The Vulnerable Middle | Freedom House

The Vulnerable Middle

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By Jake Dizard and Christopher Walker



At a time when democracy has undergone a worrisome global deterioration, a strategically important subset of partially democratic, developing states have been dealt an especially hard blow. These countries, whose institutions remain fragile, occupy the world's political and economic "middle ground." Because they have been viewed as the most promising candidates for accession to the ranks of consolidated democracies, the challenges they currently face raise serious questions about the prospects for deepening democratic roots and expanding effective governance around the world.

Countries at the Crossroads, Freedom House's comprehensive assessment of democratic governance, examines just such a selection of middle-performing states. The analysis of the 32 countries in this Crossroads edition provides a clear diagnosis of the factors that separate stronger performers from those that continue to stagnate or backslide in ways that threaten essential rights and freedoms.

While the 2010 edition offers some grounds for optimism, there is considerably more evidence to suggest that many middle-performing states are heading in the wrong direction on fundamental aspects of democratic governance. Of the 21 states with previous Crossroads data, declines exceeded improvements in both number and degree.

A regionally diverse set of states including Cambodia, Honduras, Kenya, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, Uganda, and Yemen heads the list of countries where deterioration is evident. In these and other cases, the survey findings reveal particular pressures on what democracy scholars call "coordination goods"—institutions that are critical for sharing information, enabling political organization, and establishing transparent and accountable governance systems. The media freedom subcategory registered the sharpest fall among the countries with previous data, and various impediments have also affected civic engagement and freedom of association, pointing to a pattern of government behavior that limits the space for citizens to influence public policy.

In the broader global context, a number of factors have combined to obstruct the deepening of democracy in middle-performing countries. The global economic crisis, the persistent fragility of state institutions, the power of armed nonstate actors, and various forms of domestic political upheaval contribute to an inhospitable landscape for democratic consolidation. There is, moreover, an emerging contestation of the very concept of democratic governance, stimulated by China's model of selective economic liberalism and political authoritarianism. Beijing's growing engagement in the developing world and its often opaque financial assistance represent a new countervailing influence on aspirations to democratic governance in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

The Democracy Recession's Impact on the "Middle Class" of States

The effects of the worldwide erosion of democracy on the states in the "grey zone," as scholar Thomas Carothers describes them, are clear. Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual analysis of political rights and civil liberties, examines all of the world's 194 countries. Among the middle-performing, Partly Free states, which possess some but not all of the safeguards and guarantees of fully institutionalized democratic systems, there has been a demonstrable step backward over the past five years. In that time, a total of 57 countries within this category experienced declines, while only 38 improved.

The decline in performance among the Partly Free countries was both broad and deep. A review of the more detailed scoring data for the countries assessed by Freedom in the World during this period reveals a total of 254 points in negative score changes, compared with 152 points in score improvements. The declines occurred across all of the institutions examined in Freedom in the World's seven subcategories.

While Freedom in the World offers a broad, global view of democratic development, Countries at the Crossroads applies a sharper analytical lens, focusing on the condition and degree of democratic governance in selected emerging states. A total of 75 separate indicators are assessed in the Crossroads methodology.

The states in the middle ground of governance, representing the lion's share of countries examined in Crossroads, exhibit highly varied forms of government. They include multiparty systems with levels of political competition that generally meet the criteria of consolidated democracy; nascent democracies established in the wake of armed conflict; dominant-party states in which multiparty systems exist on paper but genuine electoral competition is suppressed; and those on the authoritarian end of the governance spectrum.

For this Crossroads cycle, 11 states were added to broaden the range of case studies with respect to political form, geographical location, and income level. The new countries include the strongest performers in this edition: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and Ghana. The first three also have the highest income levels in this year's country set, aside from the oil-rich kingdoms of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. At the other end of the income scale, Crossroads has added states such as Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo; the latter and Saudi Arabia are two of the weakest performers on democratic governance in this year's edition. The diversity of the new Crossroads country set offers a richer comparative view of the challenges and opportunities facing these governments.



The declines in the media freedom and civic engagement subcategories represent the most troubling signs of deterioration among the countries with previous data. This analysis also found noteworthy movement in several other areas, whether positive, negative, or an ambiguous mixture of the two.

  • Property Rights Erode: Several countries, including Bahrain, Sri Lanka, East Timor, Kenya, Uganda, Cambodia, and Vietnam, experienced declines in the protection of property rights. Land grabs occurred in a number of cases, typically within a context of rising land values and poor titling and registration systems. In Vietnam, for example, rapid economic growth has encouraged the abuse of land-use rights certificates and created increasing conflict between victims of expropriation and the government, which is perceived to favor private developers.
  • Due Process and Prosecutorial Independence Suffer: In a total of 16 countries, ongoing problems surrounding citizen interaction with the justice system resulted in declines in the subcategory that examines the degree to which public officials are prosecuted for abuse of power, whether prosecutors are independent of political control, and whether citizens' due process rights are respected. A number of factors contributed to the declines. In abuse-prone environments such as Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka, the scores worsened as a result of severe due process violations. In countries that previously performed well in this area, like South Africa, Malaysia, and Nicaragua, political pressure on prosecutors increased. Even in relatively reform-oriented states, a scarcity of resources often limits the degree of improvement on these issues.
  • Headway on Anticorruption Standards: One of the bright spots in this year's analysis was the improvement by a number of countries in the sphere of establishing and depoliticizing anticorruption norms and standards. East Timor, Tanzania, and Indonesia were among the countries to improve. East Timor's ombudsman launched several investigations into allegations against high-ranking officials, including the prime minister and justice minister. In Tanzania, the primary anticorruption bureau was given increased powers to conduct investigations and take action against corrupt officials. And in Indonesia, a set of agencies has prosecuted public officials for abuse of power, while the news media continue to vigorously report on allegations of corruption.
  • Post-Conflict Progress: In post-conflict states such as Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Liberia, civilian control has been achieved with the help of the United Nations, and efforts to solidify and expand democratically accountable institutions have made gains. Nevertheless, issues such as ethnic divisions and patronage-based political cultures loom as potential sources of instability.
  • Law versus Implementation: The legal framework for democratic governance continues to improve. In some cases, this is a reflection of genuine reformist impulses on the part of the political leadership. In others, it results from a desire to appease international donors who insist on identifiable achievements in exchange for funds. The trend toward strong legislation is welcome, but in many states examined by Crossroads, the gulf between laws and implementation is vast. In countries where the will to reform appears sincere, scarcity of resources is often a primary obstacle, as is a lack of institutional capacity to manage implementation even when financing is available. In many other states—especially those where power is highly concentrated—a lack of political will on the part of the executive is the central problem. When it comes to rule of law and anticorruption efforts, leaders may understandably fear that the strengthening of institutions will be a threat to their power, perhaps even leading to their arrest. Implementation also encounters resistance from other stakeholders who benefit from the status quo. Corrupt judges, for instance, may cite the theoretically legitimate principle of judicial autonomy to inhibit reform plans. Moreover, threatened groups can point to reasonable concerns that the goal of "reform" is merely to replace one set of elites with another. These conflicting interests among powerful actors often result in institutional clashes, disrupting the process of moving from legislation to action.


The number of countries with a negative trajectory or substandard performance overall presents a special challenge to policymakers, including those at the World Bank and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, who have sought to create inducements for developing countries to improve democratic accountability. Advocates of good governance should be particularly concerned that a number of states have undergone declines despite receiving substantial attention from the international policy and donor communities. In these cases, the regression signals a weakening of hard-won institutional reforms, as well as a shrinking of space for citizens to play a meaningful role in their own governance.

It is important to note that "middle ground" countries are not the only ones having difficulty achieving deeper reforms. Over the past several years, obstacles to improved democratic governance have been rising in mature and developing systems alike. Trust in key institutions in the United States and European Union countries has plummeted. Established democracies are dealing with vexing problems related to fiscal management, social welfare, and the quality of government more generally. The economic crisis is forcing officials and policymakers to choose from a menu of unpalatable options, stirring doubts in the minds of citizens about the governability of their countries. But the more resilient institutions of mature democracies provide a greater margin for error, and the primacy of citizens' voices in reform discussions is generally assured. By contrast, the hurdles and risks faced by developing countries are far more daunting.

The headwinds of the current environment have underscored the reality that enacting meaningful, durable reforms is an exceedingly difficult business even under the best of circumstances. Indeed, it is often easier to fail than to succeed in the democratic reform enterprise. Haiti is a vivid example of this harsh reality. The slow but noteworthy progress that the country achieved in the latest Crossroads cycle may well have been crushed in a moment, quite literally, by the devastating earthquake of January 2010.



Scholars and policymakers have long understood that independent news media and a vigorous civil society play an important role in reducing corruption, improving governmental responsiveness, and achieving generally better development outcomes. The World Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the United Nations, among other multilateral institutions, emphasize that open expression and free association are critical factors in encouraging governmental transparency and accountability. The ongoing weaknesses and new declines identified in these areas by Countries at the Crossroads 2010 are therefore all the more disconcerting.

The states examined here confront a variety of serious governance challenges, and growing pressure on free expression and association can short-circuit broader reform ambitions. Muzzling media and sidelining independent civil society actors reduces the monitoring of state institutions and hampers the formulation and dissemination of alternative policy options. In the absence of these corrective mechanisms, government performance can quickly degrade.

The tools used by the authorities to hinder the news media are diverse, ranging from the misuse of ambiguously worded laws and politicized regulatory bodies to outright violence against journalists.

In Nicaragua, the government of President Daniel Ortega has adopted an antagonistic attitude toward the news media, retreating from a period in which the country's press was relatively free, albeit concentrated in the hands of a small number of owners. The government's tactics include granting access to government events only to "friendly" journalists and channeling lucrative government advertising away from outlets that are perceived as critical of the authorities. Physical harassment of journalists by government supporters has increased, including the destruction of reporters' equipment and broadcast facilities. The threat of legal and administrative action against critical news outlets has also risen. A slander conviction and the withdrawal of a radio license were among the steps taken to generate a chilling effect during the survey period.

Sri Lanka, which has historically enjoyed at least some media freedom, has suffered as a result of its political upheaval. A dramatic increase in violence against journalists has been noted, with the perpetrators enjoying impunity. Over 30 journalists have been killed since 2004, and many others have fled the country. The fear created by this violence has caused some critical outlets to soften their tone or close down altogether. Moreover, restrictions on reporting in war zones and various legal actions have resulted in a distinctly less hospitable environment for open and independent journalism.

Bahrain's government, for its part, employs administrative and legal controls to curb free expression. The state monopolizes the broadcast media and enforces laws that restrict coverage by private print outlets. Unlike in Nicaragua and Sri Lanka, but much like many of its Middle Eastern peers, the government in Bahrain aggressively curtails internet freedom, applying sophisticated filtering systems and occasionally detaining bloggers to deter others who might push the boundaries of free expression.

Pressure on the nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that make up a core component of civil society resulted in declines in a number of countries. In Cambodia, where the NGO community is large relative to the country's size, government hostility is intensifying. Prime Minister Hun Sen made his views clear in a September 2008 speech, stating that "Cambodia has been heaven for NGOs for too long…they insult the government just to ensure their financial survival." He similarly impugned the UN special representative and threatened to expel certain NGOs from the country. One activist was forced to flee abroad and was subsequently convicted in absentia on "disinformation" charges.

Honduras, a country in which violence by nonstate actors is among the most pressing problems, generally provides significant space for civil society, even if NGOs' influence on the policymaking process is limited. However, there are signs that extralegal intimidation of activists is being perpetrated not just by criminal and other nonstate groups, but by state security forces. In 2008, two plainclothes policemen were discovered with a "blacklist" of 135 activists, one of whom had been killed earlier in the year and was labeled "deceased."

In Uganda, NGOs initially flourished after President Yoweri Museveni took power nearly a quarter-century ago. Today, the government regards groups that address political issues as possible threats, and has applied legal tools to limit their influence. For instance, it requires all NGOs to gain approval—which is not always given—from an NGO Registration Board that includes representatives of security agencies. In 2006, the government tightened supervision by requiring the annual renewal of NGO registrations. Civic groups have also found themselves increasingly locked out of policy discussions due to stricter party discipline in the parliament.

One common factor in nearly all cases of pressure on coordination goods is the role of the national leadership in setting a harmful tone. Harsh rhetoric aimed at the media or NGOs carries the most weight when uttered by presidents or ministers, and laws clamping down on free expression and association tend to be initiated by the executive branch.


The 32 countries examined in this edition of Crossroads can be loosely organized into four tiers based on the overall quality of their democratic governance.

I. ESTABLISHED DEMOCRACIES: Argentina, Brazil, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, and South Africa In these countries, the strength of institutions and the public voice are firmly established. Some have made remarkable progress from extremely precarious starting points. Each faces a diverse range of challenges, and long-term stability will require further reform, but their political systems are generally able to self-correct.

II. FRAGILE PROGRESS: East Timor, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Lebanon, Liberia, Malawi, Nepal, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania This tier encompasses states that have made progress in some areas of democratic governance but nevertheless remain fragile, due to either the immaturity of institutions or a history of internal conflict. A number of states in which the United Nations had an extended post-conflict presence, including East Timor, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, have made notable gains. This suggests a salutary impact from the international operations that deserves closer examination.

III. FALTERING REFORM: Cambodia, Honduras, Jordan, Kenya, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, and Uganda States in this tier have previously exhibited some reformist impulses but are now backsliding due to political crisis or a concentration of power. In Cambodia, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, and Uganda, the authorities have tended toward consolidation and even monopolization of power. Reform ambitions in Jordan, Malaysia, and Nigeria have stagnated. In Kenya and Honduras, severe political turmoil in recent years has raised doubts about these countries' prospects for improved governance.

IV. POWER CONCENTRATORS: Bahrain, Cote d'Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe In these states, undemocratic governance predominates and prospects for democratic gains are dim. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe have little or no history of political freedom. The ruling powers there actively deny space for alternative political viewpoints. The other two countries, Cote d'Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo, confront unresolved internal conflicts that have understandably distracted from democratic reform. However, leaders in these countries have also used instability to justify delaying changes that might constrain their authority or result in their removal from power.


Long-Term Leaders

Free expression and association have come under particular stress in a group of eight countries examined in this cycle of Crossroads: Bahrain, Cambodia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Uganda, Vietnam, Yemen, and Zimbabwe. These states have sidestepped an elemental aspect of democratic governance: the rotation of power. Their political systems are not open to the rise and fall of competing political parties and groupings, and no interchange of government and opposition has occurred in at least the past 10 years. Instead, power is retained indefinitely by an individual or through the managed transfer of power within families or party hierarchies.

An examination of Crossroads scores reveals a significant difference between these eight states and the rest of the country set with respect to the Accountability and Public Voice category. The long-term leader states receive an average score of 2.13 on this topic, 47 percent lower than the average of 4.02 for countries where power rotations have occurred. Within the category, the most notable disparity is in the area of Civic Engagement and Civic Monitoring, where the long-term leader group scores an average of 2.50, more than 2 points lower than the other countries, which average 4.79. Similarly, in the Media Independence and Freedom of Expression subcategory, the average score of the long-term leader countries is less than half that of their more dynamic counterparts. And in the Civil Liberties category, the collective average of 2.22 for the class of eight contrasts sharply with the average of 4.40 for the other 24 countries.

The issues covered by these scores—civic engagement, free expression, and free association—are aligned precisely with the coordination goods that can convert diffuse political sentiments into organized political movements. The small ruling elites in long-term leader countries, who are determined to retain power, clearly have a narrow interest in preventing such movements. However, the suppression of public checks on government behavior gives rise to rampant corruption, and the associated politicization and dysfunction of what should be independent "referee" institutions—the judiciary, electoral commissions, prosecutorial services, and ombudsman agencies, among others—leads to routine injustice. The rulers may keep their grip on the state, but their governments' ability to implement effective policies in critical spheres like education, health, employment, and public infrastructure is seriously undermined, and the increasingly frustrated public is left with no legal means of airing or addressing their grievances.




The 2010 edition of Crossroads features 12 states from sub-Saharan Africa, making it the survey's largest region. West and Central Africa are represented by six states, including the strongest performer in this edition, Ghana, where the smooth transfer of power following an extremely close presidential election in 2008 symbolized the country's democratic progress. Two other countries in this subregion, Liberia and Sierra Leone, showed promising signs but remained constrained by overwhelming poverty and persistent corruption. Nigeria, by far the most populous country in this group, was mostly stagnant at a low level of performance, having held elections in 2007 that were sharply criticized by international observers.

Eastern and southern Africa present a mixed picture. Kenya, roiled since late 2007 by enormous political volatility, demonstrates the potential consequences of misgovernment. Rather than undertaking deep reforms, Kenyan elites treated policymaking as a zero-sum game in which the politicization of ethnicity was viewed as a legitimate tool. The spark of a controversial election ignited open ethnic violence, causing turmoil that is reflected across a wide range of Crossroads categories. Uganda also slipped, particularly in the area of Accountability and Public Voice. President Yoweri Museveni's administration applied a range of measures to limit political pluralism, undercutting the presidential campaign of opposition candidate Kizza Besigye and moving to curb the independence and effectiveness of Ugandan civil society. Zimbabwe, where the regime headed by President Robert Mugabe continued to place its own survival above the welfare of Zimbabwean citizens, remains one of the poorest performers in the survey. South Africa, although it is still one of the better performers, continued to wrestle with critical rule of law issues and stagnated in its Crossroads scores. Tanzania meanwhile experienced notable gains across a range of categories, as the parliament stepped up its oversight role and anticorruption efforts began to acquire more coherence.

Latin America

The Latin American countries examined in the survey can be organized into two groups. One consists of Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico, each of which was analyzed for the first time and ranks among the edition's better performers. Nonetheless, each also confronts governance problems that cut to the core of the citizen-state relationship. In Argentina, a multiyear executive effort to accrue greater political power has resulted in heightened tensions with the news media and other institutions. Brazil faces the challenge of reforming a byzantine political power structure that hinders the fight against corruption within the national parliament and state governments. Governance in Mexico and Brazil is also being tested by the growing power of organized criminals. In both countries, ineffective policing and justice systems have increased the pressure to militarize the fight against crime, leading to human rights violations. Crime-induced institutional corrosion is especially threatening in Mexico, where the transition to plural democracy occurred only in 2000 and the balance of power between different institutions and political forces remains unsettled.

The second group consists of the Central American states, whose fragile economies and institutions are buffeted by tumultuous politics and virulent organized crime. Nicaragua suffered one of the survey's most precipitous declines, as President Daniel Ortega sought to concentrate power within the executive branch and his Sandinista political party. Ortega entered office already possessing significant influence over other branches by virtue of earlier political pacts, and he worked to limit free expression and association as his party expanded its power through widely denounced local elections in 2008. Honduras was scored prior to the June 2009 coup, but it nonetheless regressed due to executive mismanagement and power concentration as well as widespread corruption and an inability to combat crime. Guatemala and El Salvador performed better, but they too faced major challenges from criminal groups. Despite a political will to reform and the establishment of a UN-sponsored commission to fight crime and impunity, Guatemalan institutions appeared enormously vulnerable to criminal influence. In El Salvador, a hard-line antigang policy continued to yield more questions about rights abuses than sustainable gains against crime.


The selection of Asian countries features a relatively stable democracy in Indonesia; authoritarian "power concentrators" in Vietnam and Cambodia; fragile new democracies in East Timor and Nepal; and semiauthoritarian, ethnically based governments in Malaysia and Sri Lanka. This diversity of these regimes was reflected in their scoring performance. Among the countries analyzed, scores in the Accountability and Public Voice category improved overall, largely due to gains in the electoral processes of East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nepal. Performance within the Rule of Law category slipped in five of the seven countries due to poor protection of property rights and problems with the justice system, as well as weaknesses in democratic civilian control over security forces.

In terms of country trends, Sri Lanka and Cambodia experienced the largest declines. In both countries, perceived successes—military in Sri Lanka and economic in Cambodia—emboldened leaders to push for further concentration of power. In Sri Lanka, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's political project has undermined previously functioning institutions, while in Cambodia the already limited space for political dissent has continued to narrow under Prime Minister Hun Sen. In Vietnam, which like China is carefully watched as a key experiment in "authoritarian capitalism," the ruling Communist Party mounted a harsh crackdown on a nascent civic movement pushing for democratic reforms. Nepal, while remaining highly fragile, achieved notable gains in most categories as a repressive monarchy gave way to the beginnings of a constitutional republic. East Timor's scores likewise rose, as competitive politics and civic participation improved along with several Civil Liberties subcategories. Indonesia, a complex mosaic both socially and in terms of institutional strength, continued to make incremental progress, especially with respect to electoral process, civilian control of the military, and anticorruption standards.

Middle East

Five countries from this region were examined in the current edition of Crossroads. One was fractious, conflict-plagued Yemen, where the authorities used arbitrary and abusive methods to counteract civil unrest even as President Ali Abdullah Saleh's determination to retain power hardened. Jordan, where reform efforts have apparently stagnated, registered a slight decline in this year's analysis based on setbacks related to the electoral framework and civil society activity. In Bahrain, where a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority, heightened tensions led to declines in citizen protection from state terror, freedom of association, and religious freedom, among other topics.

Two states that were included in the country set for the first time, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, occupied the upper and lower bounds of regional performance, respectively. Lebanon's unique political system allows participation by a variety of faiths and ethnicities, but its rigidity limits the prospects for progress in critical areas, including judicial reform and anticorruption efforts. Saudi Arabia, while demonstrating a faint, incipient reform impulse, remains a religion-based autocracy in which citizen rights are tightly circumscribed in nearly all areas.

Opacity within narrow elite classes is common to the region as a whole, leading to particularly low scores for the anticorruption environment. Minority rights, women's rights, and accountable government are among the subcategories in which Middle Eastern states consistently lag behind those in other regions. Indeed, property rights and freedom of religion are the only subcategories in which the regional average score rises to a mediocre 3.0.



As Amartya Sen once noted, "a country does not have to be deemed fit for democracy; rather, it has to become fit through democracy." This observation is relevant to the full constellation of political systems examined in Countries at the Crossroads. Even for the best performers in the analysis, it is critical to safeguard and encourage the institutions on which democratic governance thrives. However, for systems with underdeveloped democratic institutions—the middle performers that form the core of the Crossroads survey—the challenge is more profound, and Sen's comment is especially apt. Unless they build democratically accountable governance mechanisms, it will be all but impossible for countries like Nigeria, Vietnam, and Yemen to break cycles of poverty while improving basic human rights.

The status of democratic governance in each state is the product of a complex interplay of historical, economic, and other factors. Moreover, some states with broadly similar starting points now find themselves in vastly different circumstances. The difficulty of explaining a particular country's successes or failures makes it all the more important to compare its performance with those of its regional and global peers.

The ultimate outcome of the story told by this analysis remains unclear, but it will have far-reaching implications for both the citizens of the countries examined and the larger aspirations of global democracy. If the middle-performing countries slip away from the path of democratic development, their numerous governance deficiencies will remain unresolved, exposing citizens in these countries to further limitations on basic freedoms. A shrinking pool of democracies also would have negative implications beyond any single country's borders. It would shape, for instance, the treatment of human rights issues in international bodies, including the United Nations. Alternatively, should these countries make their way into the ranks of consolidated democracies, they could tip the global balance and reinvigorate democratic governance as the most sustainable path to a more just and prosperous future.


Jake Dizard is managing editor of Countries at the Crossroads and Christopher Walker is director of studies at Freedom House.