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Freedom in the World 2017: Decline continues amid rising populism and autocracy

Populist and nationalist gains in democratic states and brazen acts of aggression by authoritarian powers have affected the global climate for rights, according to Freedom in the World 2017, Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties.

Demonstrators hold signs as they chant outside the venue where Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, was scheduled to speak at Texas A&M University, 6 December 2016
Demonstrators hold signs as they chant outside the venue where Richard Spencer, who leads a movement that mixes racism, white nationalism and populism, was scheduled to speak at Texas A&M University, 6 December 2016

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

This statement was originally published on freedomhouse.org on 31 January 2017.

Populist and nationalist forces made significant gains in democratic states in 2016, while authoritarian powers engaged in brazen acts of aggression, according to Freedom in the World 2017, Freedom House's annual report on political rights and civil liberties.

The report finds 2016 to mark the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.

“We see leaders and nations pursuing their own narrow interests without meaningful constraints or regard for the shared benefits of global peace and freedom,” said Arch Puddington, one of the report's co-authors. “These trends are accelerating and starting to undo the international order of the past quarter-century, including the general respect for long-established norms for fundamental freedoms and democracy.”

“In past years we generally saw declines in freedom among autocracies and dictatorships, but in 2016 it was established democracies that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks,” Puddington said. Among the countries rated “Free” by the report, there were declines in Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary, Poland, Serbia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Tunisia, and the United States.

A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2016. Only 36 registered gains. For the period since the 11-year slide began in 2006, 109 countries have seen a net decline, and only 60 have experienced a net improvement.

The report describes major democracies mired in anxiety and indecision after events such as Britain's vote to leave the European Union, a series of antidemocratic moves by the new government in Poland, gains by xenophobic nationalist parties elsewhere in Europe, and the U.S. presidential victory of Donald Trump.

At the same time, Russia displayed stunning hubris and hostility as it interfered in the political processes of the United States and other democracies, escalated its military support for the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and solidified its illegal occupation of Ukrainian territory. China also flouted international law, and unscrupulous leaders from South Sudan and Ethiopia to Thailand and the Philippines engaged in human rights violations of varying scale with impunity.


KEY GLOBAL FINDINGS

• Of the 195 countries assessed, 87 (45 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 49 (25 percent) Not Free.

• As nationalist and populist parties gained strength in Britain, Germany, France, and other democracies in 2016, the resulting breakdown of the traditional right-left division called into question whether stable governments and strong opposition parties will endure.

• Ratings for the Middle East and North Africa region were the worst in the world in 2016, followed closely by Eurasia.

• Free countries accounted for a larger share of the countries with declines than at any time in the past decade, and nearly one-quarter of the countries registering declines in 2016 were in Europe.

• Consequential referendums in countries including Colombia, Britain, Bolivia, and Italy gave voice to voters but also represented a radical reduction of democracy to its most skeletal form: majority rule. Referendums often serve as an end run around the structures and safeguards of democracy, and their prominence can be interpreted as another sign that global democracy is in distress.

• Events in Egypt, Venezuela, and Ethiopia illustrated that strongmen who might be admired for toppling obstacles to their desired policies often founder due to a lack of checks and balances, leaving behind corruption, economic mismanagement or collapse, and severe popular unrest.

• Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraced an unvarnished form of authoritarianism in response to a failed coup attempt in July, including the arrest of nearly 40,000 civilians, the imprisonment of dozens of journalists, the shuttering of hundreds of media outlets and NGOs, the arrest of the leaders and hundreds of officials from the third-largest party in the parliament, and the firing of more than a hundred thousand civil servants.

• Persistent fears over the upsurge in terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States stoked public hostility toward Muslim minorities and immigrants, deepening existing social rifts and threatening civil liberties.

• Recent developments in Poland and Hungary have raised the possibility that some of the most remarkable transitions from dictatorship to democracy in the 1980s and '90s will be substantially reversed by elected populist leaders.

Worst of the Worst:

• Of the 49 countries designated as Not Free, the following 11 have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties (beginning with the least free): Syria, Eritrea, North Korea, Uzbekistan, South Sudan, Turkmenistan, Somalia, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Central African Republic, and Saudi Arabia.


KEY REGIONAL FINDINGS

Americas

• Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro's combination of strong-arm rule and dire economic mismanagement pushed his country to a status of Not Free for the first time in 2016. Venezuela had served as a model for populist regimes in the region, but today it epitomizes the suffering that can ensue when citizens are unable to hold their leaders to account.

• The likeminded regime of President Daniel Ortega brought Nicaragua to its lowest point in more than 20 years. With Venezuela, Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the Americas on an extended downward trajectory.

• The peace agreement in Colombia, which was rejected in a popular referendum but then revised and passed into law, augurs well for a democracy that has long been crippled by violence.

Asia-Pacific

• Repressive rulers in Thailand, China, Malaysia, and the Maldives reined in free speech and assembly during 2016 to smother public criticism of their own crimes and abuses.

• Peaceful and widespread protests against President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and her subsequent impeachment were a demonstration of democratic strength in the face of corruption.

Eurasia

• Eurasia was divided between a more democratic-oriented fringe and a core of rigid autocracies in 2016. While Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova struggled to build on fragile democratic gains, leaders in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan took steps to shore up their power amid economic and political uncertainty.

Europe

• Internal strains in European countries, combined with external pressures like Russian interference and the migrant crisis, made it clear that the continent can no longer be taken for granted as a bastion of democratic stability.

• The rise of antiestablishment parties in Poland, France, Germany, and elsewhere is changing Europe's political landscape and shifting the debate in ways that undermine the fundamental values of democracy.

• In the Balkans, fair election processes and the rule of law further deteriorated as the European Union neglected its role in promoting democracy among aspiring member states.

Middle East and North Africa

• The conflicts in Libya, Yemen, and Syria demonstrated the depths to which human freedom can fall after decades of authoritarian misrule, corruption, and erratic foreign intervention.

Sub-Saharan Africa

• Ethiopia experienced its worst political upheaval in many years, when protests by the Oromo people over ethnic and land rights broadened into a general eruption of popular discontent and security forces used disproportionate and lethal force against protesters.

• In a bright spot at year's end, Ghana consolidated its position as one of the most stable democracies on the continent when opposition candidate Nana Akufo-Addo defeated incumbent John Mahama in the December presidential election.

Countries to Watch in 2017:

The following countries are among those that may experience important developments in the coming year, and deserve special scrutiny.


• Donald Trump's unorthodox presidential campaign left open questions about the incoming administration's approach to civil liberties and the role of the United States in the world.

• A weakened ruling African National Congress in South Africa will choose a new leader in 2017, and state institutions could be drawn into intraparty rivalries ahead of the ANC conference, testing the strength of the country's democracy.

• Voters in Ecuador will elect a successor to President Rafael Correa, whose crackdowns on political opposition, critical journalists, demonstrators, and NGOs have led to a steady decline in freedom during his tenure.

• October 2017 elections in the Czech Republic will see the rise or defeat of the populist and nationalist ANO party, which has been compared to the ruling, highly nationalistic parties in Hungary and Poland.

• As the battle to retake territory from Islamic State militants continues in Iraq, the weak and fragmented government will face the challenge of reintegrating the Sunni minority population into the national system and containing the power of Shiite militias.

• Politicians and officials in the ruling ZANU-PF party will continue to jockey for position to succeed Zimbabwe's aging president Robert Mugabe against a backdrop of burgeoning popular protests and increasing economic woes.

• The term of Kyrgyzstan's president Almazbek Atambayev expires in late 2017, but recently approved constitutional amendments could pave the way for him to retain power by shifting to the prime minister's seat. The parliament in Denmark is considering a series of bills that, if adopted, would further restrict immigrant and refugee rights and damage the country's reputation for liberal values.

• After his extrajudicial war on drugs claimed thousands of lives in 2016, the Philippines' president Rodrigo Duterte may continue his extreme policies with strong parliamentary backing.

• The next year will be a test of Tanzania's president John Magufuli's authoritarian tendencies, which have already emerged through the government's use of the Cybercrimes Act against critics and the passage of a new media law late in the year.

To view the summary of findings, see the report here: www.freedomintheworld.org.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

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