The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democracy may be on the march again

Gustavo Petro, president of Colombia, at a campaign event after the first round of elections on May 29. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

Michael J. Abramowitz is the president of Freedom House. Arch Puddington is the organization’s senior scholar emeritus.

Is the world standing on the threshold of a democratic comeback?

After years of relentless bad news, Freedom House’s latest annual global report on the health of democracy offers hope. This year’s “Freedom in the World” survey notes that the number of countries suffering declines in 2022 was the lowest in 17 years, and was nearly matched by the number of countries experiencing improvements.

Whether this represents a genuine turning point in the competition between democracy and authoritarianism remains to be seen. The answer will depend to a large degree on the willingness of leaders and voters to take a strong stand for a free press, honest elections and a society where law prevails.

Last year, democracies such as Brazil, Colombia and the United States held elections that demonstrated their resilience in the face of internal threats, while Ukrainians showed the world that murderous aggression must be opposed — and can be defeated. The difficulties faced by major authoritarian powers — including Russia, China and Iran — exposed the limits of a model that relies on censorship and brute force.

This year’s report, the 50th in its series, also makes an important point about the long-term prospects for democracy. At the time “Freedom in the World” was launched, only 44 of 148 countries were classified as free; today, despite nearly two decades of erosion, 84 of 195 countries are still considered free. This “stickiness” of the free designation is a testament to democracy’s core durability.

In launching the report in 1973, Freedom House was motivated by a desire to raise awareness of the dire state of democracy, as dictators appeared to be waxing in strength and free societies were mired in self-doubt.

With a number of scattered exceptions, the countries that earned a designation of free that year were concentrated in Western Europe and the Americas. Right-wing military juntas held sway in large parts of other regions, the Soviet Union had crushed reform movements in Eastern Europe, and communist forces had considerable momentum in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. What Freedom House considered free countries accounted for fewer than 30 percent of the total, while 24 percent were rated partly free and nearly 46 percent were considered not free.

But the next three decades brought a remarkable turnaround, a wave of democratization that spread to practically every region and continent. Among other places, democracy came to Spain, South Africa, Brazil, South Korea and, most notably, the countries of the former Soviet bloc. By 2006, 90 out of 193 countries, or 46 percent, were rated free, and just 45 countries, or 23 percent, were rated not free.

The past 17 years have featured worsening conditions among democracies and authoritarian states alike. Freedom of expression in particular has come under sustained attack: among democracy indicators, media freedom and freedom of personal expression have declined the most precipitously. In 2022, 33 countries and territories received the lowest possible score for media freedom, up from 14 in 2006, reflecting a combination of propaganda, censorship, criminal prosecutions of journalists, and lethal violence against the press.

Many countries have remained partly free instead of moving on to free status, and formerly free nations such as Hungary, India, and Tunisia — the main beneficiary of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement — have fallen into the partly free range. Even the United States has lost significant ground.

Yet, if five decades of global monitoring tell us anything, it is that the demand for fundamental rights is universal and impossible to extinguish. Pro-democracy movements have arisen again and again in some of the world’s most repressive environments.

Raymond Gastil, the lead author of “Freedom in the World” until 1989, reflected on the 1979 revolution in Iran in the report’s 1980 edition: “If the Revolution establishes a new tyranny, these people will soon feel cheated and strive again for freedom.” His prediction has been borne out repeatedly, most recently through the Azadi (freedom) movement protests that began last September. Much the same could be said of other authoritarian states.

For example, China’s Communist Party regime has deployed considerable power and resources to crush calls for freedom from Tiananmen Square to Tibet, from the Xinjiang region to Hong Kong. Yet protest continued over the past year, especially during the pushback against the government’s inhumane “zero covid” policies.

Of course, the persistence of movements for freedom does not guarantee their success. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the absolute necessity of solidarity and support among the world’s democracies. Those working on the front lines of the struggle against tyranny should never be treated as though the struggle is theirs alone.

While President Biden and the leaders of other democracies have answered the call for military assistance in Ukraine, they must also develop long-term strategies to support protesters, journalists, opposition figures and human rights defenders striving for the same democratic principles elsewhere — in Nicaragua, Sudan, Myanmar and beyond.

The democratic transformation that swept the globe during the late 20th century succeeded because of the courage and tenacity of local activists, and the embrace of freedom’s cause in the diplomacy of free countries, most importantly the United States. There will be no breakthrough today without a similar commitment of solidarity from the world’s democracies.