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Democracy Demotion

How the Freedom Agenda Fell Apart

Mission accomplished: voting in the Iraqi parliamentary elections in December 2005 Hussein Malla / AP

For three decades beginning in the mid-1970s, the world experienced a remarkable expansion of democracy—the so-called third wave—with authoritarian regimes falling or reforming across the world. By 1993, a majority of states with populations over one million had become democracies. Levels of freedom, as measured by Freedom House, were steadily rising as well. In most years between 1991 and 2005, many more countries gained freedom than lost it.

But around 2006, the forward momentum of democracy came to a halt. In every year since 2007, many more countries have seen their freedom decrease than have seen it increase, reversing the post–Cold War trend. The rule of law has taken a severe and sustained beating, particularly in Africa and the postcommunist states; civil liberties and electoral rights have also been declining.

Adding to the problem, democracies have been expiring in big and strategically important countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has long been using the power granted to him through elections to destroy democracy in Russia. More recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gone down a similar path. Elected executives have been the principal agents of democratic destruction in some countries; in others, the military has. The generals seized control of the government in Egypt in 2013 and in Thailand in 2014, and they continue to wield de facto power in Myanmar and Pakistan. Across Africa, the trend has been for elected autocrats, such as President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and President John Magufuli of Tanzania, to manipulate elections, subvert independent institutions, and harass critics and political opponentsto ensure their continued grip on power.

More concerning still is the wave of illiberal populism that has been sweeping developed and developing countries alike, often in response to anxiety over immigration and growing cultural diversity. The harbinger of this trend was Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has presided over the first death of a democracy in an EU member state. Similar trends are under way in Brazil, the Philippines, and Poland. Illiberal, xenophobic

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