Discarding democracy: Freedom House finds ‘disturbing’ global decline


Global freedom suffered a “disturbing” decline over the past year, according to a leading democracy watchdog. An upsurge in terrorist violence and increasingly aggressive tactics by authoritarian regimes had led to “a growing disdain for democratic standards” across nearly all regions, says the annual report of U.S.-based Freedom House.

“In a year marked by an explosion of terrorist violence, autocrats’ use of more brutal tactics, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of a neighboring country’s territory, the state of freedom in 2014 worsened significantly in nearly every part of the world,” writes Arch Puddington, the group’s Vice President for Research.  

For the ninth consecutive year, Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s annual report on the condition of global political rights and civil liberties, showed an overall decline. Indeed, acceptance of democracy as the world’s dominant form of government—and of an international system built on democratic ideals—is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years, he notes:

FREEDOM HOUSE 2015Even after such a long period of mounting pressure on democracy, developments in 2014 were exceptionally grim. The report’s findings show that nearly twice as many countries suffered declines as registered gains, 61 to 33, with the number of gains hitting its lowest point since the nine-year erosion began.

This pattern held true across geographical regions, with more declines than gains in the Middle East and North Africa, Eurasia, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and the Americas, and an even split in Asia-Pacific. Syria, a dictatorship mired in civil war and ethnic division and facing uncontrolled terrorism, received the lowest Freedom in the World country score in over a decade.

The one notable exception to the lack of democratic gains was Tunisia, which became the first Arab country to achieve the status of Free since Lebanon 40 years ago, Puddington adds:

By contrast, a troubling number of large, economically powerful, or regionally influential countries moved backward: Russia, Venezuela, Egypt, Turkey, Thailand, Nigeria, Kenya, and Azerbaijan. Hungary, a European Union member state, also saw a sharp slide in its democratic standards as part of a process that began in 2010. 

Overlooked autocrats

While some of the world’s worst dictatorships regularly made headlines, others continued to fly below the radar, the report continues:

Despite year after year of declines in political rights and civil liberties, Azerbaijan has avoided the democratic world’s opprobrium due to its energy wealth and cooperation on security matters. Vietnam is also an attractive destination for foreign investment, and the United States and its allies gave the country special attention in 2014 as the underdog facing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. But like China, Vietnam remains an entrenched one-party state, and the regime imposed harsher penalties for free speech online, arrested protesters, and continued to ban work by human rights organizations. Ethiopia is held up as a model for development in Africa, and is one of the world’s largest recipients of foreign assistance. But in 2014 its security forces opened fire on protesters, carried out large-scale arrests of bloggers and other journalists as well as members of the political opposition, and evicted communities from their land to make way for opaque development projects.

Finally, while several countries in the Middle East—most notably oil-rich Saudi Arabia—receive special treatment from the United States and others, the United Arab Emirates stands out for how little international attention is paid to its systematic denial of rights for foreign workers, who make up the vast majority of the population; its enforcement of one of the most restrictive press laws in the Arab world; and its dynastic political system, which leaves no space for opposition.


Tunisia’s new government excludes Islamists

tunis-flagTunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a new minority government Friday that excludes most of the major players on the political scene, including Islamist and leftist parties, AP reports:

The big winner in last year’s elections was the nationalist Nida Tunis party, but with only 86 of the 217 seats, it had promised to form a broad governing coalition to see the country out of its economic crisis. However, the 24 new ministers presented Friday appeared to come from only two parties that may not have enough seats to survive a no-confidence vote.

The cabinet includes 10 ministers from Nida Tunis, including the foreign minister, and three from the Free Patriotic Union Party, which holds 16 seats. Together the two parties will have less than half of the seats in parliament, which means they may have difficulty implementing the necessary reforms to tackle Tunisia’s titanic economic problems like high inflation and unemployment.

The Islamist party Ennahda, with the second largest number of seats in the assembly, had sought a unity government with Nidaa Tounes to improve stability with the new government set to crack down on Islamist militants and tackle economic reforms, Reuters adds:

Nidaa Tounes leaders had not openly opposed a unity administration. But Nidaa Tounes hardliners were against any alliance with Ennahda, who they blame for turmoil during the first Islamist-led government after the 2011 uprising. Ennahda party leaders were consulting on Friday on whether to accept the new government.

The Ministry of Tourism, a key sector that has struggled since the 2011 revolt that ousted long-time strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was given to a party headed by the owner of one of Tunis’s two major football clubs, AFP adds:

The Free Patriotic Union of wealthy businessman Slim Riahi, who owns Club Africain, was also given the ministry of sports and youth. Riahi’s party came third in the polls

A major external challenge facing Ennhada is its lack of governing experience, says analyst Monica Marks. Senior party members understand the need to reform the nation’s bureaucratic culture but have not yet identified how to implement such a change, she told the Project for Middle East Democracy:

The rise of Salafism within the country presents another challenge. This movement, which has violent elements, encompassed many types of Salafists. Ennhada initially struggled to respond to this challenge before settling upon increasing funding for religious education and socio-economic programs to address this situation.  Marks also pointed out internal challenges that have threatened the cohesiveness of the party, such as whether or not to form a coalition government with Nidaa Tunis officials and personnel from the Ben Ali  regime.

Lessons learned on Tunisia’s ‘perilous path to freedom’

tunis-flagTunisia’s experience holds many lessons for other countries undergoing a democratic transition, says Rached Ghannouchi, the founder and president of the Ennahda Party.

Tunisia’s success was built on consensus, he writes for The Wall Street Journal:

This has prevented fragile democratic institutions from collapsing due to political conflict. Tunisia’s commitment to inclusion also allowed us to navigate questions of transitional justice and begin addressing decades of inequality and an economy plagued by inherited structural problems. There can be no majority or minority when building the foundations of democracy.

The decision not to nominate an Ennahda presidential candidate reflected our willingness to make sacrifices to prevent polarization. Domination by any one political faction risks a return to the authoritarianism under which Tunisians suffered for three decades.

The labor unions of the UGTT were the most significant of the civil society groups that played a vital role in advancing and defending the transition, says Salah Eddin al Jourshi, President of the Al Jaheth Cultural Forum.

“There are dangers that threaten the process of building a healthy civil society from parties who have a completely opposite understanding of civil society in its modern meaning,” he told the Arab Reform Initiative’s Bassma Kodmani and Salam Kawabiki:

This new force, and we use the term “force” here because civil society played an important role when the parties were weak and fought each other, intervened to limit the ramifications of these disputes, or at least to direct them to a specific course of action. ….Civil society played a major role in preparing for the holding of elections that were important in the history of Tunisia. Through this process, some civil society leaders joined the executive authority and for three years now, are government leaders or in state institutions. Many of them were nurtured in civil society and managed associations and human rights organisations. They were behind the first commission that was established. If there had been a similar commission in Egypt, events would not have unfolded as they have. In order for the commission to protect the revolution and democratic transition, the head and members were from civil society.

Europe can play a vital role in sustaining Tunisia’s progress and promoting an alternative, Ghannouchi adds:

Increased foreign direct investment and trade can create high-skilled jobs that provide social mobility, strengthen our society and limit the appeal of extremist groups. Simultaneously, it will offer European companies with operations in Tunisia a high-quality gateway to Africa. The combination of increased regional security and business growth can only be a positive for Tunisia and Europe. …..But Tunisia’s democratic transition remains unfinished and cannot be taken for granted. Tunisia’s friends in Europe can help ensure our continued progress, a contribution that will benefit not just Tunisia but the rest of the region and beyond.


Three remarks on Tunisia’s transition

tunisia pollsFor all the political progress that has been made, Tunisia’s economic transition has hardly begun, and political disillusionment of large parts of the population remains a major issue, notes political analyst Benjamin Preisler. The victory of Béji Caïd Essebsi and his party, Nidaa Tounes, has to be understood in the context of the latter and seems likely to pose a major obstacle to the advancement of the former.  Three points are especially worth noting, he writes for The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage Election Reports:

1) One of the two factors making possible Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi’s victories was the decrease in the overall number of voters.

For the first free Tunisian elections in 2011 for its Constitutive Assembly4,308,888 voters turned out. The legislative elections in 2014 had3,579,256 voters, 729,632 fewer. Note how close in size this figure is to the 554,286 voters the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha lost while – mostly – in government between these two elections. The first and second rounds of the 2014 presidential elections had 3,339,666 and 3,189,672participants, respectively. Real voter turnout – not the participation rates published by the ISIE and calculated based on the 8,289,924 eligible voter figure from 2011  – went from 51.9 percent in 2011 to 43.2 percent, 40,3 percent, and 38.5 percent, respectively, in 2014…..

2) Neither Nidaa Tounes nor Essebsi received much of its electoral support from the revolutionaries.

The Tunisian revolution had its origin in the disfavored interior. It was initiated and sustained in the face of a massive security crackdown in late 2010 by the un- or underemployed youths of the region before finding its denouement in the capital in early 2011.

Yet, Nidaa Tounes/Essebsi’s support is especially strong in the richer coastal regions. …..Theirs is a nonrevolutionary majority in the sense that many of its supporters clamor for a return to the supposed political and economic stability as well as security of the pre-revolutionary days. Doubts about this new majority’s commitment to the democratic transition process and issues such as transition justice persist (see here, here, or here).

3) The big question: To what extent will Nidaa Tounes reform the economy against the interest of its own constituency?

The World Bank has published an insightful, self-critical report of the Tunisian economy during the Ben Ali years and ever since. This report underlines the transitional government’s arguably biggest failure, namely that “the economic system that existed under Ben Ali has not been changed significantly.” It is an open question whether this was due to incompetence on the part of Ennahdha and its coalition partners or entrenched opposition in administrative and business circles against these changes.


Anti-Islamist claims win as election completes Tunisia’s transition

tunisia mohsen-marzoukAnti-Islamist candidate Beji Caid Essebsi has claimed victory in Tunisia’s first free presidential election which reportedly completes the country’s transition to democracy. But bitter rival and incumbent Moncef Marzouki dismissed the declaration as unfounded and refused to concede defeat, AFP reports:

Tunisians took to the polls on Sunday for the leadership runoff vote, with many calling the ballot a landmark for democracy in the country where the Arab Spring was born. Official results are not due until Monday evening but shortly after polls closed Essebsi’s campaign manager [and former human rights activist] Mohsen Marzouk (above left) said early indicators signalled a victory for Essebsi, leader of the Nidaa Tounes party.

Accepting former regime officials — known as the “Remnants” by their critics — back into politics was one of the steps that initially helped restore calm and keep Tunisia’s often unsteady transition to democracy on track, Reuters reports:

Essebsi took 39 percent of votes in the first round ballot in November with Marzouki winning 33 percent. As front runner, Essebsi dismissed critics who said victory for him would mark a return of the old regime stalwarts. He argued that he was the technocrat Tunisia needed following three messy years of an Islamist-led coalition government.

TUNISIA UGTT“The presidential elections have awoken old wounds in Tunisian politics,” said Michael Ayari, Tunisia analyst at the International Crisis Group.

He points out that the polarization between Islamist and secular groups overlays a fracture between the impoverished south, long excluded from economic development, and the more prosperous coast. The coastal areas have traditionally supplied Tunisia’s ruling elites, exemplified by Mr Sebsi…..Mr Ayari says that whoever wins the presidential election will need to find ways to work alongside the new government to calm tensions and heal divisions.

“Each camp has legitimate grievances and genuinely felt fears about the other,” he told the FT. “Airing them out is a first step to finding a way to coexist peacefully and minimize tensions.”


If Mr. Essebsi’s claim is confirmed by election authorities, his win would culminate the meteoric rise of the anti-Islamist party he established with a message that rebranded him and other former regime figures as experienced statesman uniquely positioned to govern the nation, The Wall St Journal adds:

It would also give the party Nida Tunis control of both the legislature and the presidency, a prospect that some have seen as a setback for Tunisia’s largely successful but halting path to democracy and that risks re-establishing one-party rule.

Mr. Essebsi appeared to try to tamp down such fears in remarks to state television, thanking his rival, Moncef Marzouki. He said he was dedicating his “victory to the martyrs of Tunisia” and called for inclusive politics.

“The divide is not between secularists and Islam,” Marzouki told The New York Times. “The divide is between democrats and nondemocrats.”

Marzouki points to Essebsi’s role in the government that forced him into exile. “Beji Caid Essebsi has nothing to do with democracy,” he said. “He has always been part of the dictatorship.”

Essebsi has enjoyed support from left-leaning journalists, with a number of newspapers endorsing the secularist. But critics maintain that he is a symbol (if not an architect) of the country’s corrupt, authoritarian past, UPI adds:

Marzouki is concerned about losing the election, but he’s more concerned about the political escalation that could follow.

“It will be a confrontation between corrupt dictatorship and radical Islamists,” he said. “These will be the main key players, and we as democrats and human rights activists will be thrown away. And this will be a huge confrontation. This will be terrible for the whole Arab world.”