The global decline in freedom suggested by the new Freedom House annual Freedom in the World report – ‘Discarding Democracy: Return to the Iron Fist’ – is questionable, says political scientist Jay Ulfelder.
Freedom House’s topline message is, for instance, belied by the trend over time in its count of electoral democracies – countries that hold mostly free and fair elections, he argues on his Dart-Throwing Chimp blog. By Freedom House’s own count, the number of electoral democracies actually increased by three in 2014 to an all-time high of 125, or more than two-thirds of all countries.
The answer is that those declines are often occurring in countries that are already governed by authoritarian regimes, and they are often small in size. Meanwhile, some countries are still making jumps from autocracy to democracy that are usually larger in scale than the incremental declines and thus mostly offset the losses in the global tally. So, while those declines are surely bad for the citizens suffering through them, they rarely move countries from one side of the ledger to the other, and they have only a modest effect on the overall level of “freedom” in the system.
This year’s update on the Middle East shows what I mean. In its report, Freedom House identifies only one country in that region that made significant gains in freedom in 2014—Tunisia—against seven that saw declines: Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. All seven of those decliners were already on the authoritarian side of the ledger going into 2014, however, and only four of the declines were large enough to move a country’s rating on one or both of the relevant indices.