Democracy is in crisis. In 2017, political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade. The global landscape is characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the withdrawal of the United States from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom. Democratic values—particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under assault and in retreat globally.
In 2017, political rights and civil liberties around the world deteriorated to their lowest point in more than a decade, extending a period characterized by emboldened autocrats, beleaguered democracies, and the withdrawal of the United States from its leadership role in the global struggle for human freedom. Democracy is in crisis. The values it embodies—particularly the right to choose leaders in free and fair elections, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—are under assault and in retreat globally.
A quarter-century ago, at the end of the Cold War, it appeared that totalitarianism had at last been vanquished and liberal democracy had won the great ideological battle of the twentieth century. Today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened. For the twelfth consecutive year, according to Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World survey, countries that suffered democratic setbacks outnumbered those that registered gains. In the survey covering 2017, twice as many countries saw a decline (71) as experienced an improvement (35) in their raw scores on the aggregate 100-point scale measuring political rights and civil liberties. (For more on Freedom in the World methodology, see the Box on p. 130.) If we look at major changes of 3 points or more in aggregate scores, the ratio is even more unfavorable, with the number of countries that declined (20) exceeding those that gained (6) by more than three to one.
Freedom House translates the aggregate scores on the 100-point scale into the more familiar seven-point scale that rates each country’s political rights and civil liberties, with 1 as the highest score and 7 as the lowest. These rankings in turn are combined to determine whether a country [End Page 128] is classified as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. Since these three classifications are much broader than ratings on the 100-point scale, however, movement from one class to another is relatively rare.
In the Freedom in the World survey for 2017, the number of countries designated as Free stands at 88. This represents 45 percent of the world’s 195 polities and more than 2.9 billion people—or 39 percent of the global population. The number of Free countries increased by one from our survey covering 2016.
The number of countries qualifying as Partly Free stands at 58, or 30 percent of all countries assessed; Partly Free countries were home to nearly 1.8 billion people, or 24 percent of the world’s total. The number of countries in this category decreased by one from the previous year.
A total of 49 countries are deemed Not Free, representing 25 percent of the world’s polities. The number of people living under Not Free conditions stood at nearly 2.7 billion people, or 37 percent of the global population (though it is important to note that more than half of the people included in this figure live in just one country: China). The number of Not Free countries stayed the same as in the previous year.
Five countries saw a change in their classification from the previous year’s survey: The Gambia and Uganda both rose from Not Free to Partly Free, while Timor-Leste rose from Partly Free to Free. Turkey and Zimbabwe both fell from Partly Free to Not Free.
The number of “electoral democracies” stood at 116. For this edition of Freedom in the World, the criteria for designation as an electoral democracy were made slightly more stringent. Partly as a result, this year Bangladesh, Bhutan, Kenya, Kosovo, Nigeria, and Pakistan are no longer listed as electoral democracies. Côte d’Ivoire also lost its standing as an electoral democracy, while Nepal improved enough to qualify as an electoral democracy under the new more rigorous rules. Our survey for 2016, following the old rules, had listed 123 electoral democracies. If the new criteria had been applied to that year as well, however, the number of electoral democracies would have been constant at 116 for both 2016 and 2017.
If we consider the historical trajectory and geopolitical importance of some of the countries where freedom is in decline, the situation appears even graver than the numbers alone might indicate. States that a decade ago seemed like promising success stories—Hungary, Poland, Serbia, and Turkey, for example—are sliding into authoritarian rule. The military in Burma, where a limited democratic opening began in 2010, executed a shocking campaign of ethnic cleansing in 2017 and rebuffed international criticism of its actions. Meanwhile, the world’s most powerful democracies are mired in seemingly intractable problems at home, including social and economic disparities, partisan fragmentation, and terrorist attacks, as well as an influx of refugees that has heightened fears of the “other” and strained relations among allies. [End Page 129]
Freedom in the World Methodology
Freedom in the World 2018 evaluates the state of freedom in 195 countries during calendar year 2017. Its methodology, which is derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is applied to all countries, irrespective of geographic location, ethnic or religious composition, or level of economic development. Freedom in the World assesses the real-world rights and freedoms enjoyed by individuals, rather than governments or government performance per se. Political rights and civil liberties can be affected by both state and nonstate actors, including insurgents and other armed groups.
Each country is assigned between 0 and 4 points on a series of 25 indicators, for an aggregate score of up to 100. These scores are used to determine two numerical ratings, one for political rights and one for civil liberties, with a rating of 1 representing the most free conditions and 7 the least free. A country’s political rights and civil liberties ratings then determine whether it has an overall status of Free (1.0 to 2.5), Partly Free (3.0 to 5.0), or Not Free (5.5 to 7.0). For the first time in 2018, aggregate and subcategory scores from the current year’s report, as well as earlier reports dating back to 2003, can be viewed at https://freedomhouse.org/report-types/freedom-world.
In addition to categorization as Free, Party Free, or Not Free, Freedom in the World classifies countries meeting certain criteria as electoral democracies. For this edition of the survey, the criteria for designation as an electoral democracy were made more stringent. While the designation previously required a score of 7 or better in the Electoral Process subcategory and an overall political-rights score of 20 or better, a country must now earn an overall civil-liberties score of 30 or better as well.
For complete information on the methodology, visit https://freedomhouse.org/report/methodology-freedom-world-2018.
The challenges within democratic states have fueled the rise of populist leaders who appeal to anti-immigrant sentiment and give short shrift to fundamental civil and political liberties. Right-wing populists gained votes and parliamentary seats in elections in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Austria during 2017, and scored an impressive victory in Italy in 2018. While these politicians and parties were kept out of government in all these cases but Austria, their success at the polls helped to weaken established parties on both the center-right and center-left. Centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron handily won the French presidency, but in Germany and the Netherlands, mainstream parties struggled to create stable governing coalitions.
Perhaps most worrisome as we look to the future, young people, who [End Page 130] have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project. The very idea of democracy and its promotion has been tarnished in the eyes of many, contributing to a dangerous apathy.
The retreat of democracies is troubling enough. Yet at the same time, the world’s leading autocracies, China and Russia, have seized the opportunity not only to step up internal repression but also to export their malign influence to other countries, which are increasingly copying these powers’ behavior and adopting their disdain for democracy. A confident Chinese president Xi Jinping recently proclaimed that China is “blazing a new trail” for developing countries to follow. It is a path that includes politicized courts, intolerance of dissent, and predetermined elections.
The spread of antidemocratic practices around the world is not merely a setback for fundamental freedoms. It also poses economic and security risks for democracies. When more countries are free, all countries are safer and more prosperous. When more countries are autocratic and repressive, treaties and alliances crumble, nations and entire regions grow unstable, and violent extremists have greater room to operate.
Democratic governments allow people to help set the rules to which all must adhere, and to have a say in the direction of their lives and work. This fosters a broader respect for peace, fair play, and compromise. Autocrats impose arbitrary rules on their citizens while themselves ignoring all constraints, setting off a vicious circle of abuse and radicalization.
The United States Accelerates Its Withdrawal
A long list of troubling developments around the world contributed to the global democratic decline in 2017, but perhaps most striking was the accelerating withdrawal of the United States from its historical commitment to supporting and promoting democracy. This abdication of the traditional U.S. role was all the more significant in light of the potent challenge posed by authoritarian regimes.
Despite the U.S. government’s mistakes—and there have been many—the American people and their leaders have generally understood that standing up for the rights of others is both a moral imperative and beneficial to Americans themselves. But two long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a global recession have soured the public on extensive international engagement, and the perceived link between democracy promotion on the one hand and costly military interventions on the other has had a lasting impact.
The Obama administration continued to defend democratic ideals in its foreign-policy statements, but its actions often fell short, reflecting a reduced estimation of U.S. ability to influence world events and of the American public’s willingness to back such efforts. In 2017, however, [End Page 131]
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the Trump administration made explicit—in both words and actions—its intention to cast off principles that have guided U.S. policy and formed the basis for American leadership over the past seven decades.
President Trump’s “America First” slogan, once the motto of early-1940s isolationists who sought to block U.S. involvement in the war against fascism, took aim at traditional notions of collective global security and mutually beneficial trade. The administration’s hostility and skepticism toward binding international agreements on the environment, arms control, and other topics further signaled a reorientation in U.S. policy.
Even when President Trump chose to acknowledge U.S. treaty alliances with fellow democracies, he spoke of cultural or civilizational ties rather than shared recognition of universal rights. His trips abroad rarely featured any mention of the word “democracy.” Indeed, the American leader has expressed feelings of admiration and even personal friendship for some of the world’s most loathsome strongmen and dictators.
This marks a sharp break from other American presidents in the post-war period, who may have cooperated with certain authoritarian regimes for strategic reasons but never wavered from a commitment to democracy as the best form of government and the animating force behind U.S. foreign policy. It also reflects an inability—or unwillingness—on the part of the United States to lead the democracies in effectively confronting the growing threat from Russia, China, and other states that have come to emulate their authoritarian approach.
The past year brought further, faster erosion of the United States’ own democratic standards than at any other time in memory, damaging the country’s international credibility as a champion of good governance and human rights.
Under leadership from both major political parties, the United States has experienced a series of setbacks in the conduct of elections and criminal justice over the past decade. In 2017, however, core U.S. institutions were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity. President Trump himself has mingled the concerns of his business empire with his role as president and refused to abide by disclosure and transparency practices observed by his predecessors.
The president has also lambasted and threatened the media for challenging his many false statements, spoken disdainfully of judges who blocked his decisions, and attacked the professional staffs of intelligence and law-enforcement agencies. At a time when millions around the world have been forced to flee war, terrorism, and ethnic cleansing, President Trump moved to implement major reductions in the number of legal immigrants and refugees that the United States would accept.
The president’s behavior reflects, in part, a frustration with the country’s [End Page 134] democratic checks and balances, including independent courts, a coequal legislative branch, a free press, and an active civil society. These institutions remained fairly resilient in 2017, but the administration’s statements and actions could ultimately leave them weakened, with serious consequences for the health of U.S. democracy and for America’s role in the world.
The International Consequences of Authoritarian Rule
While the United States and other democratic powers grappled with domestic problems and argued about foreign-policy priorities, the world’s leading autocracies—Russia and China—remained single-minded in their identification of democracy as a threat to their oppressive regimes. In 2017 they continued to work relentlessly, and with increasing sophistication, to undermine democratic institutions and cripple democracy’s principal advocates.
The eventual outcome of these trends, if unchecked, is obvious. The replacement of global democratic norms with authoritarian practices would mean more elections in which the incumbent’s victory is a foregone conclusion. It would mean more media landscapes dominated by propaganda mouthpieces that marginalize the opposition while presenting the ruler as omniscient, strong, and devoted to the glory of the nation. It would mean state control over the internet and social media through both censorship and active manipulation that pushes proregime messages while confusing users with lies and fakery. And it will mean more corruption, more injustice, and more impunity for government abuses.
Already, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has carried out disinformation campaigns during elections in the United States, France, Germany, and other countries; cultivated ties to xenophobic political parties across Europe; threatened or invaded its closest neighbors; and provided military aid to Syria and other Middle Eastern dictatorships. Its chief goals are to disrupt democratic states and to fracture the European Union and other institutions that bind them together.
Beijing has even greater ambitions—and the resources to achieve them. It has built up a propaganda and censorship apparatus with global reach, used economic and other ties to influence democracies such as Australia and New Zealand, compelled various countries to repatriate Chinese citizens seeking refuge abroad, and provided diplomatic and material support to repressive governments from Southeast Asia to Africa. While Moscow often plays the role of spoiler, bolstering its position by undercutting its adversaries, the scope and depth of Beijing’s activities show that the Chinese regime aspires to truly global leadership.
Beyond the destabilizing actions of Moscow and Beijing, the past [End Page 135] year provided ample evidence that undemocratic rule itself can be catastrophic for regional and global stability.
In Burma, the politically dominant military conducted a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Muslim Rohingya minority, enabled by diplomatic cover from China and an impotent response from the rest of the international community. Some 600,000 people have been pushed out, while thousands of others are thought to have been killed. The refugees have strained the resources of an already fragile Bangladesh, and Islamist militants have sought to use the Rohingya cause as a new rallying point for violent struggle.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broadened and intensified the crackdown on his perceived opponents that began after a failed July 2016 coup attempt. This chaotic purge has had dire consequences for detained Turkish citizens, shuttered media outlets, and seized businesses; it also has become intertwined with an offensive against the country’s Kurdish minority. This offensive has spilled across borders and fueled Turkish diplomatic and military interventions in neighboring Syria and Iraq, which are home to their own Kurdish populations.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, authoritarian rulers in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates asserted their interests in reckless ways, perpetuating long-running conflicts in Libya and Yemen and initiating a sudden attempt to blockade Qatar, a hub of international trade and transportation. Their similarly repressive archrival Iran played its own part in the region’s conflicts, overseeing militia networks stretching from Lebanon to Afghanistan. Promises of reform from a powerful new crown prince in Saudi Arabia added an unexpected variable in a region that has long resisted greater openness, though his nascent social and economic changes were accompanied by hundreds of arbitrary arrests and aggressive moves against potential rivals, and he showed no inclination to open the political system.
The humanitarian crisis produced in Venezuela by President Nicolás Maduro’s determination to stay in power continued to drive residents to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, Brazil’s sprawling corruption investigations implicated leaders across Latin America, and Mexico’s embattled government resisted reforms that would help to address rampant graft, organized crime, and a crumbling justice system.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Burundi, incumbent rulers’ ongoing use of violence to flout term limits helped to generate internal displacement and refugee flows. A deeply flawed electoral process in Kenya contributed to political violence there, while South Sudan’s leaders chose to press on with a bloody civil war rather than make peace and face a long-overdue reckoning with voters.
North Korea presented one of the most glaring threats to world peace, [End Page 136] aggressively building up its nuclear arsenal in an attempt to fortify an exceptionally oppressive and criminal regime.
Despite the decline in democracy worldwide in 2017—and Venezuela’s continued descent into dictatorship and humanitarian crisis—the Americas region displayed some signs of resilience.
Under new president Lenín Moreno, elected in April, Ecuador turned away from the personalized and often repressive rule of his predecessor Rafael Correa. Moreno has eased pressure on the media, promoted greater engagement with civil society, spearheaded the restoration of term limits, and supported anticorruption efforts, including a case against his own vice-president. Moreno had been Correa’s chosen successor, but his unexpectedly reformist stance once again demonstrated the potential of regular elections and transfers of power to disrupt authoritarian entrenchment.
Meanwhile in Argentina, where former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had shown authoritarian leanings, citizens benefited from a freer press under a new administration that took office in late 2015. In Colombia, more citizens were able to enjoy basic due process rights as the government implemented reforms to limit pretrial detention and continued to expand its territorial control under a 2016 peace agreement with left-wing rebels.
Nevertheless, declines in freedom outpaced gains in the region as a whole. In Honduras, after an early presidential vote count favored the opposition candidate, a belatedly updated total handed victory to the incumbent, prompting protests, curfews, and calls for a new election. In Bolivia, the constitutional court, whose members had been elected through a highly politicized process, struck down term limits that would have prevented incumbent leader Evo Morales from seeking reelection—even though voters in a 2016 referendum had rejected the lifting of term limits. International observers called the court’s reasoning a distortion of human-rights law.
In November, Nicaragua carried out deeply flawed municipal elections that favored the party of President Daniel Ortega. Nicaragua’s government also enacted judicial reforms that further centralized state authority and shifted power from juries to judges. Mexico was shaken by new revelations of extensive state surveillance aimed at journalists and civil society activists who threatened to expose government corruption and other wrongdoing.
Repressive regimes in Asia continued to consolidate their power in 2017, while marginalized communities faced dire new threats.
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen oversaw a decisive crackdown [End Page 137] on the country’s beleaguered opposition and press corps as his Cambodian People’s Party prepared for national elections in 2018. The politicized Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, and party leader Kem Sokha was charged with treason. In a series of blows to free expression, the authorities shuttered the independent Cambodia Daily, pushed several radio stations off the air, and announced that sharing criticism of the government on social media was a crime.
The Communist Party leadership in Beijing exercised ever-greater influence in Hong Kong as it attempted to stamp out growing public support for local self-determination. Four prodemocracy lawmakers were expelled from the legislature on the grounds that their oaths of office were “insincere,” making it easier for progovernment forces to pass major legislation and rules changes. In addition, the government obtained harsher sentences against three prominent protest leaders, and China’s legislature attached a law criminalizing disrespect of the national anthem (often booed by Hong Kong soccer fans) to the territory’s Basic Law, effectively compelling the local legislature to draft a matching measure.
In Burma, the military’s brutal campaign of rape, mutilation, and slaughter aimed at the Rohingya minority forced more than 600,000 Rohingya to flee the country. The crisis, and the civilian leadership’s failure to stop it, underscored severe flaws in the country’s hybrid political system, which grants the military enormous autonomy and political power.
The Maldives suffered from acute pressure on freedom of speech and dissent in 2017. The murder of prominent liberal blogger Yameen Rasheed had a chilling effect, encouraging people to self-censor rather than speak out against religious extremism. Moreover, the military was used to block opposition efforts to remove the speaker of parliament, and a number of lawmakers were ousted for defecting from the ruling Progressive Party of the Maldives.
In a bright spot for the region, Timor-Leste, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations, conducted fair elections that led to a smooth transfer of power. The process helped to consolidate the country’s democratic development and allowed new parties and younger politicians to gain seats in the parliament.
Observers have long speculated about the possible consequences of presidential successions in Central Asia, where a number of entrenched rulers have held office for decades. In 2017, speculation turned into cautious optimism in Uzbekistan, as the country’s new government—formed following the 2016 death of longtime president Islam Karimov—took steps toward reform. Among other moves, it ended forced labor in the annual cotton harvest for some segments of the population, and announced plans to lift the draconian exit-visa regime and to make [End Page 138] the national currency fully convertible. The new administration has also granted more breathing room to civil society: Some local groups reported a decrease in state harassment, and a Human Rights Watch delegation was allowed to enter Uzbekistan for the first time since 2010.
In other Eurasian countries, however, governments sought to stave off change. In Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, heavily flawed voting highlighted the continuing erosion of democratic norms surrounding elections. The dominant parties in both countries relied on harassment of the opposition, voter intimidation, and the misuse of administrative resources to maintain a grip on power. In Armenia’s case, this blatant electoral mis-conduct stands at odds with the country’s pursuit of a closer relationship with the European Union, with which it signed a Comprehensive and Enhanced Partnership Agreement in November.
Perhaps the most alarming threats to democracy in the region involved authoritarian forces reaching across borders to punish their critics. Exiled Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was transported back to Azerbaijan after being kidnapped in Tbilisi by men who allegedly spoke Georgian, raising concerns that Georgian authorities were complicit in the abduction. In Ukraine, a prominent Chechen couple who were fierce opponents of Vladimir Putin and supported Ukraine in the Donbas conflict fell victim to an assassination attempt that killed one and injured the other. Numerous plots against politicians were also reported during the year, with Ukrainian authorities mostly pointing the finger at Russian security services.
Reverberations from the 2015–16 refugee crisis continued to fuel the rise of xenophobic, far-right parties, which gained ground in elections in France, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.
With pledges to suspend immigration and hold a referendum on France’s EU membership, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front outperformed several mainstream candidates in France’s first round of presidential voting in April, though she lost in the May second round to centrist newcomer Emmanuel Macron. The Euroskeptic, anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany became the first far-right party to enter the German legislature since 1945, following a campaign in which the party’s leaders demanded the deportation of “large numbers of refugees” and characterized Islam as incompatible with German identity. In Austria, the similarly Islamophobic Freedom Party finished third in parliamentary elections and entered a governing coalition headed by the conservative People’s Party. In the Netherlands, the notoriously xenophobic Party for Freedom chipped away enough votes from mainstream parties to finish second in the general election in March, becoming the parliament’s primary opposition group.
In Hungary and Poland, populist leaders continued to consolidate power by uprooting democratic institutions and intimidating critics in [End Page 139] civil society. Smears against the opposition appeared in public media outlets in both countries, and both passed laws designed to curb the activities of NGOs. Poland’s ruling party also pressed ahead with an effort to assert political control over the judiciary, adopting laws that will affect the Supreme Court, local courts, and a council responsible for judicial appointments.
Events in the Western Balkans demonstrated a need for continued engagement in the region by major democracies. In Macedonia, mediation by Washington and Brussels helped to resolve a years-long political crisis, paving the way for the formation in May of a new, democratically elected government. But in Serbia, EU leaders’ tolerance of the authoritarian tendencies of Aleksandar Vučić, prime minister from 2014 through mid-2017, allowed him to further sideline the opposition and to undermine what remains of the independent media after winning election to the country’s presidency in April.
Middle East and North Africa
In a region ravaged by war and dictatorship, Tunisia has stood out for its successful transition to democratic rule after experiencing the first Arab Spring uprising in 2011. In 2017, however, signs of backsliding that had appeared earlier took clearer shape: Municipal elections were once again postponed, leaving unelected councils in place seven years after the revolution. Meanwhile, figures associated with the old regime increased their influence over the vulnerable political system, securing passage of a new amnesty law despite strong public opposition. The extension of a two-year-old state of emergency also signaled the erosion of democratic order.
Tunisia’s security situation has been undermined by lawlessness in neighboring Libya, where disputes between rival authorities in the east and the west have led to political paralysis. Refugees and migrants face abuses in militia-run detention camps, and there have even been reports of modern-day slave markets. These dire conditions stem in part from an EU-led campaign to curb human trafficking across the Mediterranean, an effort that encourages local Libyan officials to detain large numbers of migrants in a dangerous environment.
Libya’s problems also pose a threat to Egypt. In order to buttress its own floundering efforts to combat the extremist violence that has extended from the Sinai Peninsula to touch all corners of Egypt, the authoritarian government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has allegedly supported the anti-Islamist campaign of the de facto government in eastern Libya. Rather than reforming its abusive security services and enlisting support from all segments of Egyptian society, Sisi’s regime continued its repression of dissent in 2017. It also adopted a restrictive new law designed to choke off international funding for NGOs and to provide legal cover for their arbitrary closure.
Elsewhere in the region, Iraqi forces declared victory over the Islamic [End Page 140] State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in December, and improved security has helped to create space for competition among newly registered parties and candidates ahead of Iraq’s 2018 elections. ISIS also lost territory in Syria, but the repressive regime of President Bashar al-Assad gained ground, and civilians in areas captured from ISIS by U.S.-backed fighters faced widespread devastation and danger from concealed explosives.
Yemen’s civil war churned on despite a late-year rift in the rebel alliance, leaving some three-quarters of the population in need of humanitarian aid. Small groups of war-weary protesters in Sana’a repeatedly turned out to demand the release of political prisoners and an international response aimed at ending the violence. The Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemen’s ousted government continued its indiscriminate bombing campaign.
In Saudi Arabia itself, Mohammed bin Salman worked to consolidate power after replacing the previous crown prince in June. Among other rapid and opaque decisions during the year, he arbitrarily detained hundreds of princes, officials, and businessmen under the pretense of an anticorruption campaign.
New presidents replaced longtime incumbents in Angola and Zimbabwe in 2017, but the incoming leaders’ backgrounds in the ruling elites raised doubts about their promises of change.
The dramatic exit of President Robert Mugabe in late 2017 left the future of democracy in Zimbabwe uncertain. While his departure after nearly four decades in office was widely welcomed, he resigned under pressure from the military and was succeeded by former vice-president and ruling-party stalwart Emmerson Mnangagwa, a key member of Mugabe’s repressive regime.
In Angola, newly elected president João Lourenço began to dismantle the family-based power structure set up by his predecessor, José Eduardo dos Santos, who served as president for 38 years and remained head of the ruling party after leaving office. In one of his first moves as head of state, Lourenço, a ruling-party member who had served as dos Santos’s defense minister, fired the former leader’s daughter as chairwoman of the national oil company. It remained unclear, however, whether Lourenço would tackle corruption comprehensively or simply consolidate his own control over the levers of power and public wealth.
Leaders in several other countries clung to power, often at the expense of their citizens’ basic rights. Kenya’s Supreme Court initially won broad praise for annulling in early September the results of what it deemed to be a flawed presidential election. The period before the court-mandated rerun in October, however, was marred by a lack of substantive reforms, incidents of political violence, and a boycott by main opposition candidate Raila Odinga. These factors undermined the credibility of President Uhuru Kenyatta’s victory in the October rerun, in which he claimed 98 percent of the vote amid low turnout. [End Page 141]
In neighboring Tanzania, the government of President John Magufuli, who took office in 2015 as a member of the only ruling party the country has ever known, stepped up its repression of dissent, detaining opposition politicians, shuttering media outlets, and arresting citizens for posting critical views on social media. And in Uganda, 73-year-old president Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, sought to do away with the presidential age limit of 75, which would permit him to run again in 2021. Museveni had just won reelection in 2016, in a process that featured police violence, internet shutdowns, and treason charges against his main challenger.
Even in South Africa, a relatively strong democratic performer, the corrosive effect of perpetual incumbency on leaders and parties was apparent. A major corruption scandal continued to plague President Jacob Zuma, with additional revelations about the wealthy Gupta family’s vast influence over his government. Against this backdrop, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa defeated Zuma’s ex-wife and ally, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, in the December leadership election of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). (In February 2018, having lost the ANC’s support, Zuma stepped down as president.)
Freedom in One Country Depends on Freedom for All
Democracies generally remain the world’s wealthiest societies. They are the most open to new ideas and opportunities, the least corrupt, and the best at protecting individual liberties. When people around the globe are asked about their preferred political conditions, they embrace democracy’s ideals: honest elections, free speech, accountable government, and effective legal constraints on the police, military, and other institutions of authority.
In the twenty-first century, however, it is increasingly difficult to create and sustain these conditions in one country while ignoring their absence in others. The autocratic regimes in Russia and China clearly recognize that, in order to maintain power at home, they must squelch open debate, pursue dissidents, and compromise rules-based institutions beyond their borders. The citizens and leaders of democracies must now recognize that the reverse is also true: To maintain their own freedoms, they must defend the rights of their counterparts in all countries. The reality of globalization is that our fates are interlinked.
In August 1968, when Soviet tanks entered Czechoslovakia to force out a reformist leadership and put an end to the Prague Spring, a small group of dissidents gathered in Red Square in Moscow and unfurled a banner with the old Polish slogan, “For your freedom and ours.” Almost fifty years later, it is this spirit of transnational democratic solidarity and defiance in the face of autocracy that we must summon and revive. [End Page 142]
Michael J. Abramowitz is president of Freedom House. From 2014 to 2017, he was director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Levine Institute for Holocaust Education. He was formerly national editor and White House correspondent for the Washington Post.
Sarah Repucci is senior director for global publications at Freedom House. For country rankings in 2017, see the Table on pp. 132–33.