Democracy in a Year of Crisis
Freedom House's latest Freedom in the World report found that 2020 marked the fifteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom, with countries where freedom deteriorated outnumbering those where it improved by the largest margin since the negative trend began. Authoritarian governments exploited the covid-19 pandemic to consolidate power and crack down on dissent, and international democratic norms continued to erode, contributing to armed conflicts and impunity for human-rights violations. Grassroots protest movements encountered harsh repression in many settings, dimming hopes for reform, while major democracies such as the United States and India experienced further setbacks, with the latter dropping into the Partly Free category for the first time in decades. Nevertheless, Free countries generally proved more resilient than their Partly Free and Not Free counterparts, and ordinary people around the world persisted in demanding the benefits of democratic governance.
As a lethal pandemic, economic and physical insecurity, and violent conflict ravaged the world in 2020, democracy's defenders sustained heavy new losses in their struggle against authoritarian foes. Incumbent leaders increasingly used force to crush opponents and settle scores, sometimes invoking public health as a pretext, while beleaguered activists—lacking effective international support—faced heavy jail sentences, torture, or murder in many settings.
These withering blows marked the fifteenth consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The countries where levels of freedom fell (73) outnumbered those experiencing improvements (28) by the largest margin since the negative trend began in 2006. The impact of the long-term democratic decline has become broad enough to be felt by those living under the cruelest dictatorships as well as by citizens of longstanding democracies. Last year, nearly 75 percent of the world's population lived in a country where freedoms deteriorated.
This trend has been used to justify claims about democracy's inherent inferiority. Proponents of this idea include official Chinese and Russian commentators seeking to strengthen these regimes' international influence while brushing off accountability for abuses, as well as antidemocratic actors within democratic states who see an opportunity to consolidate power. They are both cheering the breakdown of democracy and exacerbating it, pitting themselves against the brave groups and individuals who have set out to reverse the damage.
The malign influence of the regime in China, the world's most populous dictatorship, was especially vigorous in 2020. Beijing ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up [End Page 45] of the original coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered the initial global response. It increased its meddling in the political discourse of foreign democracies, transnational extensions of domestic rights abuses, and demolition of Hong Kong's liberties and legal autonomy. Meanwhile, the Chinese regime has gained clout in multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council, which the United States abandoned in 2018, as Beijing pushed a vision of so-called noninterference that allows abuses to go unpunished while autocratic alliances are promoted.
As covid-19 spread during the year, governments across the democratic spectrum resorted to excessive surveillance, discriminatory restrictions on freedoms in areas such as movement and assembly, and arbitrary or violent enforcement of such restrictions. Waves of false and misleading information, generated deliberately by political leaders in some cases, flooded many countries' communication systems. While most countries with stronger democratic institutions ensured that any restrictions on liberty were necessary and proportionate, a number of their peers pursued clumsy or ill-informed strategies, and dictators from Cambodia to Venezuela exploited the crisis to quash opposition and fortify their power.
The expansion of authoritarian rule, combined with the fading and inconsistent presence of major democracies on the international stage, has had tangible effects on human life and security, in part through governments resorting to military force. As longstanding conflicts churned on in places such as Libya and Yemen, the leaders of Ethiopia and Azerbaijan launched wars last year in the regions of Tigray and Nagorno-Karabakh, respectively, drawing on support from authoritarian neighbors Eritrea and Turkey. Repercussions from the fighting shattered hopes for progress by tentative reform movements in both Armenia, which clashed with the Azerbaijani regime over Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ethiopia.
The widespread protest movements of 2019, which had signaled the popular desire for good governance the world over, often collided with increased repression in 2020. While protests in countries such as Chile and Sudan led to democratic advances, there were many more discouraging examples. Of the 39 countries and territories where Freedom House noted major protests in 2019, 23 experienced a score decline for 2020—a significantly higher proportion than the share of countries with declines in the world at large. In settings as varied as Algeria, Guinea, and India, regimes that had been taken by surprise by protesters in 2019 struck back by arresting and prosecuting demonstrators, passing newly restrictive laws, and in some cases resorting to brutal crackdowns. They faced few repercussions from a distracted and divided international community.
India, the world's most populous democracy, dropped from Free to Partly Free status in our survey for 2020. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its allies in India's subnational states continued to crack down on critics, and their response to covid-19 included a ham-fisted lockdown that resulted in the dangerous and unplanned displacement [End Page 46]
Freedom in the World Methodology
Freedom in the World 2021 evaluates the state of freedom in 195 countries and 15 territories during calendar year 2020. Each country and territory 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, for political rights and civil liberties, with a rating of 1 representing the most free conditions and 7 the least free. A country or territory's political rights and civil liberties ratings then determine whether it has an overall status of Free, Partly Free, or Not Free.
The methodology, which is derived from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is applied to all countries and territories, 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.
Prior to the 2021 edition, Freedom in the World assigned the designation "electoral democracy" to countries that had met certain minimum standards for political rights and civil liberties; territories were not included in the list of electoral democracies. An electoral-democracy designation required a score of 7 or better in the Electoral Process subcategory, an overall political-rights score of 20 or better, and an overall civil-liberties score of 30 or better. In order to simplify the report's methodological outputs, Freedom House is no longer highlighting this designation, but the underlying scores remain publicly available.
For complete information on the methodology, visit https://freedomhouse.org/reports/freedom-world/freedom-world-research-methodology.
of millions of internal-migrant workers. The ruling political force also encouraged the scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced mob attacks. Under Modi and his party, who have elevated narrow Hindu-nationalist interests at the expense of the country's founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all, India appears to have abandoned its potential role as a global democratic leader and counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China.
The parlous state of U.S. democracy was conspicuous in the early days of 2021 as an insurrectionist mob, egged on by the words of outgoing president Donald Trump and his refusal to admit defeat in [End Page 47]
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[End Page 49] the November election, stormed the Capitol building and temporarily disrupted Congress's final certification of the presidential vote. The year leading up to the assault was fraught with other troubling developments that included politically distorted health recommendations, partisan infighting, shockingly high and racially disparate coronavirus death rates, and police violence against protesters advocating racial justice, as well as administration efforts to undermine government accountability. Though battered, many U.S. institutions—including judges appointed by presidents from both parties, a diverse set of media outlets, and civil society groups—held strong during and after the election process, handing down impartial rulings, confirming the election outcome, and providing evidence of a credible vote. Nonetheless, the United States will need to work vigorously to strengthen its institutional safeguards, restore its civic norms, and uphold the promise of its core principles for all segments of society if it is to protect its venerable democracy and regain global credibility.
Although Freedom in the World's traditionally better-performing countries had been in retreat for several years, in 2020 it was struggling democracies and authoritarian states that accounted for more of the global decline. The proportion of countries rated Not Free is now the highest it has been in the past fifteen years. On average, the scores of these countries have declined by about 15 percent during that same period. At the same time, the total number of countries earning a net score improvement in 2020 was the lowest since 2005. With India's decline to Partly Free, less than 20 percent of the world's population now lives in a Free country, the smallest proportion since 1995.
The Shifting International Balance
During the past year, oppressive and often violent authoritarian forces exploited both the advantages of nondemocratic systems and the weaknesses in ailing democracies. Flickers of hope were extinguished, contributing to a new global status quo in which acts of repression went unpunished and democracy's advocates were increasingly isolated.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), faced with the danger that its authoritarian system would be blamed for covering up the initial stages of the covid-19 pandemic, worked hard to convert the global crisis into an opportunity to exert influence. It provided medical supplies abroad, but it often portrayed sales as donations and orchestrated propaganda events with economically dependent governments. Beijing sometimes sought to shift blame to the very countries it claimed to be helping, as when Chinese state media suggested that the coronavirus had actually originated in Italy. The CCP also touted its own authoritarian methods for controlling the contagion, comparing them favorably with responses in democracies such as the United States while studiously ignoring the [End Page 50] countries that succeeded without resorting to major abuses, most notably Taiwan. This type of spin could convince many that China's censorship and repression are a recipe for effective governance rather than blunt tools for entrenching political power.
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 campaign has been supplemented by efforts at the United Nations and in diplomatic channels as well as through worldwide propaganda that aims to systematically alter global norms. Other authoritarian states have joined China in these efforts, even as key democracies have abandoned allies and their own values in foreign-policy matters. Mechanisms long used to hold governments accountable for violations of human-rights standards and international law are being weakened and subverted, and even such egregious abuses as the large-scale forced sterilization of Uyghur women in China are not met with a well-coordinated response.
In this climate of impunity, the CCP has run roughshod over Hong Kong's democratic institutions and international legal agreements. The territory has suffered a massive decline in freedom since 2013, with an especially steep drop since mass prodemocracy demonstrations were suppressed in 2019. The central government's imposition of the national-security law in June 2020 erased many of Hong Kong's remaining liberties, bringing it into closer alignment with the system on the mainland. In early 2021, the Hong Kong government used this law to arrest more than fifty prodemocracy activists and politicians, essentially for holding a primary and attempting to win legislative elections that were ultimately postponed by a year. In November 2020, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments had colluded to expel four prodemocracy members from the existing Legislative Council, prompting the remaining fifteen to resign in protest.
The use of military force by authoritarian states, another symptom of the global decay of democratic norms, was on display in Nagorno-Karabakh. In September the Azerbaijani regime, with decisive support from Turkey, launched an offensive to settle a long-running territorial dispute with Armenia. At least 6,500 combatants and hundreds of civilians were killed, and tens of thousands of people were newly displaced. Absent meaningful engagement from the broader international community, the war only stopped when Moscow imposed a peacekeeping plan that fixed in place the Azerbaijani military's territorial gains but left many other questions unanswered.
In addition to strengthening the rule of Azerbaijan's authoritarian president Ilham Aliyev, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict threatens to destabilize the government in Armenia. A rare bright spot in a region replete with deeply entrenched leaders, Armenia has experienced tentative [End Page 51] gains in freedom since mass protests erupted in 2018 and citizens voted in a more reform-minded government. But following Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian's November capitulation in the war, his opponents stormed the parliament and physically attacked the speaker, a sign of disorder that threatens the country's hard-won progress.
Ethiopia had also made democratic gains in recent years, as new prime minister Abiy Ahmed lifted restrictions on opposition media and political groups and released imprisoned journalists and political figures. However, persistent ethnic and political tensions remained. In July 2020, a popular ethnic-Oromo singer was killed, leading to large protests in the Oromia Region that were marred by attacks on non-Oromo populations, a violent response by security forces, and the arrest of thousands of people, including many opposition figures. In September, the ruling party in the Tigray Region held elections against the will of the federal authorities and labeled Abiy's government illegitimate. Tigrayan forces later attacked a military base, leading to an overwhelming response from federal forces and allied ethnic militias that displaced tens of thousands of people and led to untold civilian casualties. In an ominous sign for the country's democratic prospects, the government enlisted military support from the autocratic regime of neighboring Eritrea, and national elections that were postponed due to the pandemic will now either take place in the shadow of civil conflict or be pushed back even further.
In Venezuela, which has experienced a dizzying forty-point score decline on Freedom House's 100-point scale over the last fifteen years, National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó (an opposition politician) appeared in 2019 to present a serious challenge to the rule of dictator Nicolás Maduro. Citing the illegitimacy of the presidential election that kept Maduro in power, the opposition named Guaidó as interim president based on provisions of the 1999 Constitution, and many democratic governments recognized his status. In 2020, however, as opponents of the regime continued to face extrajudicial execution, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detention, Maduro regained the upper hand. Tightly controlled National Assembly elections went forward despite an opposition boycott, yielding a new slate of legislators with a ruling-party majority. The old opposition-led legislature hung on in a weakened state, extending its own term as its electoral legitimacy ebbed away.
Belarus emerged as another fleeting bright spot in August, when citizens unexpectedly rose up to dispute the fraudulent results of a deeply flawed presidential election. Alyaksandr Lukashenka's repressive rule had previously been taken for granted, but for a few weeks the protests—which continued despite brutal crackdowns, mass arrests, and torture—seemed to put him on the defensive. At the start of 2021, however, Lukashenka remained in power; protests, more limited in scale, continued to be met with detentions; and political rights and civil liberties had become even more tightly restricted than before. [End Page 52]
The fall of India from the Free to the Partly Free category could have a particularly damaging impact on global democratic standards. Political rights and civil liberties in the country have deteriorated since Modi became prime minister in 2014, with increased pressure on human-rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims. Last year, the government intensified its crackdown on protesters opposed to a discriminatory citizenship law and arrested dozens of journalists who aired criticism of the official pandemic response. Judicial independence has also come under strain; in one case, a judge was transferred immediately after reprimanding the police for taking no action during riots in New Delhi that left more than fifty people, mostly Muslims, dead. In December, the state of Uttar Pradesh approved a law that prohibits forced religious conversion through interfaith marriage, which critics fear will effectively restrict interfaith marriage in general; authorities have already arrested a number of Muslim men under the statute. In the spring, the government imposed an abrupt covid-19 lockdown that left millions of migrant workers in cities without work or basic resources. Many were forced to walk across the country to their home villages, facing abuse along the way.
To reverse the global shift toward authoritarian norms, democracy advocates working for freedom in their home countries will need robust solidarity from likeminded allies abroad. The enemies of freedom have pushed the false narrative that democracy is in decline because it is incapable of addressing people's needs. In fact, democracy is in decline because its most prominent exemplars are not doing enough to protect it. Governments that understand democracy's value have a responsibility to band together to deliver on its benefits, counter its adversaries, and support its defenders. They must also put their own houses in order to shore up their credibility and fortify their institutions against actors who are willing to trample democratic principles in the pursuit of power. If free societies fail to take these basic steps, no country will be safe from the destructive effects of dictatorship.
The Long Arm of Covid-19
Since its spread in early 2020, covid-19 has exacerbated the global decline in freedom. The democratic weaknesses that it triggered or exposed ranged from shortcomings in elections and the rule of law to egregiously disproportionate restrictions on freedoms of assembly and movement. Both democracies and dictatorships experienced successes and failures in their respective battles with the virus itself, though citizens in authoritarian states had fewer tools to resist and correct harmful policies. Ultimately, the changes precipitated by the pandemic left a wide range of societies facing worsened political conditions; deepened racial, ethnic, and gender inequalities; and the risk of long-term effects. [End Page 53]
Transparency was one of the hardest-hit aspects of democratic governance. National and local officials in China assiduously obstructed information about the outbreak, including by carrying out mass arrests of internet users who shared relevant information. In December, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison for her reporting from Wuhan, the initial epicenter. The Belarusian government actively downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic to the public, while the Iranian regime concealed the true toll of the virus on its people. Some highly repressive governments, including those of Turkmenistan and Nicaragua, implausibly denied the pathogen's presence within their borders altogether. More open political systems also experienced significant transparency problems. The obscuring of data and sowing of misinformation by some officials in the United States, including at the presidential level, led to widespread confusion and the politicization of what should have been a public-health matter. Similarly, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro repeatedly downplayed the harms of covid-19, promoted unproven treatments, criticized subnational governments' health measures, and sowed doubt about the utility of masks and vaccines.
Freedom of personal expression, which has experienced the largest declines of any democracy indicator since 2012, was further curtailed during the health crisis. In the midst of a heavy-handed lockdown in the Philippines, authorities stepped up harassment and arrests of social-media users, including those who criticized the government's pandemic response. Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister Hun Sen presided over the arrests of numerous people for allegedly spreading false information linked to the virus and for criticizing the state's performance. Governments around the world also deployed intrusive surveillance tools that were often of dubious value to public health and featured few safeguards against abuse.
Official responses to covid-19 have laid the groundwork for government excesses that could affect democracy for years to come. As with the response to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the covid-19 pandemic has triggered a shift in norms and the adoption of problematic legislation that will be challenging to reverse.
In Hungary, for example, a series of emergency measures allowed the government to rule by decree even though coronavirus cases were negligible in the country until the latter part of the year. Among other misuses of these new powers, the government withdrew financial assistance from municipalities led by opposition parties. The push for greater [End Page 54] executive authority was in keeping with the gradual concentration of power that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long been orchestrating. In December, the pliant parliament approved constitutional amendments that transferred public assets into the hands of institutions headed by ruling-party loyalists, reduced independent oversight of government spending, and pandered to the ruling party's base by effectively barring same-sex couples from adopting children.
In Algeria, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who had come to power through a tightly controlled election after longtime authoritarian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned under public pressure, banned all forms of mass gatherings in March. This prohibition remained in place even as other restrictions were eased in June, and authorities stepped up arrests of activists associated with the prodemocracy protest movement. Many of the arrests were based on April penal-code amendments, adopted under the cover of the covid-19 response, that increased prison sentences for defamation and criminalized the spread of false information, with higher penalties during an emergency. These provisions could continue to suppress critical speech in the future.
Indonesia turned to the military and other security forces as key players in its pandemic response, threatening to accelerate a previously observed trend toward growing military influence over civilian governance. Meanwhile, restrictions on freedoms of expression and association have worsened over time, pushing the country's scores deeper into the Partly Free range.
In Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa dissolved the parliament in early March, initially with a plan to hold elections the following month. The pandemic delayed the vote, however, giving Rajapaksa the opportunity to rule virtually unchecked and consolidate power through various ministerial appointments. After his party swept the elections that were finally held in August, the new parliament approved constitutional amendments that handed Rajapaksa the authority to appoint key commissions, to hold ministerial positions, and to dissolve the legislature after it has served just half its term.
The public-health crisis is causing a major economic crisis, as countries around the world fall into recession and millions of people are left unemployed. Marginalized populations are bearing the brunt of both the virus and its economic impact, which has exacerbated income inequality and other disparities. In general, countries with wider income gaps have weaker protections for basic rights, suggesting that the economic fallout from the pandemic could have harmful implications for democracy. The 2008 global financial crisis was notably followed by political instability and a deepening of the democratic decline.
The covid-19 pandemic is not the only global emergency with the potential to hasten the erosion of democracy. The effects of climate change could have a similar long-term impact, with mass displacement [End Page 55] fueling conflict and more nationalist, xenophobic, and racist policies. Numerous other, less predictable crises could also surface. Democracy's advocates need to learn from the experience of 2020 and prepare for emergency responses that respect the political rights and civil liberties of all people, including the most marginalized.
People in a number of countries in the Americas faced violence and other abuses in the enforcement of harsh covid-19 lockdowns. Police and military units in El Salvador and Venezuela reportedly engaged in arbitrary detentions and torture, while paramilitary groups policed civilian movement in Venezuela and Colombia. Even in Argentina, where democratic institutions are stronger, reports emerged of police firing rubber bullets at alleged quarantine breakers. Separately, the president of Mexico downplayed the harms of the coronavirus, leaving citizens with less access to life-saving information and resources.
Freedom of expression suffered elsewhere in the region. Cuban authorities unleashed a wave of intimidation, arbitrary detentions, and illegal house arrests against independent journalists and a group of dissident artists. A harsh new cybercrimes law in Nicaragua mandated prison sentences for spreading "false information" online.
Flawed voting and political dysfunction prompted concern in some settings. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele shocked the country by ordering troops into the parliament in an attempt to secure extra funding for security forces. Guyana's legislative elections were marred by media bias and interference with the tabulation favoring the incumbent government, though a court-ordered recount eventually confirmed an opposition victory. Peru was rocked by the Congress's impeachment of one president on dubious grounds, followed a week later by the resignation of his replacement under intense public pressure. These chaotic events, seen as a blow to anticorruption efforts, resulted in a status decline from Free to Partly Free.
In a more positive development, after domineering president Dési Bouterse was ousted in May elections, Suriname's new government operated with greater transparency. Bolivia's presidential election was administered impartially, and the results were recognized by all competing parties, capping a period of serious political turmoil. And in Chile, following 2019 protests against inequality that featured property destruction and police violence, an overwhelming majority of voters approved a process for drafting a new constitution.
Cambodia's one-party legislature adopted a new emergency law that effectively empowered the government to surveil and arrest anyone who expresses dissent. Students and academics in Indonesia were arrested and beaten by authorities seeking to discourage public criticism of [End Page 56] the government. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte's government shuttered a major broadcaster, arrested social-media users for critical posts during the pandemic, and adopted a vaguely worded antiterrorism law that allowed people to be arbitrarily labeled as terrorists and detained without a warrant or charges, including for speech-related offenses.
Authorities in several countries restricted public assembly. Even before the February 2021 coup in Burma, students and activists experienced an uptick in detentions for their involvement in public protests, while an extended internet shutdown in Rakhine State made it difficult for people to organize online. Increasing arrests and prosecutions in Singapore have raised a barrier to permitless protests, and demonstrations by migrant workers in the Maldives led to arrests and deportations. Protests in Thailand calling for democratic reforms were met with arrests and the use of water cannons. With the military's violent crackdown on dissent and the abolition of a popular opposition party, Thailand's status changed from Partly Free to Not Free.
Blatantly fraudulent parliamentary elections in Kyrgyzstan touched off protests that were quickly co-opted by criminal elements, and Sadyr Japarov—a nationalist politician serving time on a kidnapping conviction—seized power as both prime minister and president. At year's end, Japarov had advanced a new draft constitution that could reshape Kyrgyzstan's political system in the mold of its authoritarian neighbors. The country saw an eleven-point score decline—the largest in this year's survey—and its status fell to Not Free.
The second-largest decline in this year's report occurred in Belarus, which lost eight points as security forces attempted to crush antigovernment demonstrations. The crackdown left a handful of protesters dead and hundreds at risk of torture in the country's jails. In Russia, President Vladimir Putin was handed the right to stay in power through 2036 in a rigged referendum, with official results showing 78 percent approval. Comparatively free but flawed parliamentary elections in Georgia deepened that country's political crisis, as the second round of voting was boycotted by the opposition.
In Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky's reform campaign faltered in the face of the pandemic and political corruption, culminating in a constitutional crisis. Armenian prime minister Nikol Pashinian made some headway in his reform drive, but the consensus behind his government was shattered by defeat in the war with Azerbaijan. In the unrecognized territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which had held historically competitive elections just months earlier, democratic gains evaporated amid the fighting. The conflict claimed scores of civilian lives and led to an exodus of much of the ethnic-Armenian population. Amid the pandemic, separatist authorities closed humanitarian corridors in breakaway regions of Ukraine and Georgia. [End Page 57]
Covid-19 placed the democracies of Europe under severe strain. Leaders confronted hard choices, postponing elections and locking down cities, and their decisions were implemented imperfectly: Enforcement of restrictions on movement, for example, often discriminated against marginalized groups, including immigrants in France and Roma in Bulgaria. Many governments, including those of Britain and Spain, sought to limit public scrutiny of their decision making as they failed to contain the virus, while inadequate labor protections in the Netherlands and elsewhere compounded the risk of illness for low-wage workers.
In countries where democratic institutions were already under attack, right-wing populists exploited the pandemic. Hungary's parliament handed expansive emergency powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Poland's ruling party cited the health crisis as justification for an unsuccessful last-minute attempt to illegally bypass the electoral commission and unilaterally arrange postal voting for the presidential election. The election, eventually held at a later date, was marred by the misuse of state resources and criminal charges against LGBT+ activists.
Flawed parliamentary elections dealt a grievous blow to Serbia's multiparty system, while in Kosovo, the political old guard ousted Prime Minister Albin Kurti's short-lived government and formed a new one, unconstitutionally. Conversely, Montenegro bucked a six-year string of score declines, as elections resulted in the first transfer of power to the opposition in the country's independent history. North Macedonia's reformist government was reelected, and its institutions have largely recovered from damage inflicted by former prime minister Nikola Gruevski.
To the southeast, Turkey's government continued to clamp down on domestic dissent and intervened in the presidential vote of the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Along the Turkish-Greek border, migrants and refugees endured violent "pushbacks," a phenomenon also seen on the Croatian-Bosnian border.
Middle East and North Africa
A number of governments in the Middle East and North Africa took advantage of the pandemic to tamp down protests. In Jordan, emergency laws enacted in response to covid-19 were among those used to detain thousands of teachers who participated in massive strikes and protests led by the Teachers' Syndicate, which was ultimately dissolved. In light of this closure, a blanket ban on protests, and an electoral framework that gave significant advantages to progovernment forces during the year's elections, Jordan's status declined from Partly Free to Not Free.
The Iranian regime used censorship and prosecutions to suppress independent reporting on the true extent of one of the region's largest early coronavirus outbreaks. Similar tactics were employed to contain information about the previous year's bloody crackdown on antigovernment protests and the security forces' accidental destruction of a civilian airliner in January 2020. Lack [End Page 58] of state accountability was also linked to the loss of human life in Lebanon, where a series of government failures led to a massive chemical explosion in Beirut that killed scores of people and injured thousands.
The steady collapse of freedom in Egypt continued for the eighth straight year, as the regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stage-managed parliamentary elections and worked to silence the country's remaining independent journalists and civil society activists, including by harassing the Egypt-based families of dissidents living abroad.
Important democratic progress was reported in Malawi, which held a successful rerun of the flawed 2019 presidential election, and Sudan, whose ongoing reforms improved academic freedom, banned female genital mutilation, and repealed a law restricting women's travel abroad. Nevertheless, a larger number of countries registered declines due to new limits on freedom of movement as well as violent, fraudulent elections.
Elections in Tanzania and the Central African Republic, for example, were characterized by government repression and violence. In Togo, only a small pool of observers was allowed to monitor the flawed process that handed President Faure Gnassingbé his fourth term in office. Fraud accusations and the use of covid-19 restrictions to hinder voter registration cast doubt on the presidential election in Guinea, where the incumbent secured a third term after engineering a referendum to lift term limits. Polling-station closures excluded some citizens from the balloting that yielded a constitutionally dubious third term for Côte d'Ivoire's president Alassane Ouattara, while others faced intimidation from the police, military, and ruling-party allies. Mali's democratically elected leaders were overthrown in a military coup, and its status declined from Partly Free to Not Free as a result.
Forced displacement and restrictions on freedom of movement contributed to score declines in five countries, including Ethiopia, where the conflict in the Tigray region forced tens of thousands of people from their homes. In Cameroon, conflict between the government and separatist groups also pushed people out of their communities. Violence and forced displacement expanded in Mozambique, whose Cabo Delgado Province has been the site of a growing insurgency. Burkina Faso was also under attack by Islamist insurgents, and its population had to contend with abusive progovernment paramilitaries and disproportionate covid-19 restrictions as well. Rwanda's public-health rules were aggressively implemented, with scores of people arrested and abused in custody.
The Resilience of Democracy
A litany of setbacks and catastrophes for freedom dominated the news in 2020. But democracy is remarkably resilient, and has proven its ability to rebound from repeated blows. [End Page 59]
A prime example can be found in Malawi, whose people have endured a succession of corrupt and heavy-handed leaders. Although mid-2019 national elections that handed victory to the incumbent president were initially deemed credible by observers, the count was marred by evidence of tampering with the vote-tabulation sheets. Opposition candidates took the case to the constitutional court, which resisted bribery attempts and ordered fresh elections in a landmark ruling. An opposition presidential candidate won the June rerun vote by a comfortable margin. These events have wider implications: Courts in other African states have asserted their independence in recent years, and the nullification of a flawed election—for only the second time in the continent's history—will not go unnoticed.
Taiwan also stood out in 2020, suppressing the coronavirus with remarkable effectiveness and without resorting to abusive methods, even as it continued to shrug off threats from the CCP regime in China. Taiwan, like its neighbors, benefited from prior experience with SARS, but its handling of covid-19 largely respected civil liberties. Early implementation of expert recommendations, the deployment of masks and other protective equipment, and efficient contact-tracing and testing efforts that prioritized transparency—combined with the country's island geography—all helped to control the disease. Meanwhile, Beijing escalated its campaign to sway global opinion against Taiwan, in part by successfully pressuring the World Health Organization to ignore Taiwan's early warnings of human-to-human covid-19 transmission and to exclude Taiwan from its World Health Assembly. Before the virus struck, Taiwanese voters defied a multipronged disinformation campaign from China and overwhelmingly reelected incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen.
More broadly, democracy has demonstrated its adaptability under the unique constraints of the covid-19 pandemic. Successful elections were held across all regions and in countries at all income levels, including in Montenegro and Bolivia. Judicial bodies in many settings, such as the Gambia, have held leaders to account for abuses of power, contributing to slight global gains for judicial independence over the past four years. Journalists in even the most repressive environments, such as China, sought to shed light on government transgressions, and ordinary people from Bulgaria to India to Brazil continued to express discontent on topics ranging from corruption and systemic inequality to the mishandling of the health crisis.
Democracy today is beleaguered but not defeated. Its enduring popularity in a more hostile world and its perseverance after a devastating year are signals of resilience that offer hope for the future of freedom. [End Page 60]
Sarah Repucci is vice-president of research and analysis at Freedom House, where Amy Slipowitz is research manager for Freedom in the World. For more information on the survey, see the box on p. 89. For the rankings of individual countries in 2020, see the Table on pp. 90–91.