Freedoms Denied as the World Enters a Consequential Year of Elections

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In a victory speech earlier this month, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele claimed to have received a “record [number of votes] in the entire democratic history of the world.” Bukele, like an increasing number of incumbents, did not compete on an even playing field. His victory was made possible by extensive manipulation of election rules that both allowed him to run in violation of a constitutional term limit and helped his New Ideas party consolidate power in the National Assembly. As Bukele begins a second term, freedoms in El Salvador continue to come under threat. Bukele declaring a state of emergency has led to the arbitrary detention of over 65,000 people.

Changing election rules ahead of voting day was just one of several tactics of electoral manipulation documented in Freedom in the World 2024: The Mounting Damage of Flawed Elections and Armed Conflict. Efforts to undermine the integrity of elections—before, during, or after voting—drove deterioration in 26 of the 52 countries that experienced overall declines in freedom in 2023. In places like El Salvador and Zimbabwe, incumbents’ successful manipulation of voting outcomes contributed to a widespread erosion of political rights.

A vibrant electoral contest in Thailand, which produced a victory for two opposition parties, was ultimately undermined by the provisions of a constitution drafted and adopted by a military junta after the 2014 coup. The expansion of political competition nevertheless led to the country’s improvement from Not Free to Partly Free.

However, in other countries, the resiliency of democratic institutions prevailed against serious attempts to undermine the core tenets of free and fair elections. In Guatemala, authorities made efforts to prevent Bernardo Arévalo, the democratically elected president, from assuming office. Guatemala’s Supreme Court ultimately ruled that its congress must accept Arévalo’s inauguration, and he was sworn in to office in early 2024. In Poland, opposition forces overcame electoral manipulation efforts after the ruling Law and Justice party used a controversial referendum to try to boost its support in parliamentary elections. Taiwan held a competitive presidential election in early 2024 despite the Chinese Communist Party’s coordinated efforts to intimidate voters prior to the vote.

Conflict poses a dual threat to freedom and safety

While electoral manipulation eroded democratic institutions worldwide, violent conflict and the long-term consequences of coups also contributed to the staggering decline in global freedom.

The year’s single largest score decline was in Nagorno-Karabakh, which lost 40 points as a result of Azerbaijan’s violent military siege on the territory in September. President Ilham Aliyev was later able to capitalize on this attack, which forced 120,000 Armenians from the enclave, to win a snap election, extending his now twenty-year rule.

The Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, now in its second year, continued to produce civilian casualties, drag down freedom in areas of the country under Russian occupation, and contribute to a deepening of authoritarianism within Russia itself. Ukraine’s score declined further in 2023 because Moscow staged fraudulent elections in the Russian-occupied areas of the country, stripping those populations of their basic political rights. More broadly, the widespread displacement of its population and martial law prompted by ongoing Russian aggression will likely prevent Ukraine from holding its scheduled presidential election this year.

In the Sahel region of Africa, Niger’s government was ousted by a military coup, leading to an 18-point decline in the country’s score. Violence that followed in the wake of coups in Sudan and Myanmar in 2021 led to thousands of deaths and the displacement of vulnerable populations.

Over the past 18 years, Freedom in the World’s indicator on physical security, which assesses whether people are protected from the illegitimate use of physical force and are free from war and insurgencies, has seen one of the sharpest declines globally. This trend continued in 2023, and violent conflict not only made the world less safe, but also less free. Hamas’s brutal assault on Israel on October 7 was the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history. Israel’s subsequent military campaign caused catastrophic human suffering for citizens of the Gaza Strip and led to a further deterioration of the already limited freedoms in the territory.

Absence of self-determination allows widespread violation of freedoms in territories

Of the 10 least free places on earth in 2023, half were disputed territories. An overwhelming majority of the people living in the 15 territories assessed separately from countries by Freedom in the World have had their political rights and self-determination stripped away, and as a result have become significantly more vulnerable to human rights abuses.

Beijing continued its efforts to effectively erase Tibetan culture last year by forcing approximately one million Tibetan children into Chinese-run boarding schools rife with political indoctrination. In Crimea, ethnic Ukrainians and Crimean Tartars living under Moscow’s occupation have faced draconian persecution for advocating for their rights or expressing their identity. The Moroccan government continued its efforts to exert control over Western Sahara, and Sahrawi human rights defenders remain illegally imprisoned for peacefully calling for self-determination.

While repression in disputed territories has largely been perpetrated by autocratic regimes, the democratically elected governments of Israel and India have also been complicit in systemic rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and in Indian-administered Kashmir, respectively. Discriminatory policies and practices that were adopted as part of the drive to increase control over those territories have been intertwined with the erosion of democratic principles and institutions in both Israel and India.

Free people and free nations are stronger together

Amid the many challenges last year, there were also beacons of hope. In every country and territory around the world, from the freest to the most repressive, human rights defenders, journalists, activists, and ordinary voters are working tirelessly to defend and expand freedom.

Liberia’s competitive and independently managed general elections represented a moment of democratic hope for West Africa, a region that has been overwhelmed by military coups. Fiji, which recorded the largest score improvement in 2023, saw a peaceful transfer of power after elections in late 2022. Same-sex marriage and civil unions were recognized in Estonia and Latvia, while Nepal expanded citizenship to 400,000 previously stateless people. Georgians pushed back against government attempts to pass a “foreign agents” law that would have impacted independent media and civil society organizations.

As billions of people around the world head to the polls in 2024, the findings of Freedom in the World serve as a clarion call to reverse the long decline in freedom. Democracies need to step up to their responsibility as stewards of the international system by committing to free and fair elections at home and abroad, deepening their solidarity with front-line allies, and holding dictators accountable for rights abuses. By drawing strength from diversity, protecting dissent, and building international coalitions to support democratic norms and values, democratic forces can turn the tide on rising authoritarianism.

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