Regional Trends & Countries in the Spotlight
Freedom in the World 2023 marked the 17th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. See this year's regional trends, status changes, and report data.
Countries in the Spotlight
The following countries featured important developments in 2022 that affected their democratic trajectory, and they deserve special scrutiny in 2023.
Armenia: Azerbaijani forces continued to attack and occupy Armenian territory along the border, threatening the democratic government in Yerevan and raising the risk of full-scale war.
Brazil: Challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won a presidential runoff against incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, but the outgoing president’s supporters rejected the results and called for a military coup.
Haiti: A government with no electoral mandate sought international support amid persistent protests and a growing humanitarian crisis, with gang violence displacing tens of thousands of residents.
Israel: Elections resulted in a new government with far-right elements, and critics warned that its policy agenda could undermine judicial independence and other core elements of democracy.
Kenya: William Ruto’s election as president, and the peaceful transfer of power that followed, marked a major improvement over the disputed contest of 2017 and strengthened Kenya’s democratic credentials.
Poland: The ruling Law and Justice party grappled with the European Commission over judicial independence concerns as it prepared for crucial parliamentary elections in late 2023.
Solomon Islands: After signing a security pact with Beijing, the government asserted control over the media and postponed general elections from 2023 to 2024.
Sri Lanka: Following protests over a worsening economic crisis, the president and prime minister fled their posts, and the ruling party was due to face frustrated voters in 2023 local elections.
Turkey: The government manipulated electoral laws and imposed harsh penalties for “disinformation” as it worked to fend off the opposition ahead of planned 2023 general elections.
United Kingdom: The ruling Conservative Party cycled through three prime ministers in two months, advanced new restrictions on strikes and protests, and attempted to remove certain asylum seekers to Rwanda.
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 2023 scores and read individual country narratives.
Transfers of power, for better or worse
Changes in leadership were a major tension point in Africa over the past year. Chronic problems such as corruption and misgovernance, combined with the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, have left African states more vulnerable to irregular seizures of power by military or executive officials. Despite these threats, however, several countries held free and fair elections that ushered in new governments and reinforced democratic institutions.
In Burkina Faso, the year’s two military coups eliminated many of the gains from a 2014 political transition, sidelined electoral bodies and accountability mechanisms, and exacerbated a security crisis in which Islamist militant activity has displaced millions of people. But the country is not an outlier in the region: coup attempts were also made during 2022 in Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and São Tomé and Príncipe.
Past coups have had lasting repercussions for political rights and civil liberties. In Guinea, the military junta that took control in 2021 has delayed a planned return to civilian rule until January 2025, incarcerated its critics, and brutally repressed street protests. Similarly, in the wake of Mali’s 2021 coup, the military authorities scrapped elections that had been scheduled for February 2022. Under international pressure, they announced a transition plan that would culminate in a presidential vote in 2024. Tunisian president Kaïs Saïed, who had asserted extraordinary powers and suspended the parliament in 2021, pressed ahead with his unilateral overhaul of the political system, mounting a flawed constitutional referendum and parliamentary elections that were boycotted by the opposition and the vast majority of eligible voters.
Other power transfers have been far more democratic. Kenya’s election featured increased transparency, fresh evidence of judicial independence, and a peaceful handover of the presidency from one political bloc to another. The process represented a stark improvement over previous balloting, which has repeatedly been marred by ethnic violence, electoral misconduct, and politicians’ refusal to accept defeat. In Lesotho, a newly established party secured a legitimate victory in general elections, and Zambia’s successful rotation of power through elections in 2021 led to some progress in the fight against corruption, greater transparency and access to information, and fewer restrictions on freedom of assembly in 2022.
Countries with a record of respecting term limits and ensuring orderly presidential succession exhibited notable signs of good governance during the year. In Botswana, President Mokgweetsi Masisi held a historic meeting with representatives of a leading LGBT+ rights organization and promised to work toward decriminalizing same-sex relations. Liberia’s government implemented new initiatives to counter human trafficking, which have led to successful prosecutions. And under President Samia Suluhu Hassan in Tanzania, civil society groups enjoyed somewhat more space to operate after a period of intense repression under the previous administration. These examples underscore the potential for further democratic gains in the region if the virtuous circle of free elections and policy improvements is allowed to take hold.
Despite successful elections, freedom remains in jeopardy
Although Freedom in the World has recorded the downfall of many long-standing dictatorships in the Americas over the last 50 years, the countries of the region continue to grapple with serious threats to political stability and fundamental rights. The relaxation of harsh or abusively enforced COVID-19 restrictions resulted in some improvements to freedom of movement in 2022, but dire political, economic, and humanitarian crises in repressive settings such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have reignited mass emigration. Independent media are also under pressure as powerful figures resist public scrutiny: authorities in Guatemala arrested the founder and president of one of the country’s most prominent newspapers, and journalists in Uruguay faced threats and lawsuits for their reporting.
Rotations of power through elections continued to provide opportunities for democratic progress, though the risk of antidemocratic breakdowns persisted. Free, fair, and competitive balloting in two of the region’s most populous countries led to victories for opposition candidates. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro became the nation’s first left-wing president, and his running mate, Francia Márquez, became the first Black woman to serve as vice president. Another leftist challenger, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, defeated incumbent Jair Bolsonaro for the presidency of Brazil, and calls for a military coup to reverse this outcome were rebuffed amid violence by Bolsonaro’s supporters. But Pedro Castillo, who rose from obscurity to become Peru’s president in 2021, was impeached and arrested after an unsuccessful attempt to dissolve Congress, leaving his successor, former vice president Dina Boluarte, to cope with widespread protests and a lethal crackdown by security forces.
Perennial weaknesses in the rule of law remained a challenge for many countries in the region. Amid a prolonged political vacuum in Haiti, gangs took over the capital and violently restricted people’s freedom of movement and access to basic resources. President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador declared a state of exception and suspended constitutional rights as part of a crackdown on gangs. The resulting arbitrary arrests, deaths in custody, lack of due process, and restrictions on speech severely damaged civil liberties. In neighboring Honduras, President Xiomara Castro similarly announced a state of exception and suspended constitutional protections in many neighborhoods, ordering the military to lead the campaign against gang violence. These official responses were aimed at addressing a genuine threat to public security, but their undemocratic methods made a poor foundation for the observance of basic freedoms in the future.
Democracy movements contend with authoritarian retrenchment
While some countries in the Asia-Pacific region have overcome decades of dictatorship to establish resilient democracies, authoritarian forces elsewhere continue to push back against domestic calls for liberty and justice.
Examples of progress in 2022 were largely driven by prodemocracy political movements and small improvements in judicial independence, anticorruption efforts, and freedom of movement. In Sri Lanka, protesters persevered through police violence and ultimately forced the resignation of the long-dominant Rajapaksa family from their multiple positions in government, though years of mismanagement left the country with serious economic and governance challenges. In Malaysia, the results of general elections offered the promise of political and social reforms, and the judiciary displayed increased independence by upholding the 2020 corruption conviction of former prime minister Najib Razak.
The Philippines also held elections, and while the son of a former dictator won the presidency, the competitive campaign had the effect of mobilizing millions of young voters. In Myanmar, broad-based resistance to the military junta that ousted elected leaders in 2021 kept the regime from consolidating control over the country or gaining international legitimacy.
Residents of several countries, including India and Australia, enjoyed greater freedom of movement following the rollback of COVID-19 restrictions. However, democratic rights in India remain under pressure, particularly for marginalized groups, with authorities in Uttar Pradesh responding to Muslim-led protests by demolishing the property of Muslim citizens. In Vietnam, a one-party state where freedom is still heavily restricted, the government made notable efforts to combat COVID-19-related corruption, including by investigating and prosecuting officials implicated in price-fixing and bribery scandals.
Despite these limited gains, the freedoms of expression, belief, and association came under attack in other settings from across the democratic spectrum. In the Solomon Islands, the government asserted greater financial and editorial control over the public broadcaster and threatened to prevent critical foreign journalists from entering the country. Religious freedom was hamstrung in Hong Kong amid broader crackdowns on dissent, with some churches and clergy self-censoring their sermons and limiting other religious activity. In Afghanistan, the Taliban regime dealt another blow to academic freedom and gender equality by extensively censoring educational materials and barring women from attending universities.
The Communist Party regime in China remained one of the world’s worst abusers of political rights and civil liberties, and those who criticized the party received severe penalties. Chinese citizens did take to the streets to protest the government’s harsh “zero COVID” policy in a rare nationwide display of dissent that resulted in the abrupt abandonment of many restrictions. Nevertheless, protesters continued to encounter pervasive surveillance, abusive interrogations, and intimidation at the hands of authorities.
Military conflict and domestic unrest as autocracies stumble
Three decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, authoritarianism dominates Eurasia, with no formerly Soviet countries designated as Free aside from the three Baltic states. This lack of democratic governance has destabilized the region, as strongman rulers use military force to lash out at their neighbors and smother domestic dissent. In 2022, Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine took center stage amid a broader array of active and frozen conflicts between Eurasian governments. The February attack marked a dramatic escalation after eight years of more limited Russian aggression, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths, Europe’s largest refugee crisis, and far-reaching economic and security implications for the entire world.
The war in Ukraine had significant repercussions for Belarusian sovereignty, as Russian troops operated from Belarusian soil. It also raised the threat of renewed conflict in Moldova, whose separatist Transnistria region has long hosted a Russian garrison, and increased tensions in Georgia’s Russian-backed breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, from which Moscow withdrew some of its forces to help relieve units in Ukraine. The Kremlin’s preoccupation with Ukraine hampered its ability to manage or manipulate rivalries elsewhere. Azerbaijan’s regime stepped up its military aggression toward Armenia despite a Russian security guarantee, and a surge in cross-border shelling occurred between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in September, killing approximately 100 people.
The limited space for free media in Eurasia has diminished further due to new criminal laws and legislative restrictions. Russian authorities criminalized criticism of the war in Ukraine, expanded a punitive “foreign agents” law, and cracked down on the few independent outlets that still operated in Russia. Pro-Kremlin propaganda efforts have become more aggressive abroad, with officials in Belarus and Turkmenistan bolstering Moscow’s image and criticizing democracies for supporting Kyiv.
In Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, lawmakers placed additional constraints on media outlets and journalists, passing new legislation that obliged foreign online platforms to register as local legal entities and empowered authorities to censor “undesired” information and ban media outlets without court approval. These efforts to suppress criticism did little to address the root causes of public discontent, which continued to erupt into protests and elicit lethal responses from security forces. Mass demonstrations triggered by increased fuel prices in Kazakhstan resulted in over 200 deaths, and protests in Uzbekistan over proposed constitutional amendments left more than a dozen people dead and hundreds injured.
Illiberal forces challenge solidarity against external aggression
Peace and freedom in Europe have been threatened not only by Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, but also by far-right leaders who could undermine democratic solidarity.
The war in Ukraine forced European democracies to rethink their security needs in 2022. Finland and Sweden dropped their long-standing policies of military neutrality and applied to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), while Germany moved to double its defense budget. The European Union (EU) stood firm and united in imposing sanctions on Russia, providing billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine and welcoming large numbers of Ukrainian refugees.
At the same time, a series of important elections signaled the growing strength of right-wing populist parties, which often stray from democratic principles and seek cooperation with authoritarian powers. In Italy, Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party took the helm of a new governing coalition, though she expressed more support for Ukraine than some of her partners. In Sweden, the Sweden Democrats emerged as the second-largest force in the parliament and enabled a new right-leaning government to take office. In Hungary and Serbia, entrenched illiberal nationalist leaders reasserted their power: Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán defeated a united opposition front, winning a fourth consecutive term, and Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić secured a second five-year term after a decade in government. Nonetheless, illiberal forces were defeated in some countries. French president Emmanuel Macron turned back a strong challenge from far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and Slovenians elected a new left-liberal government, rejecting the abuses of power associated with right-wing populist prime minister Janez Janša.
While free expression is generally protected across most of the region, the EU was plunged into spyware scandals in 2022 after journalists and politicians came under surveillance in Spain, Greece, Hungary, and Poland. In addition, the authoritarian government in Turkey adopted a draconian “disinformation” law that hindered free speech and independent journalism ahead of elections in 2023. Despite these setbacks, several European states strengthened safeguards for personal autonomy. San Marino decriminalized abortion, Andorra and Slovenia legalized same-sex marriage, and Liechtenstein passed a measure on full adoption equality for same-sex couples.
Searching for fresh hope in a bitter campaign for freedom
Popular demand for greater freedom in the Middle East continues to run up against some of the most entrenched systems of repression in the world, many of which are propped up or shielded by foreign powers—including democracies—with vested trade and security interests in the region.
In Iran, massive prodemocracy protests broke out following the death of a Kurdish woman in police custody, bringing global attention to the Islamic Republic’s long history of discrimination and brutality. Citizens returned to the streets again and again despite an acute risk that they would be beaten, arrested, shot, or executed by security forces.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, journalists and human rights defenders faced an uphill battle in their efforts to highlight and address state abuses. A Palestinian-American journalist was killed by Israeli forces while covering a military raid on a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. Ahead of international soccer’s World Cup in Qatar, a number of local activists were given life sentences for their participation in peaceful protests.
While political rights and civil liberties are few and far between in a region dominated by despotic regimes, there was some piecemeal progress during the year. In Kuwait, a court overturned a law used to prosecute transgender people, finding that it violated the right to personal freedom.
In Lebanon, members of a rising civic opposition bloc gained representation in parliamentary elections, eroding the dominance of established sectarian parties. But in Israel, the region’s only country ranked Free, election results painted a grimmer picture: former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power at the head of a coalition with far-right elements, and the new government’s agenda posed a direct threat to judicial independence and other democratic principles, as well as to the basic rights of Palestinians.
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Democracies and private sector actors should work to support core democratic principles and basic human rights at home and around the world.