The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule

The 2022 Freedom House Report

Global freedom faces a dire threat. Around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy … are accelerating their attacks. Authoritarian regimes have become more effective at co-opting or circumventing the norms and institutions meant to support basic liberties, and at providing aid to others who wish to do the same. In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power. … The global order is nearing a tipping point, and if democracy’s defenders do not work together to help guarantee freedom for all people, the authoritarian model will prevail. … As of today, some 38 percent of the global population live in  Not Free countries, the highest proportion since 1997. Only about 20 percent now live in Free countries.

So begins the 2022 Freedom House Report, released this past week (February 24), entitled, “The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule,” authored by Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipowitz. Established in 1941, Freedom House is the oldest American organization devoted to the support and defense of democracy around the world.

The Report reminds us that neither majority rule nor simply holding elections assures democratic principles.

It is a governing system based on the will and consent of the governed, institutions that are accountable to all citizens, adherence to the rule of law, and respect for human rights. It is a network of mutually reinforcing structures in which those exercising power are subject to checks both within and outside the state, for example, from independent courts, an independent press, and civil society. It requires an openness to alternations in power, with rival candidates or parties competing fairly to govern for the good of the public as a whole, not just themselves or those who voted for them. It creates a level playing field so that all people, no matter the circumstances of their birth or background, can enjoy the universal human rights to which they are entitled and participate in politics and governance.

According to their Report, for the last 16 years, political and civil rights and liberties have declined worldwide, an alarming finding suggesting that autocracy could surpass democracy as the predominant ruling standard among nations, “jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security.” Equally disturbing is that checks on abuses have been undermined, sometimes within the legal structures, such as they are, of authoritarian regimes. Russia, China, the military coups in Myanmar and Sudan, and the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan stand out in the Report as prime examples.

Some of the Report’s most important conclusions:

  • The 16-year decline has affected all geographical regions.
  • Three countries received the best possible score of 100: Finland, Norway, and Sweden.
  • A total of 60 countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties over the past year, while only 25 improved.
  • Authoritarian leaders are increasingly collaborating with one another to spread new forms of repression as well as to silence their own exiled dissidents. An example: Turkey was once a haven for China’s persecuted Uyghur population. But Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increasingly shifted his stance to meet Beijing’s demands: Turkish authorities have made it harder for Uyghurs to obtain and keep permanent residence permits, and several hundred have been detained in deportation centers. Another example: Often, the collaboration is economic: Russia, China, and Turkey have provided trade and investment to Venezuela.
  • As international norms shift toward autocracy, dictatorships have increasingly held sham elections (eg. Russia, Syria, and Nicaragua).
  • Many freely elected leaders have undertaken a variety of antidemocratic actions (Brazil, India, and the United States are examples) that undermine shared values among democracies and have led to a weakening of these values on the international stage.
  • Report co-author, Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s VP for Research and Analysis: “Authoritarians are becoming more brazen in their attacks on human rights at home and abroad, which should be a call to action for everyone who values their own rights and the rights of their fellow human beings.” An example: undemocratic forces in the United States have engaged in undermining institutions that are designed to check their power and protect the rights of all Americans.
    "There is increasing evidence of homegrown illiberal streaks within democracies. Undemocratic leaders and their supporters in democratic environments have worked to reshape or manipulate political systems, in part by playing on voters’ fears of change in their way of life and by highlighting the very real failures of their predecessors. They have promoted the idea that, once in power, their responsibility is only to their own demographic or partisan base, disregarding other interests and segments of society and warping the institutions in their care so as to prolong their rule. Along the way, the democratic principles of pluralism, equality, and accountability—as well as basic stewardship and public service—have been lost, endangering the rights and well-being of all residents."
  • In countries with long-established democracies, internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power. The largest 10-year score declines among democracies were in Hungary, Nauru, Poland, India, and the United States.
    "Two important notes about the United States:
    (1) The United States remains a Free country that benefits from a strong rule-of-law tradition and robust civil society, but it has left the higher echelons of the Free category and now ranks alongside states with weaker democratic records, such as Romania, Croatia, and Panama.
    (2) Even as freedom faces global threats, democracies are being eroded from within by illiberal forces, including unscrupulous politicians willing to corrupt and shatter the very institutions that brought them to power. This was arguably most visible last year in the United States, where rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6 as part of an organized attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election."

See the subsection of the Report on the United States: “Reversing the Decline of Democracy in the United States.”

 In the section on the United States, the debacle of the rapid US military withdrawal from Afghanistan after a 20-year engagement drew the attention of the authors of the Report. The withdrawal,

. . . negotiated between the Taliban and the Trump administration without the involvement of the Afghan government, and completed by the Biden administration in 2021—dealt a powerful blow to international confidence in the ability of democracies to protect their partners and help foster free societies in difficult terrain. The debacle has renewed false impressions within existing democracies that supporting democracy abroad is a doomed enterprise, that it involves imposing “Western” ideals on unwilling populations, that it requires the open-ended use of military force, or that it is a disingenuous pretext for the use of military force. For those still struggling for freedom in repressive environments, the US withdrawal may be seen as a warning that their democratic partners could abandon them at any moment.

In addition, the Report especially singles out the January 6 assault on the US Capitol. Even though ultimately unsuccessful, and a transfer of power did take place, witness testimony, emails, and other documents have shown that the ultimate agenda of outgoing president Donald Trump and his allies is more than one election; it has been about sowing distrust in the election process itself, especially ahead of the 2022 and 2024 elections. And this agenda is gravitating downward to state and local elections, to state legislatures and party officials who hold undue power to decide election irregularities and choices of electors.

The Report, however, does not leave the reader hopeless, even suggesting that antidemocratic measures can be thwarted and even reversed.

Success will require a bold, sustained response that establishes support for democracy and countering authoritarianism at the heart of each democracy’s foreign policy, national security strategy, and domestic reform agenda. It must also entail the participation of both governments and an engaged and active citizenry…. Developing a set of coordinated international policies grounded in democratic principles, while strengthening their own domestic governance systems, will ultimately make all participating countries safer, more prosperous, and more just. Democratic nations share interests in fair trade and security, and since they are more likely to adhere to agreements and norms, they make more reliable partners in both fields.

Michael J. Abramowitz, Freedom House president, put it like this:

Democracy is in real danger all over the globe. Authoritarians are becoming bolder, while democracies are back on their heels. Democratic governments must rally to counter authoritarian abuses and support the brave human rights defenders fighting for freedom around the world. At the same time, democracies should also be looking inward to strengthen their own institutions and prevent homegrown efforts to undermine the separation of powers and the integrity of elections, which are both indispensable to democracy….
What gives me hope is that, in spite of these declines, global demand for freedom and democracy remains as strong as ever. [O]rdinary people continue to risk life and livelihood to demand their rights and liberties. Democratic governments and societies must support this fundamental desire for freedom and build a world in which it is ultimately fulfilled.

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