Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
For nearly two decades, democracies around the world have been losing ground. Countless autocrats have managed to pulverize the foundations of democracy in their countries by passing arcane laws that quietly erode civil liberties, press freedoms or the separation of powers, to name a few examples.
A new report from the non-partisan Freedom House confirms that millions of people in dozens of countries saw their freedoms eroded last year. There were more countries that lost freedom in 2022 than those that gained it. But look closer and there are promising signs of change. The pace of decline is slowing and it’s possible that the pushback we’re seeing from protesters in places like Mexico, Israel and Georgia will reverse the trend.
Freedom House uses the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to measure individual freedom in every country, giving it a numeric score and a classification of Free, Partly Free or Not Free based on factors including press freedoms, rule of law, freedom of association and belief, free and fair elections and others.
By this measure, freedom has been declining worldwide for 17 years. Autocracy is still on the march, and democracy is still on the defensive. Nowhere is that more crassly on display than in Ukraine, a fledgling democracy defending against an unprovoked attack by its autocratic neighbor, Russia.
In most places, however, autocrats are advancing their agenda more subtly by changing the rules of the game and amassing more power for themselves. Freedom House found democracy losing ground in Tunisia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Hungary, Burkina Faso and dozens of other countries.
But there was some glimmer of good news: last year, there were 35 countries that became less free than they were the previous year — the smallest number since the most recent trend of democratic decline started in 2005. Meanwhile, nearly the same number of countries (34) saw improvements, suggesting change may be afoot.
Freedom House noted “While authoritarians remain extremely dangerous, they are not unbeatable. … Meanwhile, democratic alliances demonstrated solidarity and vigor.”
Some of the increase in freedom can be attributed to the rollback of pandemic restrictions, but that’s not the full story. Pro-democracy supporters have been making their voices heard and winning key battles.
Russia’s assault on Ukraine has also put the choice between autocracy and democracy in stark relief, prompting much of the world to side with Ukraine.
And yet, not every country accepts the premise that Ukraine’s struggle is a contest over freedom and democracy. Many governments in the so-called Global South have rejected that framing. To be sure, the governments — if not the people — of India, South Africa and other southern hemisphere nations have been reluctant to support Ukraine.
Russian propaganda has long exploited simmering resentments against the West’s imperialistic past and recent foreign policy interventions, now promoting the view that Ukraine is a puppet of the West. The narrative is particularly powerful in Latin America, where Kremlin-controlled media outlets such as RT have big audiences.
But when Russian tanks plowed into Ukraine, many other countries saw a blatant and unprovoked trampling of Ukraine’s sovereignty in an ongoing battle of freedom versus oppression. To Russia’s neighbors in particular, the Kremlin now embodies the risks to their own freedom.
That’s why in Tbilisi, capital of the Republic of Georgia, protesters took to the streets this week to decry a draft law they dubbed the “Russian law,” that would have forced organizations that receive a fraction of their funding from abroad to register as “foreign agents.” The draft bill would have subjected them to increased government monitoring and made it more difficult for Georgia to ever join the European Union. A similar law in Russia was key to dismantling civil society.
But on Thursday, following two nights of protests in the capital, Georgia’s ruling party announced it would be withdrawing the controversial bill. It was a win for civil society—but also a warning of what this government is capable of.
Elsewhere, defenders of democracy are also paying close attention to efforts to rewrite the rules by leaders with authoritarian tendencies. While similar legislative proposals might have previously slipped under the radar, citizens in many countries seem more aware of what’s at stake, given the erosion of democracy around the world.
For nine consecutive weeks, Israelis have staged some of the largest protests in the country’s history. They are trying to stop the current government coalition’s plans to overhaul the legal system in a way that would undercut the independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and the separation of powers. Among other controversial changes, a bill would allow a simple majority of the Knesset, or the Israeli parliament, to overturn Supreme Court rulings.
The blowback against the law has been unlike anything the country has seen. Even elite military reservists from the vaunted Israeli air force, special forces and military intelligence have said they would refuse to serve if the plan to weaken the Supreme Court goes into effect. Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak called it “the worst crisis” since the founding of the modern State of Israel.
In Mexico, the capital’s central square, the Zócalo was filled with demonstrators in late February, in a show of force against a law that would undercut the country’s independent electoral authority. Organizers estimated an incredible 500,000 people turned out.
The law, which has already passed but is being challenged in court, would slash the budget of the National Electoral Institute, INE, and change the way key members are selected. Critics said it amounts to dynamiting the foundations of Mexico’s democratic institutions.
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Popular efforts to strengthen democracy, along with demonstrations in Tbilisi, Tel Aviv, Mexico City, or in places where protesting can put one’s life at risk, as in Tehran or Kabul, show that the yearning for freedom and democracy are real.
As the Freedom House report helpfully reminds us, some countries that used to be deeply repressive are now growing into strong democracies, and democracies that have faced grave challenges have ultimately proved resilient. That commitment by so many people to continue fighting for freedom is what ensures that no autocracy lasts forever.
This article has been updated to clarify the Freedom House report’s findings that 35 countries became less free than they were the previous year.