The (Not So) Free World

Octavian Report: How do you assess the state of global democracy at the moment?

Michael Abramowitz: I think you have to start by saying that the COVID-19 pandemic is scrambling all the equations. We're in a new world. We don't know what the world's going to be like after this is all done, but I think it's safe to say that the trends that we have seen are not going to get better—and are likely to get worse.

You're already seeing governments and authorities worldwide using the coronavirus as a pretext to crack down on human rights and democratic practice. The crisis is likely to exacerbate the overall declines in liberty that Freedom House has documented for each of the past 14 years. So in general, I would say the current situation for global democracy is not good.

From a historical perspective, we have to remind ourselves that we are still ahead of where we were, say, at the end of World War II, when there were many fewer democracies. After that there were successive waves of democratization, a substantial growth in the number of democracies around the world, with the most recent surge coinciding with the end of the Cold War. That was what Samuel P. Huntington identified as the “third wave.” The Berlin Wall fell, Soviet communism collapsed, Latin American military dictatorships were replaced with elected governments, and so on. But we’re in a democracy recession right now, and we're beginning to lose some of those huge gains.

At Freedom House, we've been publishing Freedom in the World, a global assessment of political rights and civil liberties, since the early 1970’s. It covers every country as well as several territories like Hong Kong. And the basic story is that for the first two-thirds of the life of that project, democracy was on the ascent.

That started to change around 2006. Every year for the last 14 years, countries experiencing declines in political rights and civil liberties have outnumbered those making improvements.

This is happening all over the world, in every region, on every continent.

OR: What are the drivers of this 14-year trend?

Abramowitz: One factor is economics. The liberal democratic economic order has been breaking down to some extent, with many democratic countries failing to deliver economic gains or even economic security to much of the population. That has created an opening for populists to take power.

And by the way, there's nothing by definition wrong with new political forces taking power. This is how democracies self-correct: if the existing leadership is not performing, it gets replaced. But what we've seen in countries as diverse as Hungary, Turkey, Venezuela, and now potentially India are populist parties winning office and then using their mandate to crack down on democratic rights. They dismantle the infrastructure of democracy and fortify themselves against any further turnover.

I think there has also been a new boldness and aggression from authoritarian powers. There is Putin in Russia, but I think China is now leading the way. These regimes are not only repressing their own populations, they are extending their reach and deploying authoritarian tools beyond their borders.

A third phenomenon is the issue of migration. We have probably the largest number of displaced people since World War II. That is both a product and a driver of the declines we talked about. Many of these people are fleeing conditions created one way or another by authoritarian rule, but their arrival, or even just the idea of their potential arrival, has created a lot of anxiety in host countries. This in turn has been exploited to justify some antidemocratic practices.

Another issue is the incredible advance of technology, which in the early days of the internet we thought was going to be an unalloyed good. Activists in countries like Egypt, for example, were able to mobilize using social media, using Facebook, to pose serious threats to the established dictatorial order. But what we found is that over the last five to 10 years, the bad guys have gotten smart about technology too and are using it to increase surveillance, to silence dissent and intimidate activists, to pump out propaganda, and to interfere with the conduct of elections.

OR: How should the economic side of this question be addressed?

Abramowitz: All governments, whether they're authoritarian or democratic or something in between, require the consent of the governed. The public has to be confident that the government is taking care of serious problems. Authoritarians can buy themselves time by lying to the people, suppressing dissent, controlling information, offering superficial solutions or distractions. But democracies really need to deliver, and the mainstream parties in many democratic countries haven’t done enough to check rising economic inequality. This has definitely been a factor in some of the democratic decline. Voters are turning to politicians who give voice to their frustration and offer sometimes radical solutions. Democratic leaders need to show that they can address economic problems in a robust way, but without compromising the core principles that ensure freedom and prosperity in the long term.

I would also say, by the way, that economics is not just a problem for democracies. If you look around the world, there are hopeful signs that some entrenched dictatorships are reaching the end of their rope. They have been unable to deliver for their people for many decades, and this is stimulating protests and even a few nascent political transitions.

A great example is Sudan, which had been led by the same dictator for some 30 years until a brave and persistent protest movement forced his ouster. Sudan is not out of the woods at all, and the military still has very strong influence. But the people demanded change from a system that wouldn’t previously allow it, and now there is at least some potential for long-term improvement. It's interesting, if you look at the places where there have been challenges to authoritarianism or to autocratic power in recent years, whether it's Malaysia or Algeria or even Russia to some extent, corruption and failure to deliver economically are key factors animating many of these protests.