Regional Trends & Countries in the Spotlight
Freedom in the World 2022 marked the 16th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. See this year's regional trends, status changes, and report data.
Freedom in the World 2022 Status Change Explanations
- Ecuador: Ecuador’s status improved from Partly Free to Free because the year’s presidential and legislative elections did not suffer from the types of abuses seen in previous contests, such as the misuse of public resources, and resulted in an orderly transfer of power between rival parties.
- Guinea: Guinea’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free because military commanders seized power in a coup, removing President Alpha Condé and dissolving the legislature.
- Haiti: Haiti’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, an ongoing breakdown in the electoral system and other state institutions, and the corrosive effects of organized crime and violence on civic life.
- Peru: Peru’s status improved from Partly Free to Free because the successful election of a new president and Congress served to ease, at least temporarily, a pattern of institutional clashes between the executive and legislative branches that had disrupted governance for a number of years.
- Tunisia: Tunisia’s status declined from Free to Partly Free because President Kaïs Saïed unilaterally dismissed and replaced the elected government, indefinitely suspended the parliament, and imposed harsh restrictions on civil liberties to suppress opposition to his actions.
Improving Transparency, Empowering Citizens: Ecuador’s Fundación Ciudadanía y Desarrollo
In a year when 60 countries suffered democratic declines and 25 made gains, Ecuador beat the odds.
Countries in the Spotlight
The following countries featured important developments in 2021 that affected their democratic trajectory, and deserve special scrutiny in 2022.
- Chile: Elections for a constitutional convention and the presidency proceeded with few problems and high levels of legitimacy, bucking a trend of polarization and gridlock that has thwarted reforms in other democracies in recent years.
- Iran: Hard-line candidate Ebrahim Raisi won the presidency after the unelected Guardian Council disqualified all of his major opponents, and record-low turnout signaled voters’ frustration with the tightly controlled process.
- Iraq: Iranian political influence dwindled as pro-Iran parties with links to militia groups experienced defeats in parliamentary elections that featured fewer irregularities than past contests.
- Myanmar: The military seized power in a coup to prevent the sitting of a newly elected parliament after its favored party was defeated, then used lethal violence to suppress a determined prodemocracy protest movement.
- Nicaragua: President Daniel Ortega ensured his own reelection by escalating his government’s attacks on civil society and overseeing the arrest of several opposition candidates.
- Russia: President Vladimir Putin’s regime expanded its crackdown on political opponents and civil society organizations, thwarting any genuine competition in the September parliamentary elections.
- Slovenia: The country suffered a significant decline in civil liberties as Prime Minister Janez Janša’s populist government increased its hostility toward civil society groups and the media and continued to undermine independent institutions and the rule of law.
- Sudan: A military coup blocked the country’s transition to full civilian rule and democratic elections, leading the “March of Millions” movement to demand change in defiance of bloody crackdowns.
- Thailand: As youth-led protests calling for constitutional reform continued, the government, headed by leaders of the most recent military coup, ramped up prosecutions of demonstrators for violating lèse-majesté laws.
- Zambia: Highly motivated voters turned out to ensure victory for opposition presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema, overcoming obstacles that included social media shutdowns, restrictions on movement, and political violence.
Country Scores & Narratives
Freedom in the World rates people’s access to political rights and civil liberties in 195 countries and 15 territories, providing both numerical ratings and supporting descriptive texts. Visit our Countries in Detail page to view all Freedom in the World 2022 scores and read individual country narratives.
Citizens mobilize for change amid coups, crackdowns on dissent
Political crises and power grabs further compromised the struggle for democratic progress in Africa, most notably through the resurgence in military coups that affected Chad, Guinea, Mali, and Sudan. An attempted coup in Niger nearly sabotaged that country’s first-ever democratic transfer of power, which ultimately took place after the alleged perpetrators were arrested.
In a number of other countries, opposition figures faced increased obstacles as governments deployed a slew of new “antiterrorist” measures that effectively suppressed dissent. In Ethiopia, a state of emergency granted broad powers to the security forces, allowing the arbitrary detention of anyone suspected of cooperating with terrorist groups. Members of the ethnic Tigrayan minority, whose home region is at the center of the country’s ongoing civil conflict, were often targeted. Democracy in Benin continued to decline as opposition presidential contenders Joel Aivo and Reckya Madougou were sentenced to lengthy prison terms on charges of financing terrorism. Such politicized prosecutions and other legal tactics were used to prevent a total of 17 out of 20 candidates from running in the country’s presidential election. In Tanzania, where Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan rose to the presidency after years of crackdowns on the media and civil society under her late predecessor, hopes for reform were dashed as opposition leader Freeman Mbowe and several of his allies were detained and charged with conspiracy to commit terrorism.
Similar charges of terrorism and “incitement” were used to undermine press freedom across North Africa, with multiple Algerian and Egyptian journalists detained for their reporting. In Senegal, a new antiterrorism law broadly defined “disturbing public order” as a form of terrorism, impeding freedom of assembly for ordinary citizens. The space for critical speech significantly diminished during the year due to restrictions on the internet and social media. At least 10 African countries faced internet shutdowns or social media blocks in 2021, including in Uganda ahead of its general elections, in parts of Ethiopia where the conflict has reportedly led to severe human rights abuses, and in Eswatini and Sudan, which experienced large prodemocracy protests.
Despite these headwinds, citizens across Africa repeatedly seized on elections as an opportunity for democratic change. The territory of Somaliland held long-delayed parliamentary and local elections that were deemed relatively free and fair, resulting in a peaceful transfer of power from the ruling party to an opposition coalition. In Côte d’Ivoire, the parliamentary elections represented a marked improvement over the 2020 presidential contest, with greater opposition participation and less violence. South African voters supported more opposition candidates in recent municipal elections, registering their discontent with corruption and poor economic performance. And Zambians shocked the continent by turning out in huge numbers to vault opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema to the presidency. In doing so they overcame major barriers intended to benefit the ruling party, including social media blackouts, assembly restrictions attributed to COVID-19, and violence by security forces.
As some cast ballots for new leaders, others vote with their feet
Elections in the Americas served as an inflection point, with some countries adopting electoral reforms that enabled changes in leadership, and others suffering as incumbents sought to entrench themselves in office. In many cases, residents of states where democracy was lacking chose to migrate abroad in search of better conditions.
A 2019 special election in Honduras increased the participation of opposition parties in election management, and the so-called Project Identify Yourself improved voter registration systems. In 2021, these reforms plus a large voter turnout resulted in the defeat of President Juan Orlando Hernández, who had been implicated in corruption and drug-trafficking scandals. Ecuador also strengthened its electoral framework in the years leading up to the 2021 election, passing reforms that allowed minority parties to gain seats in the legislature and applying recommendations from the Organization of American States. The well-organized contest contributed to the country’s status change from Partly Free to Free.
Meanwhile, authoritarian leader Daniel Ortega secured a new term in Nicaragua’s presidential election by overseeing the arbitrary arrests of opposition candidates, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro continued to prioritize his grip on power over the population’s socioeconomic well-being, and Cuban security forces violently repressed protests calling for democratic freedoms. Unsurprisingly, all three countries generated large numbers of migrants and political exiles during the year, as did Haiti, where President Jovenel Moïse’s assassination underscored long-standing problems including a broken electoral system, corruption, and organized crime. These migrants have reported facing discrimination and other abuses during their journeys and in destination countries, but they continue to leave as governance in their home countries deteriorates.
The walls close in on political opposition and free speech
Political rights and civil liberties declined across the region as authoritarian forces moved to consolidate their power. The trend was most dramatic in Afghanistan and Myanmar, where elected civilian leaders were forced from office by the Taliban and the military, respectively.
The space for opposition forces to operate narrowed in many other settings. In Hong Kong, prominent prodemocracy politicians were arrested at the beginning of the year for participating in primary elections designed to unify the democratic opposition, then remained behind bars during the tightly controlled Legislative Council balloting in December. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party also tried to limit the opposition’s ability to compete through various methods, including by pursuing selective corruption investigations. A small but notable exception in the Asia-Pacific region was Samoa, where an opposition party won enough seats to form a government for the first time in four decades, and the courts compelled the ruling party to accept defeat.
Crackdowns on political dissent in Asia also affected journalists and civil society movements, particularly in countries whose democratic institutions were already under attack. Singaporean authorities forced one of the city-state’s few remaining independent news outlets to shut down by suspending its license. In Thailand, where a prodemocracy protest movement grew more active in the middle of the year, authorities issued a broadly worded regulation to expand their ability to prosecute individuals for distributing news deemed to incite fear in the public. In China, one of the world’s most restrictive media environments, journalists faced heightened scrutiny and rigorous political indoctrination when attempting to renew their press licenses, and even individuals who engaged in solitary forms of protest were punished with prison sentences.
Democracy stalls in the Kremlin’s shadow
Democratic forces struggled in 2021 as Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia exerted its authoritarian influence throughout Eurasia. Within its borders, the Russian government used expanded “foreign agent” laws to sideline human rights groups and activists, culminating in an order to close the widely respected organization Memorial. The regime placed its neighbors—and much of the world—on alert at year’s end by amassing troops near Ukraine’s eastern border. Meanwhile, despite improvements in freedom of assembly, domestic politics in Ukraine were bogged down by stalled efforts to uproot corruption and the controversial prosecution of former president Petro Poroshenko.
From Kyrgyzstan to Belarus, incumbent leaders turned to the Kremlin as a model for authoritarian laws and tactics. Kyrgyzstan’s government enacted legislation to impose onerous restrictions on nongovernmental organizations that receive funding from abroad. The country’s parliamentary elections were also marred by accusations of fraud and inadequate adjudication of disputes, exacerbating a rapid deterioration in political rights. In Belarus, authoritarian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka sought greater integration with Russia and oversaw the liquidation of more than 200 civil society organizations as he attempted to extinguish political opposition and independent civic activism.
Elsewhere in the region, incremental progress was offset by democratic erosion or dismal repression. Armenia, still reeling in the aftermath of its 2020 war with Azerbaijan, approved reforms to the electoral code that will improve transparency and fairness. The political system appeared to stabilize somewhat after snap parliamentary elections, though criminal cases against local opposition figures late in the year raised concerns that the country’s democracy remained on shaky ground. Freedom in Georgia, one of the top-performing countries in Eurasia, suffered as journalists, LGBT+ people, and opposition supporters faced growing intimidation and violence. In Turkmenistan, the autocratic government continued to completely deny the presence of COVID-19 in the country—part of a broader lack of transparency in Eurasian governments’ pandemic responses.
Open societies struggle to ward off illiberal pressure
Although Europe remained the best-performing region in Freedom in the World 2022, established democracies endured a deepening crisis of faith amid a rise in illiberal practices across the European Union (EU).
In Slovenia, the government withheld funding from the independent Slovenian Press Agency and targeted the financing of nongovernmental organizations as part of a broader effort to silence its critics. In Hungary, the parliament dealt a blow to the rights of LGBT+ people by adopting legislation that bans the portrayal or promotion of homosexuality to minors in media content and schools. The law, reminiscent of similar measures in Russia, was swiftly condemned by the European Parliament and many EU member states. The Polish government continued its assault on judicial independence, in part by defying an order from the European Court of Justice to disband a flawed new disciplinary chamber in Poland’s Supreme Court. The Polish constitutional court’s ruling against the primacy of EU law, meanwhile, set the stage for further clashes with the European Commission.
Outside the EU, there were some examples of uneasy progress, as with the improvements under Montenegro’s fragile new coalition government. On balance, however, antidemocratic forces appeared to have the upper hand. In Turkey, which once again ranked as the least free country in the region, authorities responded violently to a student protest movement centered on Boğaziçi University and separate demonstrations by advocates of equal rights for women and LGBT+ people. Ankara’s undue political influence in Northern Cyprus continued to grow, and the functioning of the territory’s parliament was disrupted by opposition boycotts.
Authoritarians prevail a decade after the Arab Spring
The 10-year anniversary of the Arab Spring uprisings passed quietly in 2021, with democratic progress largely stalled across an almost uniformly authoritarian Middle East.
A number of highly repressive states held elections that were neither free nor fair. Iran’s presidential election featured record-low turnout as voters rejected a tightly managed process in which all significant challengers to the regime-backed candidate were disqualified by the unelected Guardian Council. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad won reelection with a purported 95 percent of the vote in balloting that also lacked any meaningful competition. While Iraq’s parliamentary elections were genuinely competitive and had fewer irregularities than in the past, due in part to the presence of independent observers, there were still reports of vote buying, intimidation, and media suppression. Legislative elections were held for the first time in Qatar, but the contest was highly circumscribed by the emir’s government, and thousands of Qataris were excluded from voting under restrictive eligibility rules.
Already limited space for civic activism continued to shrink in the region. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli authorities designated six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations. Months earlier, protests that began in East Jerusalem in response to the displacement of Palestinian residents spread to Israeli cities and towns and touched off discriminatory police violence, vigilantism, and intercommunal strife. Though protests are infrequent in the repressive Persian Gulf monarchies, peaceful protesters in Bahrain staged a sit-in at a prison to highlight inhumane treatment and lack of medical care for detainees, and security personnel used excessive force to disperse the gathering. More positively, when Oman experienced rare demonstrations against poor economic conditions, the reaction from authorities was mild compared with past crackdowns.
Economic exploitation of migrant workers and refugees continued to drag down human rights standards in the Middle East. The economic crisis in Lebanon has led to an increase in forced child labor, particularly among the Syrian refugee population, and a similar trend has been ongoing in neighboring Jordan. Exploitation is especially problematic in countries with kafala (sponsorship) systems that give employers undue control over migrant workers, and some governments have taken incremental steps to reform these laws. In 2021, Saudi Arabia began allowing foreign workers to leave the country without approval from their sponsors, but government approval is still required, and key categories of workers were excluded from the change.
Democracies and private sector actors should work to support core democratic principles and basic human rights at home and around the world.