Feb 24, 2022 - World

Global democracy declines for 16th year, annual index finds

Freedom in the World index, 2022
Reproduced from Freedom House; Map: Axios Visuals

Freedom around the world declined in 2021 for the 16th consecutive year, according to an annual report from Freedom House, which warns that countries including China and Russia are exporting authoritarianism.

Why it matters: "The leaders of China, Russia, and other dictatorships have succeeded in shifting global incentives, jeopardizing the consensus that democracy is the only viable path to prosperity and security, while encouraging more authoritarian approaches to governance," the report says.

  • Undemocratic regimes are growing still more undemocratic as they bend institutions to their will and spread that model abroad, the authors write.
  • So are established democracies like the U.S., where "internal forces have exploited the shortcomings in their systems, distorting national politics to promote hatred, violence, and unbridled power."

According to the index:

  • 38% of the global population resides in countries that are "not free," the highest percentage since 1997, versus 20% living in "free" countries and 42% in "partly free" countries.
  • There was better news from Ecuador, which moved into the "free" column after a smooth presidential transition; Chile, where democracy has held firm and arguably deepened amid social upheaval; and the Ivory Coast, which held relatively free parliamentary elections last spring.
  • Finland, Norway and Sweden are the freest countries. Eritrea, North Korea, South Sudan, Syria and Turkmenistan the least free.

Key trends:

  • Leaders in some authoritarian-leaning systems no longer feel the need for a "veneer" of democracy, the authors write, noting the "farcical" elections last year in Nicaragua and Russia.
  • There was a surge of coups in 2021 including in Myanmar, Sudan and several West African states.
  • Some leaders in democracies, such as former President Donald Trump in the U.S. and President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, "have taken to sowing distrust in elections" when in danger of losing power, the report notes.
  • "Those countries that have struggled in the space between democracy and authoritarianism are increasingly tilting toward the latter," the authors write. The "partly free" ranks include India, which saw its ratings fall for a fourth consecutive year.

The bottom line: "Authoritarian leaders are no longer isolated holdouts in a democratizing world.

  • "Instead they are actively collaborating with one another to spread new forms of repression and rebuff democratic pressure," the authors argue, citing the roles China and Russia have played in propping up faltering regimes in Belarus, Myanmar, Venezuela
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