Dark Days for Democracy

Year after year, repressive regimes keep curtailing freedom. 2020 brought a new low.

Muslims fleeing violence in New Delhi last year after police failed to protect them from Hindu rioters. Analysts accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, of undermining basic liberties in the world’s largest democracy. (Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

For the 15th consecutive year, democratic freedoms declined around the globe in 2020, worsening from Asia to Europe to North America, and affecting nearly three in four people across the planet. In India, a pattern of repression by Prime Minister Narendra Modi saw the world’s largest democracy downgraded from “free” to “partly free.” Elsewhere, regimes exploited Covid-19 to undermine opposition and threaten free discourse, while democracy movements suffered brutal crackdowns, from Venezuela to Guinea to Algeria.

“The long democratic recession is deepening,” the independent watchdog Freedom House said in an annual report, which evaluates 195 countries and 15 territories, citing 25 indicators of political rights and civil liberties to assign the status of “free,” “partly free,” or “not free.” The rise of authoritarianism last year, Freedom House said, was part of “a new global status quo in which acts of repression went unpunished and democracy’s advocates were increasingly isolated.”

India, which has suffered a steady decline in freedom since 2014 under Modi, saw its status tip to “partly free” because of intensified crackdowns on protests and free speech and the further decline of judicial independence since his re-election in 2019. “The fall of India from the upper ranks of free nations could have a particularly damaging impact on global democratic standards,” the report said. “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values.”

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated matters in various countries, providing an excuse for governments across the democratic spectrum to install excessive surveillance, restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly, and arbitrary and violent enforcement of those restrictions. False and misleading information on the pandemic—sometimes generated deliberately by political leaders—jeopardized lives. Dictators from Venezuela to Cambodia exploited the crisis to suppress opposition and fortify their power.

The ongoing deterioration is imperiling the reputation of democracy itself, the report said, as “enemies of freedom have pushed the false narrative that democracy is in decline because it is incapable of addressing people’s needs.” Rather, the report says, “democracy is in decline because its most prominent exemplars are not doing enough to protect it.” Those claiming the inferiority of democracy now go beyond countries such as China and Russia to include “antidemocratic actors within democratic states who see an opportunity to consolidate power,” such as in Poland, Hungary and Turkey.

India’s downgrading to Partly Free means that less of the world’s population lives in fully free societies than at any point since 1995, according to Freedom House.

The United States and China were net exporters of anti-democratic thought and action in 2020, Freedom House said, through the two nations’ domestic handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, their high-handed dealings with international bodies and, in China’s case, the renewed anti-democracy crackdown on Hong Kong.

The report also lamented the “eclipse of U.S. leadership” during the Trump presidency—not just the attempt to overturn the 2020 election (“arguably the most destructive act of his time in office”), but also the previous four years of “condoning and indeed pardoning official malfeasance, ducking accountability for his own transgressions, and encouraging racist and right-wing extremists.” While noting that many U.S. institutions held up, Freedom House warned that “it may take years to appreciate and address the effects of the experience on Americans’ ability to come together and collectively uphold a set of civic values.”

Meantime, the Chinese Communist Party—facing blame for overseeing the Covid-19 outbreak—used the crisis to impose power and influence at home and abroad, extending aid to countries such as Italy that were hard hit by the virus, while also attempting to shift blame to the very countries it claimed to be helping, as when Chinese state media suggested that the virus may have originated in Italy.

“Beyond the pandemic, Beijing’s export of antidemocratic tactics, financial coercion, and physical intimidation have led to an erosion of democratic institutions and human rights protections in numerous countries,” the report continued. “The campaign has been supplemented by the regime’s moves to promote its agenda at the United Nations, in diplomatic channels, and through worldwide propaganda that aims to systematically alter global norms. Other authoritarian states have joined China in these efforts, even as key democracies abandoned allies and their own values in foreign policy matters. As a result, the mechanisms that democracies have long used to hold governments accountable for violations of human rights standards and international law are being weakened and subverted.”

Conditions worsened during 2020 in places where repression has been building for years, including China, where continuing mistreatment of the Uyghur population has recently been declared a genocide by the United States; Syria, where persecution of religious and ethnic minorities persists; Turkey, with the consolidation of the autocratic rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Russia, where the Putin regime has escalated assaults on free speech and dissent; and Poland and Hungary, with the further concentration of power in the hands of nationalist governments.

Algeria, which was among those countries where protesters battled for change during the Arab Spring, regressed last year into new restrictions on mass gatherings and stepped-up arrests of pro-democracy activists. Belarus, where citizens rose up in August to dispute the results of a fraudulent election, saw the government cling to power; crackdowns and detentions continue there. And in countries such as Hungary, Cambodia and the Philippines, governments took advantage of the pandemic to enact emergency restrictions on free speech and free assembly that remained in force even after the public health situation improved.

How do opponents of authoritarianism push back against this long recession of democracy? The report struck some hopeful notes about underlying strengths around the world, noting that journalists and ordinary people from Taiwan to Bulgaria, India to Brazil, continue to speak up for their liberties.

While global leadership was often absent and dissidents had to wage lonely battles against authoritarianism, they’ve sometimes done so successfully. In Malawi, opposition candidates took their claims of a rigged 2019 national election to court. In 2020, judicial officials, resisting bribery attempts, ordered fresh elections, which the opposition won by a comfortable margin. Montenegro and Bolivia also held successful elections that improved freedom and civil liberties in those countries. Taiwan managed to suppress the coronavirus without infringing the civil liberties of its people, and overwhelmingly re-elected its president despite a massive disinformation campaign from China.

Judges in Gambia, and in the United States, continued to hold the powerful to account even at personal risk. The Biden administration has been clear and consistent on its desire to restore America as an example of democratic ideals to the world. But efforts must be sustained and credible.

“Democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated,” the report concluded. “Its enduring popularity in a more hostile world and its perseverance after a devastating year are signals of resilience that bode well for the future of freedom.”

Anne Bagamery is a journalist based in Paris.