Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom under Pressure
The world was battered by 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 developments contributed to the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
- The number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year—72—was the largest since the 10-year slide began. Just 43 countries made gains.
- Over the past 10 years, 105 countries have seen a net decline, and only 61 have experienced a net improvement.
- Ratings for the Middle East and North Africa region were the worst in the world in 2015, followed closely by Eurasia.
- Over the last decade, the most significant global reversals have been in freedom of expression and the rule of law.
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 interplay 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 Islamic 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 Bernardino, 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 well-being of repressive petro-states 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 Nicolás 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 opposition 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, Goodluck 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 overwhelming victory in parliamentary elections for longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), a remarkable turnaround in a country that until recently ranked among the world’s most repressive.
Voters in Sri Lanka ousted their increasingly authoritarian 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, Néstor 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 experiencing 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 democracies 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.
Notable developments in 2015
In addition to those described above, five major phenomena stood out during the year:
Overstaying their welcome: Leaders in several countries maneuvered to extend their terms in office during 2015. Most prominent among these was Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza, whose decision to run for a constitutionally dubious third term—which he won amid an opposition boycott in July—led to large-scale political violence. Similar schemes were in the works in Bolivia, Ecuador, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Rwanda. Although none of these countries has yet seen the violence experienced by Burundi, the moves all serve to perpetuate the rule of entrenched incumbents and deny citizens their right to freely choose their leaders. Meanwhile, Lebanon again failed to hold legislative elections after sitting lawmakers postponed them in both 2013 and 2014, citing disagreements over the electoral laws and security concerns stemming from the Syrian conflict. Governments in Afghanistan, Somaliland, and South Sudan similarly blamed stalled electoral reforms or security problems when delaying scheduled elections.
Threats to democracy in Central America: Vicious criminal gangs, political violence, and systemic corruption pose a growing threat to freedom and democracy in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The negative trend, though already well under way by 2015, represents a wake-up call for the region, which for years enjoyed comparative political stability after overcoming decades of civil war and military rule. In Guatemala, although prosecutors and protesters forced the president to resign and face corruption charges during the year, the case was built on the work of international investigators, and the subsequent elections featured violence and intimidation. Moreover, observers raised concerns about ties between the military and the party of the new president, Jimmy Morales. In Nicaragua, unlike in the other countries, the main threat to democracy is the political and institutional dominance of the ruling Sandinista party. Over the past several years, the Sandinistas have gained considerable control over the judiciary and security forces, abolished term limits, and shown an intolerance for dissent. Nicaragua also suffers from a cozy relationship between political elites and economic enterprise.
Lack of progress for women: More than 20 years after members of the United Nations met in Beijing to establish principles for advancing gender equality, women remain at a distinct disadvantage around the world in terms of political rights and civil liberties. Despite modest increases in women’s political representation and the election of a number of female heads of government, examples of genuine progress are few and far between. The very limited steps that were hailed as victories in 2015—that women in Saudi Arabia, who must still obtain a male guardian’s permission to conduct many basic daily activities, were finally able to participate in tightly controlled elections for largely powerless municipal councils, or that a ridiculously outdated law criminalizing adultery was struck down in South Korea—demonstrated just how low the bar has gotten in evaluating progress toward gender equality. Meanwhile, in many parts of the world, women’s economic aspirations and the broader economies of their countries continue to suffer from unequal rights to property and inheritance as well as discriminatory practices that prevent women from working outside the home.
Gridlock in the Balkans: Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo all suffered from crippling government dysfunction in 2015. Macedonia’s ruling party was implicated in electoral fraud and an expansive wiretapping scandal, exacerbating a bitter political standoff with the opposition that ultimately required the EU to step in and broker snap elections for 2016. In Kosovo, lawmakers opposed to a deal on normalizing relations with Serbia repeatedly halted parliamentary debate by releasing tear gas within the chamber and pelting ruling party members with eggs. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government, hampered by a complex, ineffective framework established under the 1995 peace accords, remained incapable of addressing the relentless obstructionism and endemic corruption that have plagued it ever since. Tensions were further aggravated when officials in the Republika Srpska, one of the country’s two constituent entities, rejected the authority of the national police, courts, and prosecutors, and began planning a referendum on the legitimacy of the national judiciary. Such disputes precluded democratic gains in all three countries, and ensured that EU accession remained a distant prospect. Conversely, Montenegro’s progress toward EU membership, even as the entrenched government of Prime Minister Milo Đukanović sanctioned the harassment of independent media, tarnished the bloc’s image as a purveyor of good governance and democratic norms.
Unfinished business: Although the world’s attention turned to new disasters during 2015, many of the previous year’s most dramatic setbacks for freedom continued to fester. Thailand’s post-coup government officially lifted martial law, but the military junta remained in complete control of the political system and continued to hunt down and punish any who expressed dissent. The government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, formalized in 2014 after the 2013 coup, finally allowed parliamentary elections, but they were marred by large-scale rigging, criminalization of and boycotts by opposition parties, and a tight grip on the media. Meanwhile, an Islamist insurgency continued to gain momentum amid unchecked abuses by security forces. Crimea, which dominated global headlines after Russia’s invasion in 2014, languished in a grim status quo, and de facto Russian control of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine was solidified in both military and economic terms. Finally, South Sudan’s bloody civil war continued throughout the year despite a series of attempted cease-fires, subjecting the population to massacres, rapes, and large-scale displacement.
MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA:
Regime Security Over Public Safety
The conflicts raging across the Middle East and North Africa began in large part because entrenched rulers put their own interests and security above the safety and well-being of their people. In the countries that remain at peace, many leaders still embrace the same short-sighted priorities, raising the risk that they too could descend into disorder.
Although the Egyptian regime’s self-defeating drive against dissent—a violent campaign enabled by American and Gulf state aid—has been widely criticized, a number of other Middle Eastern states have escaped international attention while they quietly clamp down on already limited political participation and civil liberties. These include Morocco and Kuwait, where journalists and civil society activists found themselves under fresh assault in 2015. The United Arab Emirates sought to further restrict scrutiny of the country’s abhorrent labor conditions by denying entry to academic researchers, and Bahrain’s government, with little pushback from its U.S. ally, continued its shameful efforts to silence the opposition by stripping its leading critics, most of them Shiites, of their citizenship.
Saudi Arabia, one of the worst human rights abusers in the world, increased the number of executions to its highest level in 20 years, and tried to cover up its failure to safeguard participants in the annual Hajj pilgrimage after a stampede killed more than 2,400 people. The kingdom’s military campaign in neighboring Yemen showed a similar indifference toward protecting innocent lives.
Undergirding all of these cases is a model of governance that erodes the kind of long-term and inclusive stability the region desperately needs. By sacrificing public safety for regime security, these governments alienate and anger their citizens, squander public resources, and enfeeble the institutions that are necessary for sustainable political and economic development.
Also in 2015, relations between Israel and Palestinians remained combustible. In the aftermath of the previous year’s war between Israel and Hamas, which caused the deaths of over 2,100 Palestinians and 73 Israelis, the peace process was moribund. Right-leaning Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu won reelection in March, and the deeply divided Palestinian political institutions in the West Bank and Gaza were in disarray. The administration of President Barack Obama reportedly concluded that it would be unable to make significant progress on peace talks during the remainder of its term. Meanwhile, individual Palestinians carried out a series of knife and vehicular attacks on Israeli Jews, and Israeli security personnel responded with deadly force.
Struggling With Term Limits And Terrorism
Democratic setbacks and violence triggered by African leaders’ manipulation of term limits were offset by successful elections and peaceful transfers of power in key countries during 2015. Meanwhile, nations across the Sahelian belt from Mali to Kenya continued to grapple with threats from Islamist militants.
Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to run for a third term sparked civil unrest, a failed coup, and political violence that threatened to spiral into civil war. In neighboring Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame has efficiently closed the space for political opposition or critical viewpoints, Senate approval and a successful national referendum cleared the way for Kagame to potentially remain in office until 2034. And an October constitutional referendum allowed longtime Congo Republic president Denis Sassou-Nguesso to forego term limits and run to extend his rule in 2016, triggering the largest antigovernment demonstration since 1992.
Burkina Faso recovered from a September military coup by supporters of ousted president Blaise Compaoré, who in 2014 had tried to change the constitution and extend his own 27-year rule, leading to a popular uprising. The country went on to hold its most successful presidential and legislative elections ever, marking a turning point in its political transition and serving as an example for other nations contending with leaders who attempt to overstay their mandates. Tanzania, whose presidents have consistently honored the two-term limit, held its most competitive elections since its transition to multiparty rule in the early 1990s, with ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) candidate John Magufuli winning 58 percent of the vote. However, it was unclear whether Magufuli would reform laws passed earlier in the year that severely restricted freedom of expression.
While a deadly terrorist attack on a luxury hotel in Bamako in November triggered a state of emergency in Mali, there were few reports that the government used the incident to restrict citizens’ basic freedoms. However, elsewhere in the region, violations of civil liberties and the rule of law continued in the fight against Boko Haram, which spread from northeastern Nigeria to parts of Cameroon and Chad. In the wake of yet another attack by Somalia’s Shabaab militant group, which in April killed nearly 150 people at Garissa University College in northeastern Kenya, the government in Nairobi continued its ham-fisted domestic counterterrorism campaign. This included alleged extrajudicial killings and disappearances, as well as a crackdown on nongovernmental organizations and critical media.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia used the war on terrorism to justify a deadly crackdown on protests against forced displacement in the Oromia region in November and December, as well as ongoing repression of political opponents, journalists, bloggers, and activists.
Religious Nationalism Linked To Political Tensions
In a wide range of Asian countries, there was a correlation in 2015 between strained political institutions and various forms of religious nationalism or extremism.
India’s Hindu nationalist government, under pressure to deliver on its 2014 campaign promises, generally failed to curb a rise in anti-Muslim violence and intimidation, at times appearing to encourage or take advantage of religious divisions for political gain. In Bangladesh, as the major political parties continued their bitter standoff, Islamist radicals carried out a series of attacks on secular writers, foreigners, and Shiites.
The authorities in Malaysia stepped up enforcement of conservative dress codes and persecution of LGBT people at a time when the ruling party was reeling from a major corruption scandal. And in the tiny, oil-dependent sultanate of Brunei, the government restricted minority religious displays and moved toward implementation of a harsh new criminal code based on Sharia.
Anti-Muslim discrimination in Myanmar remained a serious problem during the year, and it was unclear whether a new NLD government would take the political risk of defending Muslims’ fundamental rights. However, the failure of Buddhist nationalists to drum up voter support for the military-backed ruling party was a promising sign. The influence of Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka clearly waned after that country’s change in leadership, with the newly elected administration promising a more inclusive model of governance.
Migrant Crisis Threatens Solidarity, Democratic Standards
The migration crisis in Europe put unprecedented pressure on the EU’s fundamental principles of liberty, solidarity, and respect for human rights. The massive influx of people not only exposed areas of weak institutional capacity across the region, but also cast doubt on the EU’s ability to maintain high democratic standards among current and aspiring member states in a time of rising populism.
The year began with the January election victory of the left-populist Syriza party in Greece, whose anti-EU rhetoric struck a chord with voters after years of externally imposed austerity. Although the new government was eventually forced to comply with its creditors’ demands, important underlying problems—including governance deficiencies and a debt load that many view as unsustainable—have yet to be addressed. Nevertheless, the attention of Brussels had shifted to the migrants by the second half of 2015.
The EU’s attempts to distribute responsibility for the settlement of refugees across the union met with resistance throughout the bloc, particularly from Central and Eastern Europe. These countries’ blatant rejection of solidarity with asylum seekers and fellow member states, despite their own 20th-century histories of repression, foreign domination, and mass dislocation on the one hand, and the benefits they received from the EU on the other, represented a stinging blow to the European project.
The bloc’s broader retreat from the goal of bolstering democratic values was underscored by its renewed interest in Turkey’s membership bid, which had stalled for years as Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan exhibited increasingly authoritarian behavior. EU negotiators, seeking Turkey’s assistance in stemming the migrant flow to Europe, apparently turned a blind eye to Erdoğan’s repressive actions during 2015, including assaults on critical media and indiscriminate military operations in urban areas in the southeast in advance of the November elections.
In Pursuit Of False Stability
While elections have served as an avenue to recovery for many ill-governed countries, several Eurasian states held national polls in 2015 that served as exhibitions of the unfettered power of longtime incumbents. Faced with slumping economies and security threats linked to foreign conflicts, these regimes sought to fortify themselves against any remaining opposition or dissent.
In Tajikistan, for example, the government of President Emomali Rahmon, who has ruled the country since 1992, ensured that the opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT) lost all of its seats in legislative elections. The authorities then intensified their assault on the party over the subsequent months, revoking its registration, detaining its leaders, and effectively incapacitating what had been Central Asia’s only legal Islamist political grouping.
Tightly controlled legislative elections in Azerbaijan, which followed another year of intense suppression of civil society, resulted in a hollow victory for the ruling party, with most opposition groups boycotting the vote. President Ilham Aliyev’s government used the polls to show its teeth to the democratic world, barring several foreign journalists from covering the process and imposing restrictions on international observer groups that led some to suspend their monitoring missions.
In contrast, a deeply flawed election in Belarus actually seemed to improve President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s standing with democratic powers. His release of political prisoners before the vote, and the absence of violence in its aftermath, eased the way for plans by the United States and the EU—wavering in their determination to press for true liberalization—to reduce sanctions against Belarusian individuals and entities. There is little chance that Lukashenka’s actions are signs of a genuine thaw. Rather, his gestures toward the West seem motivated by growing fears of Russian bellicosity and economic weakness.
Populists On The Defensive, Little Progress In Cuba
There were several important developments in Latin America during 2015.
First, although the populist left suffered major electoral reversals in Venezuela and Argentina, incumbent leaders in the region made clear their intention to remain in power. Thus in the wake of his party’s overwhelming defeat in Venezuela’s parliamentary elections, President Nicolás Maduro took steps to pack the Supreme Court and threatened to refuse to carry out decisions of the new legislative majority. In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa moved forward with a proposal to eliminate term limits and seek a fourth term in office in 2017. Similar plans were under way in Bolivia, and Nicaragua had already abolished term limits in 2014.
Second, a number of regional heads of state were undermined by corruption scandals or an inability to stem violent crime. In Brazil, a democracy hard hit by the crash in commodities prices, President Dilma Rousseff faced impeachment efforts in the wake of a bribery scandal at the national oil company; Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet was seriously weakened by a corruption case that implicated her son; and Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto was politically crippled due to a series of graft allegations and the persistence of organized crime in parts of the country.
Finally, little progress was made toward democratic reform in Cuba despite the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States. There was a modest expansion of rights for religious believers and private business owners, and more Cubans exercised their new ability to travel abroad. But the political system remained closed to all but Communist Party loyalists, and freedom of expression was highly restricted. Nor were prospects especially bright for significant change in the immediate future. The administration of U.S. president Barack Obama urged patience with Cuba’s pace of political change, and negotiations between Washington and Havana concentrated on removing other roadblocks to the lifting of the American trade embargo.
Countries to Watch in 2016
The following countries are among those that may be approaching important turning points in their democratic trajectory and deserve special scrutiny in the coming year.
- Angola: Squeezed by low oil prices, Angola’s autocratic government is likely to intensify suppression of dissent and expand surveillance of private citizens.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina: The country could face even worse government dysfunction if a planned Bosnian Serb referendum on the national court’s legitimacy takes place.
- Democratic Republic of Congo: With the army poised to crush protests, President Kabila is considering a constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek a third term in 2016.
- Iran: Moderate reformists are preparing for critical February elections to the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that appoints the supreme leader.
- Kuwait: Authorities are quashing dissent with increasing aggression and frequency, galvanizing concerns about citizenship revocation and use of the death penalty.
- Malaysia: Political repression in Malaysia could intensify as the prime minister faces increasing pressure over an embezzlement scandal.
- Myanmar: Once the newly elected legislature is seated and a government is formed, the National League for Democracy will be under pressure to deliver on its promises.
- Nigeria: Observers will be able to assess President Buhari’s first year in office, including his efforts to combat entrenched corruption and Boko Haram militants.
- Poland: The initial actions of the Law and Justice government in 2015, including attempts to stack key institutions with partisan loyalists, raise serious concerns about Poland’s trajectory.
- Venezuela: Although the opposition triumphed in the legislative elections, it will need a well-crafted strategy to enact reforms in light of possible resistance by President Maduro.
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