Economic downturns and fear of social unrest have led Russia, China, and other authoritarian regimes to crack down harder on dissent, while mass migration and new forms of terrorism in 2015 fueled xenophobic sentiment in major democracies, according to Freedom in the World 2016, Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties.
The report marked 2015 as the 10th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
“In many countries with authoritarian governments, the drop in revenues from falling commodity prices led dictators to redouble political repression at home and lash out at perceived foreign enemies,” said Arch Puddington, senior vice president for research.
“Democratic countries came under strain from terrorist attacks and unprecedented numbers of refugees—problems emanating from regional conflicts such as the Syrian civil war,” Puddington said.
The number of countries showing a decline in freedom for the year—72—was the largest since the 10-year slide began. Just 43 countries made gains. Over the past 10 years, 105 countries have seen a net decline, and only 61 have experienced a net improvement.
The report cites Europe’s inability to manage the surge of asylum seekers from Syria and other conflict zones—on top of lingering economic woes—as the pretext for populists to rail against the European Union and the liberal, universal values that it represents.
Meanwhile, wary of declining living standards and the social unrest they could cause, repressive petro-states from Angola to Azerbaijan cracked down on rights activists and other critics.
Other troubled countries turned to elections as a corrective mechanism. In Nigeria, Venezuela, Myanmar, and elsewhere, voters sought new leadership from opposition parties, offering a peaceful way out of failed policies and mismanagement. While all forms of government are under pressure, these fresh starts suggest that democratic systems may ultimately prove more resilient than their brittle authoritarian counterparts.
KEY GLOBAL FINDINGS:
- Of the 195 countries assessed, 86 (44 percent) were rated Free, 59 (30 percent) Partly Free, and 50 (26 percent) Not Free.
- Ratings for the Middle East and North Africa region were the worst in the world in 2015, followed closely by Eurasia.
- Leaders in several countries maneuvered to extend their terms in office during 2015, most prominently in Burundi, but also in Bolivia, Ecuador, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, and Rwanda.
- Vicious criminal gangs, political violence, and systemic corruption sparked declines in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
- Token improvements in women’s political rights and civil liberties, such as women in Saudi Arabia participating in tightly controlled elections for largely powerless municipal councils, have been eclipsed by the shocking lack of genuine progress globally.
- Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo all suffered from crippling government dysfunction in 2015, precluding democratic gains and ensuring that EU accession remained a distant prospect.
- Although the world’s attention turned to new disasters during 2015, the previous year’s dramatic setbacks for freedom in Thailand, Egypt, Crimea, and South Sudan continued to fester.
- Over the last decade, the most significant global reversals have been in the areas of freedom of expression and the rule of law.
Worst of the Worst:
- Of the 50 countries and territories designated as Not Free, the following 12 have the worst aggregate scores for political rights and civil liberties (beginning with the least free): Syria, Tibet, Somalia, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Western Sahara, Central African Republic, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi Arabia.
KEY REGIONAL FINDINGS:
- The United States retained its top ratings for political rights and civil liberties but was affected by the cumulative impact over recent years of certain deficiencies in the electoral system, the influence of private money in election campaigns and the legislative process, legislative gridlock, the Obama administration’s failure to fulfill promises of enhanced government openness, and fresh evidence of instances of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.
- Heads of state were undermined by corruption scandals or an inability to stem violent crime in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico.
- Little progress was made toward democratic reform in Cuba despite the resumption of diplomatic relations with the United States.
- The Communist Party regime in China intensified its persecution of human rights lawyers, journalists, and minority rights advocates in the wake of the stock-market crash and singled out new targets for abuse, including labor activists, public health advocates, and women’s rights defenders, more than offsetting the institution of a two-child policy and other modest reforms.
- In a range of Asian countries, strained political institutions were paired with various forms of religious nationalism or extremism. These included a rise in anti-Muslim violence and intimidation in India; attacks by Islamist radicals on secular writers, foreigners, and Shiites in Bangladesh; stricter enforcement of conservative dress codes and persecution of LGBT people in Malaysia; and anti-Muslim discrimination in Myanmar.
- Facing new pressures due to the collapse of world energy prices, President Vladimir Putin maintained his policies of repression within Russia, including persecution of LGBT activists and independent journalists, and military intervention abroad. Moscow controlled Crimea with an iron grip, continued its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, and began a campaign of bombing in Syria in an effort to shore up the tyrannical regime of Bashar al-Assad.
- In Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, longtime incumbents sought to fortify themselves against any remaining opposition or dissent through sham elections. Even Kyrgyzstan’s parliamentary elections served mainly to confirm the status of a dysfunctional if pluralistic political system.
- The migration crisis put unprecedented pressure on the EU’s fundamental principles of liberty, solidarity, and respect for human rights. Rising populism across the region cast doubt on the bloc’s ability to maintain high democratic standards among both current and aspiring member states.
Middle East and North Africa
- Morocco, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain escaped international attention while they clamped down on already limited political participation and civil liberties.
- Democratic setbacks and violence triggered by African leaders’ manipulation of term limits were offset by successful elections and peaceful transfers of power in several countries, including Nigeria and Burkina Faso.
- Nations across the Sahelian belt from Mali to Kenya continued to grapple with the challenge of combating Islamist militants while maintaining respect for civil liberties.
Countries to Watch in 2016
- Squeezed by low oil prices, Angola’s autocratic government is likely to intensify suppression of dissent and expand surveillance of private citizens.
- Bosnia and Herzegovina could face even worse government dysfunction if a planned Bosnian Serb referendum on the national courts’ legitimacy takes place.
- With the army poised to crush protests, Democratic Republic of Congo president Joseph Kabila is considering a constitutional amendment that would allow him to seek a third term in 2016.
- Moderate reformists in Iran are preparing for critical February elections to the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body that appoints the supreme leader.
- Authorities in Kuwait are quashing dissent with increasing aggression and frequency, galvanizing concerns about citizenship revocation and use of the death penalty.
- Political repression in Malaysia could intensify as the prime minister faces increasing scrutiny over an embezzlement scandal.
- Once the newly elected legislature of Myanmar is seated and a government is formed, the National League for Democracy will be under pressure to deliver on its promises.
- Observers will be able to assess President Buhari’s first year in office in Nigeria, including his efforts to combat entrenched corruption and Boko Haram militants.
- The initial actions of the Law and Justice government in 2015, including attempts to stack key institutions with partisan loyalists, raise serious concerns about Poland’s trajectory.
- Although the opposition triumphed in Venezuela’s legislative elections, it will need a well-crafted strategy to enact reforms in light of resistance by President Maduro.