Updated Mar 9, 2023 - World

Democracy's global decline hits "possible turning point," report finds

Freedom in the World index, 2023
Data: Freedom House; Note: 1 indicates not free; 36 to 70 partially free; 70 and above free. Map: Madison Dong/Axios Visuals

Democracy declined around the world for the 17th consecutive year, but the pace of that decline has slowed and we could be approaching a "turning point," according to an annual report from Freedom House.

Why it matters: The rise of authoritarianism and the erosion of democracy have been among the most notable global trends of the past decade. The "Freedom in the World" report suggests those trends continued in 2022, but it also finds cause for optimism.

State of play: Countries like Colombia, Kenya and Malaysia saw peaceful transfers of power following contentious elections, while several countries that had cracked down on free speech and assembly during the pandemic loosened those restrictions.

  • Still, global press freedom continued its worrying decline in 2022. There were also multiple coups in West Africa, and leaders from Peru to Tunisia attempted power grabs with varying degrees of success.
  • Despite the many setbacks, there "were signs during the past year that the world’s long freedom recession may be bottoming out," the report's authors wrote.

The big picture: The report scores countries on the political and civil rights of their citizens and categorizes them as "free," "partly free" or "not free."

  • The scores of 35 countries declined, while those of 34 countries improved. That's the narrowest gap since the global democratic downturn began in 2005, Freedom House said.
  • Colombia and Lesotho moved from partly free to free, while Peru dropped to partly free and Burkina Faso to not free.
  • Finland, Norway and Sweden all received perfect scores, while the least free countries and regions were North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, South Sudan, Syria and Tibet. The report also ranks China and Saudi Arabia among the "worst of the worst."

Between the lines: President Biden has made promoting democracy over autocracy a key tenet of his foreign policy, and has often framed the U.S. rivalries with China and Russia in those terms.

  • The report finds the U.S. to be less free than 59 other countries, on par with Panama and Romania, and far behind fellow G7 democracies like Canada or Japan.
  • The authors highlight politicians making false claims about election rigging and new restrictions on abortion access as particular concerns.

Flashback: While democracy has been declining for nearly two decades, the outlook has actually improved overall during the report's 50-year history.

  • 84 of 195 countries are currently considered free, up from 44 of 148 nations in the first edition in 1973.

What to watch: There will be further tests for democracy in the coming months as countries including Thailand and Turkey go to the polls.

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