Democracy’s Backward March

Democracy’s Backward March

The year 2012 reminded the world that the forward march of democracy is no sure thing. While the upheavals of the Arab Spring gave hope to oppressed peoples around the world, it also sent a clear message to the world’s dictators that their time could be up. Fearing that they could join their fallen comrades, the world’s autocrats cracked down on opposition groups and happily abandoned any pretense of democratic reform. As Joshua Kurlantzick writes in Foreign Policy‘s March/April issue, "democracy is going into reverse" — largely because a growing global middle class "is choosing stability above all else." 

While countries such as Burma, Libya, and Tunisia have made enormous strides in establishing democratic freedoms and freely elected governments, others like Bahrain, Madagascar, and Ukraine have hurtled in the opposite direction. According to Freedom House, 34 percent of the world’s population — or 2.4 billion people — spread across 47 countries live under political regimes "where basic political rights are absent and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied." Of those people, more than half live in China.

As part of its efforts to monitor freedom in the world, Freedom House also compiles data on the countries that have seen the greatest changes — both positive and negative — in the degree to which they grant democratic freedoms and rights. The list provides a portrait of the year’s biggest backsliders in democratic development — an ignominious ranking that Mali topped in 2012. 

Below are the six countries that regressed the most last year (in parentheses are the number of points each country lost on Freedom House’s index, which runs from 0 to 100, with the latter denoting the freest countries). Taken as a whole, they highlight the fact that democratization is anything but inevitable.

Mali (-46) 

The year 2012 was one of extreme instability in Mali. A blossoming Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north — compounded by the presence of an aggressive Islamist insurgency led by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an influx of fighters and arms from neighboring Libya — precipitated an impromptu military coup in March. With the government in Bamako in flux and the military in chaos, Islamists instituted sharia law in large parts of the country, including measures that forced women into marriage, mandated strict dress codes for women, and meted out harsh punishment for the most minor of crimes — stealing, for example, was punished with swift amputation.

Amid fears that AQIM would set up a terrorist safe haven in Mali, France launched a military intervention in January 2013 to drive out the Islamists. While successful in quickly banishing the militants from Mali’s north, the operation has left many observers wondering whether the insurgents simply beat a hasty retreat only to return in full force once French forces withdraw. 

Incredibly, prior to the fall of the government, the emergence of an Islamist shadow state, and French intervention, Mali had been considered a model democracy in Africa. But in short order, the country has gone from model state to failed state to warden of the international community.

Mali’s decline in Freedom House’s index was one of the largest ever recorded by the organization. 

Madagascar (-23)

Riven by political conflict since a 2009 coup ousted then-President Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar was plagued in 2012 by a return of violence, increased human trafficking, and harassment of journalists. Ever since President Andry Rajoelina, a former radio DJ and mayor of the country’s capital, came to power, regional efforts to broker a solution to the crisis have met with little success, though recent promises by both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana, who is living in exile in South Africa, to not run in scheduled presidential elections in May have raised hopes that a resolution could be in sight.

Those expectations have been tempered by persistent turmoil in the country. In September, for instance, clashes caused by cattle thefts in the country’s south resulted in 100 deaths. That same month, two radio journalists in the country were forced to take refuge in the South African embassy after repeated harassment by the army. Journalists from the radio station had previously been detained by the government for critical coverage of the country’s leader, and the military stepped up reprisals against the reporters in response to coverage of a mutiny at an army base. Lawlessness has also contributed to a spike in human trafficking; One report issued by the U.S. mission to Madagascar alleges that since 2009 thousands of Malagasy women have been forced to take jobs as domestic workers in Lebanon, where they were subject to rape and torture.

The Gambia (-20)

This time around, it seemed The Gambia, a highly repressive country wedged into Senegal in West Africa, could not fall much further in Freedom House’s ranking. But the country’s mercurial leader, who insists on being called His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh, found a way to yet again upend expectations. In September, Jammeh, who claims to be able to cure AIDS, announced that he would clear his country’s death row by carrying out a rash of executions. In August, nine prisoners, including one woman, were executed by firing squad. According to Freedom House, the defendants lacked access to attorneys, and the government did not inform the prisoners’ families of their execution. The country’s death row includes former government officials accused of plotting to depose Jammeh, who gained power in a 1994 coup, and the decision to clear death row was widely interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the country’s political opposition. 

Guinea-Bissau (-20)

As in Mali, a coup precipitated Guinea-Bissau’s backsliding on democratic rights. Unlike Mali, however, Guinea-Bissau has never been held up as a model democracy. The country has seen so many coups since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974 that experts can’t even provide an exact number for the number of times someone has tried to topple the government. And in April it happened again when the army seized power ahead of presidential elections that were likely to propel Prime Minister Carlos Gomes, who had threatened to reduce the size of the military, to power.

By November, Guinea-Bissau, which even before the coup was a popular transit point for South American drugs destined for Europe, had become a hot spot for drug trafficking, and experts now speculate that the coup may have been an attempt by top generals to take control of the highly lucrative drug trade. With a sham government and an army calling the shots behind the scenes, Guinea-Bissau is now, in the words of Freedom House, a country that "has increasingly come to resemble a military narcostate." 

Bahrain (-18)

The Persian Gulf kingdom’s Arab Spring-inspired protest movement demanding serious political reform has now entered its third year, but the ruling Al Khalifa family shows no signs of ending a brutal crackdown on dissent. In 2012, political repression continued unabated, courts meted out stiff jail sentences to opposition figures, and the government continued to do battle with protesters in the streets. In August, a Bahraini court sentenced human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to three years in jail for attending what it deemed to be an illegal protest. That sentence came on top of a previous verdict that landed Rajab in jail for three months as punishment for posting comments critical of the government on Twitter. Other human rights activists, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Zainab al-Khawaja, have also been jailed. All three activists were named Foreign Policy Global Thinkers in 2012

The United States has avoided pressuring Bahrain’s rulers to implement political reforms as it did with other regional leaders facing democratic uprisings, in part because it maintains a major naval base in the country, but also due to the 800-pound gorilla — repressive Saudi Arabia — next door.

Ukraine (-16) 

In an era of European politics when few, if any, opposition leaders are sent to jail on politically motivated charges, Ukraine has stubbornly insisted on upholding the continent’s tradition. The crackdown began in late 2011 with the conviction of Yulia Tymoshenko on charges that she acted against the national interest in negotiating a gas deal with a price tag above the market rate. The trend continued in 2012 with the conviction of Tymoshenko’s ally Valery Ivashchenko, a former acting defense minister, on corruption charges.

Political debate in Ukraine centers on whether the country should embrace Europe and turn West or work in closer cooperation with Russia in the East. That divide is mirrored by a linguistic split, with the eastern part of the country speaking Russian and the western part Ukrainian. It’s no surprise, then, that when parliament — amid fistfights and ugly brawling — adopted a law that made Russian the country’s official language, it was interpreted as a step toward entering Russian orbit. More importantly, the law also risks seriously disadvantaging non-Russian speakers in the country, an issue noted by Freedom House. Concerns over President Viktor Yanukovych’s attempts to consolidate power and remove his opposition crystallized in October’s parliamentary elections, which the European Union said were marred by irregularities and resulted in Yanukovych’s party retaining control.