Discarding Democracy: A Return to the Iron Fist

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by Arch Puddington, Vice President for Research

In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighboring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world.

For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years.

Even after such a long period of mounting pressure on democracy, developments in 2014 were exceptionally grim. The report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.

This pattern held true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and an even split in Asia-Pacific. Syria, a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism, received the lowest Freedom in the World country score in over a decade.

The lack of democratic gains around the world was conspicuous. The one notable exception was Tunisia, which became the first Arab country to achieve the status of Free since Lebanon was gripped by civil war 40 years ago.

By contrast, a troubling number of large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries moved backward: Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, and Azerbaijan. Hungary, a European Union member state, also saw a sharp slide in its democratic standards as part of a process that began in 2010.

Democracy's Opponents
A democracy does not necessarily have to be liberal.

– Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, July 2014

(Source: http://tinyurl.com/n4226wy. Photo: European People’s Party)

There were also net declines across five of the seven categories of democratic indicators assessed by the report. Continuing a recent trend, the worst reversals affected freedom of expression, civil society, and the rule of law. In a new and disquieting development, a number of countries lost ground due to state surveillance, restrictions on internet communications, and curbs on personal autonomy—including the freedom to make decisions about education and employment and the ability to travel freely.

A more explicit rejection of democratic standards

Just as disturbing as the statistical decline was the open disdain for democratic standards that colored the words and actions of autocratic governments during the year. Until recently, most authoritarian regimes claimed to respect international agreements and paid lip service to the norms of competitive elections and human rights. They now increasingly flout democratic values, argue for the superiority of what amounts to one-party rule, and seek to throw off the constraints of fundamental diplomatic principles.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including the outright seizure and formal annexation of Crimea, is the prime example of this phenomenon. The Russian intervention was in direct violation of an international agreement that had guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity. President Vladimir Putin made his contempt for the values of liberal democracy unmistakably clear. He and his aides equated raw propaganda with legitimate journalism, treated human rights activists as enemies of the state, and denounced the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community as moral degenerates.

Democracy's Opponents
Russia is promoting a positive and unifying agenda.

– Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, September 2014

In Egypt, the rise of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has been accompanied by a relentless campaign to roll back the gains of the Arab Spring. In an unprecedented trampling of the rule of law, Egyptian courts sentenced 1,400 political detainees to death in a series of drumhead trials that lacked the most basic elements of due process. Under Sisi, a once-vibrant media sector has been bent into submission, human rights organizations suppressed to the point that they can no longer operate, foreign scholars barred, and domestic critics (both secular and Islamist) arrested or forced into exile. As the year drew to a close, a court dismissed charges against former president Hosni Mubarak for the murder of demonstrators in 2011, a depressing symbol of the country’s undisguised return to autocratic rule.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan consolidated power during the year and waged an increasingly aggressive campaign against democratic pluralism. He openly demanded that media owners censor coverage or fire critical journalists, told the Constitutional Court he does not respect its rulings, threatened reporters (and rebuked women journalists), and ordered radical, even bizarre changes to the school curriculum. Having risen from the premiership to the presidency in August, he formed a “shadow cabinet” that allows him to run the country from the presidential palace, circumventing constitutional rules and the ministries of his own party’s government.

In China, President Xi Jinping continued to centralize authority and maintain hands-on involvement in policy areas ranging from domestic security to internet management to ethnic relations, emerging as the most powerful Chinese Communist Party leader since Deng Xiaoping. He continued to bolster China’s sweeping maritime territorial claims with armed force and personnel, and while his aggressive anticorruption campaign reached the highest echelons of the party, culminating in the arrest of former security czar Zhou Yongkang, it remained selective and ignored the principles of due process. Moreover, the campaign has been compromised by an intensified crackdown on grassroots anticorruption activists and other elements of civil society, including a series of politically motivated convictions. The government also intensified its persecution of the Uighur community, imposing layers of restriction on Uighurs’ ability to observe their Muslim faith and sentencing activists and journalists to long prison terms.

Democracy's Opponents
Parliamentarianism, a multiparty system and a presidential system, we tried them, but none worked.

– Chinese president Xi Jinping, April 2014

(Source: http://tinyurl.com/nouuztc. Photo: Global Panorama, photo courtesy of Michel Temer)

The Communist authorities also tightened China’s sophisticated system of internet control, taking steps such as the shuttering of dozens of accounts on the popular WeChat messaging service that had been used to disseminate news. And despite official rhetoric about improving the rule of law, an array of extralegal forms of detention for political and religious dissidents continued to proliferate.

The effects and causes of terrorism

In a variety of ways, lack of democratic governance creates an enabling environment for terrorism, and the problem rapidly metastasized as a threat to human life and human freedom during 2014. In a wide swath of the globe stretching from West Africa through the Middle East to South Asia, radical jihadist forces plagued local governments and populations. Their impact on countries like Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Nigeria was devastating, as they massacred security forces and civilians alike, took foreigners hostage, and killed or enslaved religious minorities, including Muslims whom they did not recognize as such. Women were particular targets: Young women and teenage girls were seized as war prizes, schoolgirls were kidnapped and raped, women educators and health workers were assassinated, and women suffered disproportionately in refugee camps. As horror followed horror, the year ended with a slaughter of more than 130 schoolchildren by the Pakistani Taliban.

The spike in terrorist violence laid bare widespread corruption, poor governance, and counterproductive security strategies in a number of countries with weak or nonexistent democratic institutions. The Syrian regime had opened the door to the growth of the Islamic State and other extremist movements by brutally repressing first peaceful protesters and the political opposition, then the various rebel groups that rose up to defend them. The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki also smoothed the militants’ path by persecuting opposition leaders, rebuking peaceful Sunni protests, and fostering corruption and cronyism in the security forces. More recently, the Sisi government in Egypt has made the same mistake in its remorseless drive to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood, indirectly fueling an armed insurgency and contributing to the formation of an Islamic State affiliate in the country.

In Nigeria, neither the government nor the military has proved capable of dealing effectively with Boko Haram, which operates with impunity in parts of the country’s north. While the military has for decades played a large role in Nigerian political life, it has proved poorly equipped, badly trained, hollowed out by graft, and prone to scattershot tactics that fail to distinguish between terrorists and civilians. In Pakistan, the military and intelligence services have a long history of colluding with certain extremist groups, including some that are responsible for mass killings of civilians. When they do move against militant bastions, they too often resort to indiscriminate violence and fail to follow up with improved governance.

Many governments have exploited the escalation of terrorism as a justification for new and essentially unrelated repressive measures. While a vigorous debate over how democracies should respond to terrorism at home and abroad is under way in Europe, Australia, and North America, leaders elsewhere are citing the threat as they silence dissidents, shutter critical media, and eliminate civil society groups. Thus the regime of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has imprisoned opposition political figures as terrorists, Kenyan authorities have deregistered hundreds of nongovernmental organizations and unleashed security agencies while pursuing links to Somali militants, and China has invoked terrorism to support harsh prison sentences against nonviolent Uighur activists and internet users, including a life sentence for well-known Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti.

A return to cruder authoritarian methods

The exploitation of the terrorism threat is just one aspect of a general trend in which repressive regimes are returning to blunt, retrograde tactics in their ongoing effort to preserve political control. In recent decades, autocrats had favored more “modern,” nuanced methods that aimed to protect de facto monopolies on power while maintaining a veneer of democratic pluralism and avoiding practices associated with the totalitarian regimes and military dictatorships of the 20th century.

Over the past year, however, there were signs that authoritarian regimes were beginning to abandon the quasi-democratic camouflage that allowed them to survive and prosper in the post–Cold War world. Again, the most blatant example is Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, whose official justifications included ethnic nationalist, irredentist claims and which quickly drew comparisons to the land grabs of Hitler or Stalin.

The move exposed Moscow as a committed enemy of European peace and democratization rather than a would-be strategic partner. China’s government responded to public discontent with campaigns reminiscent of the Mao era, including televised confessions that have gained prominence under Xi Jinping. The Chinese authorities are also resorting to criminal and administrative detention to restrict activists instead of softer tactics like house arrest or informal interrogations. Both China and Russia have made use of one of the Cold War’s most chilling instruments, the placement of dissidents in psychiatric hospitals.

In Venezuela and Azerbaijan, the ranks of political prisoners steadily increased in 2014, as leading officials railed against foreign conspiracies aimed at fomenting revolution. Meanwhile, rulers in Egypt, Bahrain, and other Middle Eastern countries, which just a decade ago felt obliged to move toward competitive elections, now resort to violent police tactics, sham trials, and severe sentences as they seek to annihilate political opposition. And whereas the most successful authoritarian regimes previously tolerated a modest opposition press, some civil society activity, and a comparatively vibrant internet environment, they are now reducing or closing these remaining spaces for dissent and debate.

Democracy's Opponents
Parliamentary dictatorship has to be removed.

– Thai military coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha, June 2014

(Source: http://tinyurl.com/pm22bfp. Photo: Prachatai)

The return to older authoritarian practices has included increased military involvement in governance and political affairs. In Thailand, the military leaders responsible for the removal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her elected government made clear that a return to democratic rule will not take place in the foreseeable future. The military commandeered the political transition after the ouster of the president in Burkina Faso, and armed forces continued to play a major role in a number of other African states, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. In Egypt, the Sisi government has cemented the military’s position as the leading force in society. A similar phenomenon has emerged in Venezuela, where the armed forces are involved in the economy, social programs, and internal security, and are thought to play a critical part in drug trafficking and other criminal ventures.

Notable developments in 2014

In addition to those described above, five major phenomena stood out during the year:

Humanitarian crises rooted in undemocratic governance:

In Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Asia, millions of refugees were forced into squalid camps, risked their lives in overcrowded boats, or found tenuous shelter on the margins of foreign societies. Authoritarian misrule was a primary cause of these humanitarian crises. In Syria, the civil war was originally sparked by the regime’s attacks on demonstrators who were protesting the torture of students accused of antigovernment graffiti. In South Sudan, a political dispute between the president and his former vice president—in the context of an interim constitution that gives sweeping powers to the executive—led to fighting within the army that developed into full-scale civil war. The combatants have targeted civilians, who are also facing acute food shortages and massive internal displacement. While the conflict in Ukraine has not reached the same level, authoritarian Russia’s invasion has created a crisis like none seen in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. The aggression was precipitated in part by a confrontation between the Ukrainian people and their increasingly authoritarian president, following decades of corrupt Ukrainian administrations.

Tunisia’s exceptional success story:

In 2014, Tunisia took its place among the Free countries of the world. This is remarkable not just because it was ranked Not Free only five years ago, with scores that placed it among some of the most repressive regimes in the world, but also because Tunisia is so far the only successful case among the many Arab countries that exhibited some political opening in the 2011 Arab Spring. The improvements that pushed it into the Free category included a progressive constitution adopted in January 2014 and well-regarded elections for parliament and president later in the year. As the only full-fledged Arab democracy, Tunisia can set a strong positive example for the region and for all countries that still struggle under authoritarian rule.

The decline of internet freedom:

Restrictions on internet freedom have long been less severe than those imposed on traditional media, but the gap is closing as governments crack down on online activity. Censorship and surveillance, repressive new laws, criminal penalties, and arrests of users have been on the rise in numerous settings. For example, officials in Ecuador increased online monitoring in 2014, hiring firms to remove content deemed unfavorable to the government from sites like YouTube and invoking the 2013 communications law to prosecute social media users who were critical of the president. The Rwandan government stepped up use of a new law that allows security officials to monitor online communications, and surveillance appears to have increased in practice. Such restrictions affect Free countries as well. After the Sewol ferry accident in South Korea in April and related criticism and rumors surrounding the president, the government began routine monitoring and censorship of online discussions. Israel also featured a stricter environment for discussio on social media this year, especially regarding controversial views on the situation in the Gaza Strip.

Democracy's Opponents
We’ll eradicate Twitter. Everyone will witness the power of the Turkish state.

– Turkish prime minister, now president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, March 2014

(Source: http://tinyurl.com/nlx5m9m. Photo: World Economic Forum, Turkey 2008)

Personal autonomy under pressure:

In addition to continued declines in freedom of expression and civil society rights, there were notable declines in freedom of movement during 2014. In some cases, a tightening of government control prevented ordinary people from moving within their own country or traveling abroad. Restrictions imposed by the authoritarian governments of Egypt and Russia were politically motivated. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, authorities limited movement due to the Ebola crisis, at times using measures beyond those necessary to control the disease’s spread. The most extreme example was a 10-day quarantine on the impoverished neighborhood of West Point in Monrovia, Liberia, which according to many experts actually increased the risk of contagion. In Libya, the worsening civil war hampered internal movement. In El Salvador and Honduras, worsening gang-related violence and lawlessness limited where people could safely travel.

Overlooked autocrats:

While some of the world’s worst dictatorships regularly made headlines, others continued to fly below the radar. Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev won a landslide reelection victory against an opposition that was crippled by arrests and legal constraints, and the regime stepped up its jailing of human rights activists, journalists, and other perceived enemies. Despite year after year of declines in political rights and civil liberties, however, Azerbaijan has avoided the democratic world’s opprobrium due to its energy wealth and cooperation on security matters. Vietnam is also an attractive destination for foreign investment, and the United States and its allies gave the country special attention in 2014 as the underdog facing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. But like China, Vietnam remains an entrenched one-party state, and the regime imposed harsher penalties for free speech online, arrested protesters, and continued to ban work by human rights organizations. Ethiopia is held up as a model for development in Africa, and is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign assistance. But in 2014 its security forces opened fire on protesters, carried out large-scale arrests of bloggers and other journalists as well as members of the political opposition, and evicted communities from their land to make way for opaque development projects. Finally, while several countries in the Middle East—most notably oil-rich Saudi Arabia—receive special treatment from the United States and others, the United Arab Emirates stands out for how little international attention is paid to its systematic denial of rights for foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of the population; its enforcement of one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world; and its dynastic political system, which leaves no space for opposition.

Democracy's Opponents
photo of Ramiz Mehdiyev
In the ‘Arab Spring,’ these people were instructed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

– Azerbaijani presidential chief of staff Ramiz Mehdiyev, December 2014

(Source: http://www.azadliq.org/content/article/26738991.html. Photo: OEA - OAS, 2011)

Global findings

The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2014 stood at 89, representing 46 percent of the world’s 195 polities and nearly 2.9 billion people—or 40 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries increased by one from the previous year’s report.

The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 55, or 28 percent of all countries assessed, and they were home to just over 1.7 billion people, or 24 percent of the world’s total. The number of Partly Free countries decreased by four from the previous year.

A total of 51 countries were deemed Not Free, representing 26 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 2.6 billion people, or 36 percent of the global population, though it is important to note that more than half of this number lives in just one country: China. The number of Not Free countries increased by three from 2013.

The number of electoral democracies stood at 125, three more than in 2013. Five countries achieved electoral democracy status: Fiji, Kosovo, Madagascar, the Maldives, and the Solomon Islands. Two countries, Libya and Thailand, lost their designation as electoral democracies.

Tunisia rose from Partly Free to Free, while Guinea- Bissau improved from Not Free to Partly Free. Four countries fell from Partly Free to Not Free: Burundi, Libya, Thailand, and Uganda.