s inability to manage these new challenges—on top of the lingering economic woes that began nearly a decade ago—gave fresh impetus to those who have long questioned the European project and the liberal, universal values that it represents. In France, for example, Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front spoke of a split between “globalists and patriots,” suggesting that the mainstream, pro-EU socialist and conservative parties were indistinguishable and essentially anti-French.
The United States did not face refugee flows or terrorist attacks on the same scale as Europe, but it too is experiencing a crisis of confidence in its democratic institutions and international role. While the American system remains dynamic and open to the participation of minorities and immigrants, its elections and legislative process have suffered from an increasingly intricate system of gerrymandering and undue interference by wealthy individuals and special interests. Racial and ethnic divisions have seemingly widened, and the past year brought greater attention to police violence and impunity, de facto residential and school segregation, and economic inequality, adding to fears that class mobility, a linchpin of America’s self-image and global reputation, is in jeopardy.
With these concerns as a backdrop, the political debate over immigration and national security—at least on the right—took on an angry, anti-Muslim tone, and Islamophobic hate crimes spiked, especially after 14 people were killed in a terrorist attack in San Bernardi- no, California. Some elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum also cast doubt on America’s long-standing goal of supporting democracy overseas, arguing that U.S. involvement only causes instability.
The authoritarian economic crisis
Although some authoritarian rulers sought to blame their problems on meddling by democratic powers, it became clear during 2015 that larger economic forces were at work. China’s slowing growth, punctuated by a stock-market plunge and abrupt devaluations of the currency, helped to reduce the prices of many commodities, slashing the export revenues of dictatorships around the world and threatening the economic underpinnings of their legitimacy.
The price of oil in particular, which was also pushed down by Saudi Arabia’s refusal to curb production and a longer-term increase in output by the United States, threatened the economic wellbeing of repressive petrostates from Angola to Azerbaijan. Wary of spending cuts, declining living standards, and the social unrest they could cause, most of these regimes cracked down on rights activists and other critics.
In China, modest reform measures in 2015—such as incremental judicial changes, relaxation of household registration rules, and a shift to a two-child policy— were more than offset by harsh campaigns against dissent and a renewed emphasis on the Communist Party’s leadership in political, social, and economic life. The government of Xi Jinping responded to the stock-market drop with aggressive interventions in the market itself, enhanced censorship and propaganda efforts, and a new crackdown on civil society. Within a 48-hour period in July, for example, over 200 individuals involved in public-interest legal activism were taken into custody in a nationwide sweep. Other targets, whose work the authorities had previously tolerated, included financial journalists, public health advocates, labor rights activists, and women’s rights defenders. This escalation illustrated the growing brutality and anxiety of China’s leaders.
Prominent businessmen and securities traders were also rounded up, adding new risks to doing business in China. But in a sign that favored firms would join the regime in promoting a rosier view of the country, the Chinese internet giant Alibaba purchased the South China Morning Post, pledging to use Hong Kong’s most prominent English-language newspaper to improve China’s global image.
In many countries, the economic setbacks only compounded existing problems brought on by corruption or foreign policy blunders. Russia was forced to deal with falling oil prices at a time when international sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine—plus countersanctions that hurt Russian consumers at least as much as the intended targets—had already weakened its economy and threatened its indebted state-owned companies. Adding to its expensive military occupations in parts of Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, the Kremlin intervened in Syria in late 2015 to shore up support for Assad. Analysts warned that it could prove costly in financial, military, and political terms.
The Russian authorities were sensitive to the possibility of popular discontent, using the state’s high-volume propaganda apparatus to shift emphasis from the stalemate in Ukraine to the new adventure in Syria.
The regime also took measures to stifle criticism of its foreign interventions. Opponents have been derided as traitors, forced from their jobs, arrested, or pushed into exile. To drive home the leadership’s intolerance for dissent, President Vladimir Putin issued a decree making it illegal to publish information about military casualties even during peacetime. The head of a committee of soldiers’ mothers was convicted of fraud after publicizing the cases of Russian troops killed in eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin has implausibly denied that any Russian forces are deployed.
Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, similarly hit by the drop in hydrocarbon prices, leaned heavily on their financial reserves as they sought to prop up the Egyptian regime, battle Shiite-led militants in Yemen, and maintain their domestic spending to avoid social unrest. The nervousness of the region’s monarchs was reflected in heightened political repression, with Saudi authorities imposing more death sentences for a variety of crimes, including nonviolent offenses related to freedom of expression.
Low oil prices also posed a problem for Iran, which hoped to rebuild its sanctions-ravaged economy after reaching an agreement with the international community to limit its nuclear program. Even before the deal was completed, hard-line forces in the regime worked to smother public expectations that it would lead to a more open society. The crackdown featured a spike in executions, the shuttering of civil society organizations, and the arrest of journalists who wrote favorably about liberalizing policies or improved ties with the West. The trial and conviction of Washington Post correspondent Jason Rezaian, apparently on spurious espionage charges, ranks among the most notable cases. No details were made public, the trial was carried out in secret, and Rezaian was not allowed to mount a serious defense.
Venezuela experienced an economic freefall due to slumping oil revenues, years of gross mismanagement, and rampant corruption. In the months leading up to December elections, the country faced extreme shortages of staple goods, rising criminal violence, and the world’s highest rate of inflation. The government of President Nicolááss Maduro responded with more repression, bringing politicized prosecutions against leading opposition figures and tightening its grip on the media.
However, in addition to serving as a cautionary example of authoritarian misrule, Venezuela illustrated the potential of elections to correct a country’s course.
The electoral system was weighed down by blatant gerrymandering, the misuse of state resources, and pronounced media bias, but a groundswell of public frustration with Maduro’s government gave the opposi- tion coalition a two-thirds supermajority in the National Assembly. The results set up a likely confrontation between the legislative and executive branches, and the ultimate outcome remained unclear at year’s end. Nevertheless, the election gave Venezuela a real chance to reverse years of democratic and economic decline.
Renewal through elections
Citizens in a number of other troubled societies similarly proved that change was entirely possible, and did so through the most tried-and-true democratic institution—the ballot box.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and largest economy, voters fed up with rampant corruption and insecurity rejected the incumbent president, Good- luck Jonathan, and elected Muhammadu Buhari to replace him, the first time ever that the opposition gained executive power through elections. Buhari, despite a checkered past, has since begun to fulfill pledges to address the country’s massive corruption problem and accelerate the military campaign against the terrorist group Boko Haram.
In Myanmar, a huge turnout produced an overwhelm- ing victory in parliamentary elections for longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), a remarkable turn-around in a country that until recently ranked among the world’s most repressive.
Voters in Sri Lanka ousted their increasingly authoritar- ian and divisive president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in favor of Maithripala Sirisena. Upon taking office in January, Sirisena overturned some of Rajapaksa’s repressive policies and began repairing relations with both the country’s Tamil minority and the international community.
And in Argentina, opposition candidate Mauricio Macri won the presidency by defeating the nominee of incumbent Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who with her late husband, Nestor Kirchner, had dominated the executive branch for over a decade. Combined with the Venezuela results, Macri’s victory may be the beginning of a rollback of Latin America’s populist movements, which had previously made impressive gains across the region.
There is, of course, no guarantee that electoral victories in societies with fragile institutions and histories of conflict or dictatorship will lead to stability, peace, and prosperity. But the people in these countries—exemplars of hope in a decade of regression—retained faith in the democratic process even after experienc- ing hardship after hardship, including military rule (Myanmar), civil war and authoritarian rule (Sri Lanka), entrenched corruption and a terrorist scourge (Nigeria), economic collapse and political repression (Venezuela), and economic setback and unaccountable government (Argentina). They prevailed despite, in some cases, an electoral playing field tilted sharply against the opposition; in other cases, a record of political violence; and in still other cases, apprehensions about what lies ahead when dictatorships give way to normal politics.
Some of these voters were also rejecting political figures who had publicly disdained the world’s democ- racies and drawn closer to authoritarian powers like Russia, China, and Iran. They were willing to listen to candidates who talked about the rule of law, freedom of expression, and the right to be free of payoffs and bribes, and they were unimpressed by those who blamed every step backward on foreign plots.
These voters, in other words, aligned themselves with the universal principles of democracy and human rights—either explicitly or by deciding that the alternatives had simply failed to deliver. Indeed, the most valuable lesson of 2015 may be that when given the opportunity, people will choose the system that works. As all varieties of government face mounting pressure to perform, the coming year could demonstrate whether democracy is truly more responsive and durable than dictatorship.
The number of countries designated as Free stands at 86, representing 44 percent of the world’s 195 polities and nearly 9 billion people—or 40 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries has decreased by three from the previous year.
The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stands at 59, or 30 percent of all countries assessed; they are home to just under 8 billion people, or 24 percent of the world’s total. The number of Partly Free countries has increased by four from the previous year.
A total of 50 countries are deemed Not Free, representing 26 percent of the world’s The number of people living under Not Free conditions stands at 2.6 billion people, or 36 percent of the global population, though it is im- portant to note that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China. The number of Not Free countries has decreased by one, with. Zimbabwe rising from Not Free to Partly Free.
Three countries fell from Free to Partly Free: Dominican Republic, Lesotho, and and Montenegro.
PR and CL stand for political rights and civil liberties, respectively; 1 represents the most free and 7 the least free rating. A larger aggregate score indicates a greater level of freedom. The signal * indicates a country’s status as an electoral democracy.
|Angola i||6||6 t||24||Not Free|
|Antigua and Barbuda*||2||2||82||Free|
|Azerbaijan||7 t||6||16||Not Free|
|Bangladesh* i||4||4||49||Partly Free|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina*||4||3||57||Partly Free|
|Burkina Faso h||4 s||3||59||Partly Free|
|Burundi i||7 t||6 t||19||Not Free|
|Central African Republic||7||7||7||Not Free|
|China (PRC)||7||6||16||Not Free|
|Congo (Brazzaville)||6||5||28||Not Free|
|Congo (Kinshasa)||6||6||25||Not Free|
|Côte d’Ivoire*||4 s||4||51||Partly Free|
|Dominican Republic*||3 t||3||70||Partly Free t|
|East Timor*||3||3||65||Partly Free|
|El Salvador* i||2||3||69||Free|
|Equatorial Guinea||7||7||8||Not Free|
|Ethiopia||7 t||6||15||Not Free|
|Fiji*||3||3 s||62||Partly Free|
|The Gambia||7 t||6||18||Not Free|
|Guatemala*||4 t||4||54||Partly Free|
|Honduras i||4||4||45||Partly Free|
|Iraq||5 s||6||27||Not Free|
|Kosovo*||3 s||4||52||Partly Free|
|Lesotho*||3 t||3||67||Partly Free t|
|Macedonia i||4||3||57||Partly Free|
|Madagascar*||3 s||4||56||Partly Free|
|Malawi*||3||3 s||64||Partly Free|
|Maldives i||4||5 t||43||Partly Free|
|Moldova* i||3||3||60||Partly Free|
|Montenegro* i||3||3 t||70||Partly Free t|
|Morocco i||5||4||41||Partly Free|
|Mozambique||4||4 t||56||Partly Free|
|Myanmar h||6||5 s||28||Not Free|
|Nigeria* h||4||5||48||Partly Free|
|North Korea||7||7||3||Not Free|
|Papua New Guinea*||4||3||59||Partly Free|
|Rwanda i||6||6||24||Not Free|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis*||2 t||1||88||Free|
|Saint Vincent and Grenadines*||1||1||91||Free|
|São Tomé and Príncipe*||2||2||81||Free|
|Saudi Arabia||7||7||10||Not Free|
|Sierra Leone*||3||3||65||Partly Free|
|Solomon Islands*||3||3||68||Partly Free|
|South Sudan||7||6||14||Not Free|
|Sri Lanka* h||4 s||4 s||55||Partly Free|
|Tajikistan i||7 t||6||16||Not Free|
|Tanzania*||3||4 t||60||Partly Free|
|Trinidad and Tobago*||2||2||81||Free|
|Turkey* i||3||4||53||Partly Free|
|United Arab Emirates||6||6||20||Not Free|
|United States of America* i||1||1||90||Free|
|Yemen i||7 t||6||17||Not Free|
|Zimbabwe||5||5 s||32||Partly Free s|
Related and disputed territories
|Gaza Strip||7||6||12||Not Free|
|Hong Kong||5||2||63||Partly Free|
|Indian Kashmir||4||4||51||Partly Free|
|Pakistani Kashmir||6||5||28||Not Free|
|Puerto Rico||1||1 s||91||Free|
|Somaliland||5 t||5||40||Partly Free|
|South Ossetia||7||6||11||Not Free|
|West Bank||6||5||30||Not Free|
|Western Sahara||7||7||4||Not Free|
PR and CL stand for political rights and civil liberties, respectively; 1 represents the most free and 7 the least free rating. A larger aggregate score indicates a greater level of freedom.