Asia-Pacific: Military influence and persecution of minorities
The military and other security forces played an influential role in key Asian elections and perpetrated gross rights abuses against minorities during 2018. However, a dramatic political shift in Malaysia raised hopes for democratic reform.
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen cemented his grip on power with lopsided general elections that came after authorities dissolved the main opposition party and shuttered independent media outlets. The military and police openly campaigned for the ruling party, which won all the seats in the legislature. While Pakistan’s elections were more competitive, the military’s influence over the courts and the media was widely thought to have tilted the contest in favor of Imran Khan, who took office as prime minister.
Myanmar’s military was accused by UN investigators of committing genocide against the Rohingya people, over 700,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh since the start of a violent crackdown in 2017. In China, it is estimated that over a million ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and Hui have been forced into “reeducation” centers, from which grisly reports of torture and custodial deaths are emerging. Meanwhile, Communist Party leader Xi Jinping secured a potential life tenure in March, when the National People’s Congress rubber-stamped a decision to remove the constitution’s two-term limit on the presidency.
In a positive development, outrage over a massive corruption scandal helped an opposition alliance defeat incumbent prime minister Najib Razak’s Barisan Nasional coalition, which had ruled Malaysia for decades; Najib was arrested and charged soon after. The new government pledged to roll back restrictive laws.
In Bangladesh, security forces cracked down on the opposition ahead of parliamentary elections, intimidating and arresting prominent figures. The polls themselves were marked by widespread irregularities and interparty violence that resulted in more than a dozen deaths.
In Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena’s unilateral dismissal of the prime minister threatened recent democratic gains. Sirisena attempted to disband the parliament when legislators rejected the move, but in a decision reflecting the judiciary’s independence, the Supreme Court declared the dissolution unconstitutional, and the prime minister was restored to office.
Americas: Crises spur migration, populist leaders win key elections
Latin America in 2018 was embroiled in a migration crisis driven in part by government repression in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Elections brought new populist leaders to power in Mexico and in Brazil, where the tense campaign period was marred by political violence.
In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro extended his authoritarian rule with a profoundly flawed presidential election characterized by bans on prominent opposition candidates and voter intimidation. Maduro has presided over an economic collapse and accompanying humanitarian crisis that has left millions struggling to meet their basic needs. In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega pursued a ferocious crackdown on a nationwide antigovernment protest movement, with violence by state forces and allied armed groups resulting in hundreds of deaths. The harsh conditions in Nicaragua and Venezuela have added to the region’s already substantial migration crisis.
Right-wing populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro captured Brazil’s presidency after a contentious preelection period that featured disinformation campaigns and political violence. Bolsonaro’s rhetoric was steeped in disdain for democratic principles and aggressive pledges to wipe out corruption and violent crime, which resonated with a deeply frustrated electorate. In Mexico, promises to end corruption and confront violent drug gangs also propelled left-wing populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency, though he has yet to explain how he will accomplish his goals.
Democratic gains continued in Ecuador, where space for civil society and the media has opened. Yet it too grapples with serious challenges. An Ecuadoran journalist and two of his colleagues were killed along the Colombian border by leftist guerrillas, and anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise.
Eurasia: A breakthrough in Armenia as other regimes harden authoritarian rule
Entrenched elites in many Eurasian countries continued exploiting the advantages of incumbency to maintain their grip on power. However, Armenia broke that pattern with the ouster of an unpopular leader and the election of a new, reform-minded government.
In the spring of 2018, Armenians took to the streets in protest of an attempt by Serzh Sargsyan to extend his rule by shifting from the presidency to the prime minister’s office. To widespread surprise, the protests culminated in Sargsyan’s resignation and the rise of opposition leader Nikol Pashinyan to the premiership. Pashinyan’s My Step alliance decisively won snap parliamentary elections in December, clearing the way for systemic reforms.
Uzbekistan experienced another year of incremental improvement, as the government continued to release political prisoners and ease restrictions on NGOs. However, reports of torture persisted, as did the long-standing practice of forced labor in the cotton fields.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev each secured new presidential terms, benefiting from strong-arm tactics including the repression of independent media and civil society, the abuse of state resources, and the persecution of genuine political opponents—as well as outright fraud.
Journalists and activists in Russia and other countries continued to operate under perilous conditions, risking arrest, violence, and even death for their independent reporting in 2018. Several Russian journalists died under suspicious circumstances, while in Ukraine, reporters endured harassment and assaults. In Kazakhstan and Belarus, strict new media laws further limited journalists who were already operating under severe constraints.
Some governments stepped up internet censorship in order to stamp out dissent. In Kyrgyzstan, the government used laws against extremism to block websites, video-sharing platforms, and even the music-streaming service SoundCloud, while Tajikistan blocked independent media websites and social networks.
Europe: Antidemocratic leaders undermine critical institutions
Antidemocratic leaders in Central Europe and the Balkans—including some who have brazenly consolidated power beyond constitutional limits—continued undermining institutions that protect freedoms of expression and association and the rule of law.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has presided over one of the most dramatic declines ever charted by Freedom House within the European Union. Having worked methodically to deny critical voices a platform in the media or civil society, Orbán and his right-wing nationalist Fidesz party easily defended their parliamentary supermajority in 2018 elections. Soon after, the government forced the closure of Central European University, evicting its vibrant academic community. However, the year ended with vigorous dissent from thousands of protesters who took to the streets to denounce Orbán’s abuses.
In Poland, the conservative Law and Justice party led by Jarosław Kaczyński—who plays a dominant political role despite holding no formal executive position—laid waste to the country’s legal framework in its drive to assert political control over the entire judiciary. The year included attempts to force the retirement of Supreme Court judges and gain partisan influence over the selection of election commission members.
Meanwhile, attacks on media independence spread to other European democracies. Austria’s new right-wing government put pressure on the public broadcaster, while Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš drew on closely allied media outlets to combat unflattering scandals. In Slovakia, investigative reporter Ján Kuciak was shot to death in his home after uncovering corrupt links between government officials and organized crime.
In the Balkans, President Aleksandar Vučić of Serbia and President Milo Đukanović of Montenegro continued to consolidate state power around themselves and their cliques, subverting basic standards of good governance and exceeding their assigned constitutional roles.
In Turkey, simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections took place in June despite a two-year state of emergency that included the imprisonment of the leaders of a key opposition party and extreme curbs on freedoms of association, assembly, and expression. Although the state of emergency was lifted following the election, the authorities continued to engage in purges of state institutions and arrests of journalists, civil society members, and academics.
Middle East and North Africa: Repression grows as democracies stumble
Authoritarian states across the Middle East and North Africa continued to suppress dissent during 2018, and even the few democracies in the region suffered from self-inflicted wounds. However, elections held in Iraq and Lebanon could stabilize those countries and open the way for modest progress.
Political repression worsened in Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was reelected with 97 percent of the vote after security forces arbitrarily detained potential challengers. In Saudi Arabia, after the government drew praise for easing its draconian ban on women driving, authorities arrested high-profile women’s rights activists and clamped down on even mild forms of dissent. Evidence also mounted that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had personally ordered the assassination of self-exiled critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, dashing any remaining hopes that the young prince might emerge as a reformer.
The consolidation of democracy in Tunisia continued to sputter, as freedoms of assembly and association were imperiled by legislative changes and the leadership’s failure to set up a Constitutional Court undermined judicial independence and the rule of law.
Nationalism escalated in Israel—the only other country in the region designated as Free—placing strain on its democracy. A new law allowed the interior minister to revoke the residency of Jerusalem-based Palestinians for, among other things, a “breach of loyalty” to Israel. Moreover, an addition to the country’s Basic Law downgraded the status of the Arabic language and introduced the principle that only the Jewish people have the right to exercise self-determination in the country.
National elections in Iraq and Lebanon held some promise of further gains. Despite allegations of fraud and a controversial recount, Iraqis witnessed a peaceful transfer of power following competitive parliamentary polls. However, antigovernment protests in the southern city of Basra at year’s end were met with a disproportionately violent response by security forces. In Lebanon, parliamentary elections took place for the first time since 2009, restoring a degree of legitimacy to the government after repeated postponements of the balloting.
Sub-Saharan Africa: Historic openings offset by creeping restrictions elsewhereEritrean women celebrate on the tarmac to welcome passengers of the flight from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa upon their arrival in Eritrea in July 2018. Credit: STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images.
The year brought notable democratic progress in a number of pivotal African countries and increasing threats to freedom in others.
Angola and Ethiopia—both historically closed countries ruled by autocratic leaders—experienced dramatic openings in 2018. While their new leaders, President João Lourenço and Prime Minister Ahmed Abiy, respectively, each emerged from the countries' dominant political cliques, both have expressed a commitment to important reforms. If the new administrations are able to dismantle the repressive legal and political frameworks they inherited, they may serve as important models for their neighbors and significantly improve the democratic trajectory of the continent as a whole.
The Gambia made rapid democratic gains for a second year, following the dramatic exit of strongman Yahya Jammeh in early 2017. The political opening under President Adama Barrow was reinforced by 2018 legislative elections, in which seven parties and several independent candidates won seats.
Yet many countries in the region still struggled to deliver basic freedoms and protect human rights. Zimbabwe’s political system returned in some ways to its precoup status quo, as the ruling ZANU-PF party won deeply flawed general elections following the military’s ouster of longtime president Robert Mugabe in 2017. Despite President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s pledges to respect political institutions and govern in the interest of all Zimbabweans, his new administration has shown few signs that it is committed to fostering genuine political competition, and it has continued to enforce laws that limit expression.
Space for political activity continued to close in several countries, notably Tanzania, where the government arrested prominent opposition leaders, stifled antigovernment protests, and pushed for legislation that further strengthens the ruling party’s stranglehold on domestic politics. In Uganda, long-ruling president Yoweri Museveni’s administration sought to constrain dissent by implementing new surveillance systems and instituting a regressive tax on social media use. Senegal’s reputation as one of the most stable democracies in West Africa was threatened by new regulatory barriers that could limit the opposition’s participation in upcoming elections. The arbitrary detention and prosecution of a potential opposition presidential candidate cast doubt on the independence of the judiciary and the government’s commitment to the rule of law.
Several of the continent’s aging authoritarian leaders continued to cling to power. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya, now in office for 36 years, presided over deeply flawed elections in which he secured a seventh term, while in Uganda, Museveni—in office for 32 years—oversaw the removal of a presidential age cap from the constitution, allowing him to run for a sixth term in 2021. In Togo, one of only two countries in West Africa without term limits, President Faure Gnassingbé (whose family has been in power since 1967) resisted popular efforts to impose such a barrier.