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Global declines in democracy may be slowing, Freedom House says in a new report

Oliver Helbig/Getty Images
Flags of different nations. The new Freedom House report finds that the gap between the number of countries where freedom has improved and where it has declined is at its narrowest in 17 years.

LONDON — After nearly two decades, the global decline in democracy may be bottoming out, according to a new report by Freedom House, a nonprofit research institute in Washington, D.C.

The report, "Freedom in the World 2023," finds that the gap between the number of countries where freedom has improved and where it has declined is at its narrowest in 17 years. The report found that freedom declined in 35 countries, including Nicaragua and Tunisia, and improved in 34 countries, such as Kenya and Kosovo.

By comparison, in 2020, 73 countries saw declines, while 28 saw improvement.

"We've had relentlessly bad news ... for really a number of years, and this is, I think, some glimmer of hope," says Michael Abramowitz, the president of Freedom House.

Researchers evaluate a country's freedom based on 10 political rights and 15 civil liberty indicators. They measure everything from the health of the electoral process, political pluralism and freedom of expression to freedom of association and the rule of law.

The United States' overall rating — 83 points out of a possible 100 — did not change this year. The U.S. gained a point in political rights, due to last year's largely peaceful midterm elections, but lost a point on civil liberties due to increased restrictions on access to abortion.

The freest countries in the world are Finland, Norway and Sweden, with 100 points each, according to the report. The least-free countries include South Sudan and Syria, with one point each.

Abramowitz cites several reasons why gains and declines in freedom reached a near-equilibrium in 2022. Countries that took advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to crack down on public protests and consolidate power could no longer do so once the virus receded, he says. Civil society in some countries — including the United States and Ukraine — proved more resilient than perhaps expected.

In the U.S., he says, civic groups focused on fighting disinformation and election denialism in the lead-up to the midterm elections. The majority of gubernatorial candidates who said they would not have certified Joe Biden's election as president in 2020 lost their races in 2022. Election deniers who ran for secretary of state in states where they serve as the chief election official lost 8 out of 10 races last November.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, many thought the Russian army would roll into Kyiv and topple Ukraine's democratically elected government in a matter of days. Instead, Ukrainian citizens, who had come to cherish their freedoms, joined their military and pushed back Russia's far larger army.

"There's a lively civil society in Ukraine that really has been flourishing or strengthening since the 2014 Maidan revolution," says Abramowitz, referring to the pro-European uprising that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

That said, democracy continues to face many challenges around the globe. Abramowitz says they include China continuing to share surveillance technology with fellow authoritarian states and the Israeli government's threats to judicial independence, which have sparked mass protests there.

As for India, the world's largest democracy, it earned a score of just 66 out of a possible 100 this year, placing it just below Hungary and just above Lesotho. Freedom House downgraded India from "free" to "partly free" two years ago, citing increased pressure on human rights organizations, intimidation of journalists and a spate of attacks, especially against Muslims.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.