The World

Is Freedom Really Retreating Around the World?

An anti-government protester holds up a picture of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej during a celebration of his 86th birthday on Dec. 5, 2013 in Bangkok.

Photo by Ed Wray/Getty Images

Freedom House is out with its annual Freedom in the World report for 2014 today, which classifies every country in the world as “free,” “partly free,” or “not free” based on both political rights and civil liberties. As has been the case for the past eight years, Freedom House found freedom to be in retreat around the world:

The number of countries designated by Freedom in the World as Free in 2013 stood at 88, representing 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and 40 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries decreased by two from the previous year’s report.

The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stood at 59, or 30 percent of all countries assessed, and they were home to 25 percent of the world’s population. The number of Partly Free countries increased by one from the previous year.

A total of 48 countries were deemed Not Free, representing 25 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at 35 percent of the global population, though China accounts for more than half of this figure. The number of Not Free countries increased by one from 2012.

The number of electoral democracies rose by four to 122, with Honduras, Kenya, Nepal, and Pakistan acquiring the designation.

One country rose from Not Free to Partly Free: Mali. Sierra Leone and Indonesia dropped from Free to Partly Free, while the Central African Republic and Egypt fell from Partly Free to Not Free.

(In case you’re curious—as I was—Indonesia’s drop in status was due to “the adoption of a law that restricts the activities of nongovernmental organizations, increases bureaucratic oversight of such groups, and requires them to support the national ideology of Pancasila—including its explicitly monotheist component.”)

But is freedom really marching backward? Political scientist Jay Ulfelder takes a skeptical look at the notion of a “democratic recession,” noting that most of the declines in scores we’ve seen over the last eight years have happened in the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, regions that were not exactly bastions of democracy to begin with, so what we’re seeing is “not primarily the result of more and more democracies slipping into authoritarianism; instead, it’s more that many existing autocracies keep tightening the screws.”

I think it’s true that what we’re seeing is more a matter of fluctuation within countries that are long-standing members of one category or another. There hasn’t been a major trend toward countries either fully adopting democracy or abandoning it for quite some time. But as my old colleague Christian Caryl argued in a recent debate on this subject sponsored by the Economist, the important thing to remember is that “many citizens do not see democracy as an end in itself. People want freedom, to be sure, but they also yearn for economic growth, social justice and security. When elected leaders fail to produce these public goods, voters can hardly be blamed for their disillusionment.”

The worrying countries to watch in terms of global trends toward or away from democracy are not China or Russia—for the time being, at least, those seem to be lost causes—but places like Thailand, where thousands of residents of Bangkok have taken to the streets demanding that the country’s electoral system be replaced with an unelected people’s council. Or Egypt, where many ostensible “liberals” this year supported a military coup against the country’s elected government.

You don’t have to be a supporter of either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Shinawatra family to worry that many of the people who should be the greatest force for consolidating democracy in these countries—young, liberal, educated, middle-class, city dwellers—no longer seem to believe, with justification in some cases, that electoral democracy is the best guarantor of either economic progress or their own rights.

Freedom House grades countries on both “political rights” and “civil liberties,” but what seems most worrying to me is that an increasing number of people seem to feel that those two aren’t related.