Political Freedom is Going Down

By Jonathan Power

Life, said Martin Luther King, “is a long and desolate corridor with no exit sign.” He must have said that when his spirits were flagging, as most of the time he was optimistic about making the world a better place.

I was reminded of this quote when reading a new report, “Freedom in the World 2016,” written by the U.S.-based Freedom House. For the tenth consecutive year, it says, freedom has declined. Seventy-two countries slipped back in the degree of political, civil rights, and press freedom they allow their citizens. Forty-three countries made gains. However, to keep these figures in perspective, the number of free countries is much higher than when the Cold War ended. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of countries going backward have small populations.

This report has given my own optimistic spirit a bang over the head. In the first decade after the Cold War, I used to quote Freedom House, whose annual reports showed democracy and freedom gaining ground across the world at a rapid rate.

Even today, despite the sour news from Freedom House’s latest report, I find I remain optimistic about the world. After all the latest statistics show that in the last decade poverty has been halved, diseases are being fought and overcome and maternal and child mortality have fallen sharply.

But back to freedom. Freedom House reckons that 44 percent of the countries of the world are “free,” countries as diverse as Holland, Jamaica, and India. Thirty percent are “partially free.” That means that though they may have free elections, the media is partially restricted and the legal system doesn’t function well. Pakistan and Nigeria are examples. Then there are the “not free” countries where most institutions or opposition are muzzled, including Russia, Honduras, and Egypt. We could add a fourth group with one powerful member, the United States. Freedom House rightly says the role of money in U.S. elections is considerably warping their outcome. So is widespread gerrymandering. And legislative gridlock in Congress caused by Republican extremism is distorting the electors’ mandate. Finally, there is fresh evidence that there are too many instances of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system.

Which are the worst countries, beginning with the least free? Syria, Tibet, Somalia, North Korea, Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Western Sahara, Central African Republic, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea, and Saudi Arabia.

What is happening in the six main regions in the world? In Latin America, heads of state in Brazil, Chile, and Mexico have been undermined by corruption scandals or inability to stem violent crime.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the communist party of China intensified its persecution of human rights and enhanced censorship. In a range of countries strained political institutions were paired with various forms of religious nationalism or extremism. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has too often turned a blind eye to anti-Muslim violence and intimidation.

In Eurasia, President Vladimir Putin has rolled back too many of the advances in democracy and free speech made by his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin.

In the old Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, longtime incumbents have sought to fortify themselves against any remaining opposition or dissent by means of sham elections.

In Europe, the migrant crisis has led to some countries closing their borders and turning their backs on the suffering of those escaping war in Iraq and Syria.

In the Middle East and North Africa, Morocco, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain have all clamped down on already limited political participation and civil liberties.

In sub-Saharan Africa, a number of leaders have manipulated their term limits. In some cases this has led to street violence.

The immediate future doesn’t look too good. Angola’s autocratic government looks like it is going to intensify its suppression of dissent. Politically, Bosnia and Herzegovina has become almost dysfunctional.

In the Congo, President Joseph Kabila, backed by an army ready to crush protests, is considering a constitutional amendment that would allow him a third term.

Political repression in Malaysia could intensify as the prime minister faces increasing scrutiny over an embezzlement scandal.

In Poland, the initial actions of the newly elected Law and Justice government, including attempts to stack important institutions with partisan loyalists, are raising serious concerns about the government’s commitment to thoroughgoing democracy.  

Saudi Arabia is executing more people.

Nevertheless, there are some good things happening. Nigeria, Africa’s most populated country, had its fairest election yet. Voters in Sri Lanka ousted an authoritarian government. In Argentina, the presidency was won by a man who declared that the previous government’s misuse of power would be curtailed. In corrupt and authoritarian Venezuela, the opposition recently has captured most seats in parliament.

The late columnist William Pffaf wrote, “Man progresses only by recognizing his nature, his misery together with his sublime possibility. And politics has to be built on that.”

If the world is to progress politically those astute words must be remembered.



Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day. 

[Photo courtesy of Agência Brasil Fotografias]

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