The world experienced a decline in democratic governance in 2011, while the gains of the Arab Spring remain fragile, according to the latest “Countries at the Crossroads” report.
The Arab world’s transitional states risk a reversion to authoritarian rule if they fail to institutionalize democratic governance, says the survey from Freedom House, the U.S.-based monitoring group. Only Tunisia improved its overall governance score among the Middle East and North African states, as Bahrain regressed and Egypt registered only slight progress.
Globally, declines in the quality of governance far exceeded improvements, highlighted by a significant deterioration of government accountability and the rule of law, especially marked in Central America, where powerful non-state actors threaten government authority.
“There are limits to citizens’ patience with respect to political instability, economic disruption and physical insecurity, and the desire to return to a less chaotic environment may allow the leaders to slip back into the familiar habits of authoritarian rule,” said Vanessa Tucker, the survey’s project director.
“After decades of corrupt and repressive rule, citizens in these states are facing brutal and ineffective security forces, habitually divisive and confrontational politics, and a lack of productive avenues through which to lodge their grievances and assert their rights,” said Tucker.
“It is unclear whether the popular dismissal of the old models of authoritarianism will translate into enduring public support for novice representative government and contentious institutional reforms,” she said.
Nearly two years after the Arab Spring began, “a lack of substantive institutional reform has left states struggling to maintain democratic achievements,” says the report:
Countries at the Crossroads 2012 analyzes the performance of 35 policy-relevant countries that are at a critical juncture between democratic progress and deterioration. The best and worst performers in this year’s edition—Tunisia and Bahrain, respectively—are in the MENA region, and the gap between them constitutes one of the largest intraregional divergences in the project. This gulf is due in large part to the drastic contrast between the two governments’ commitments to strengthening democratic institutions.
Middle East and North Africa findings:
Tunisia, the clear frontrunner in the MENA region, made a discernible effort to relax restrictions on civil society, strengthen civil liberties, and improve its electoral system. Though a number of problems remain, the transitional government made significant progress in pursuing democratic reform through laws and institutions, thus establishing firm protections for newly won democratic rights.
In Egypt, on the other hand, the ruling military council governed mainly through improvised procedures and unilateral decrees. Despite clear improvements in the electoral process, there was insufficient institutionalization of reform. For example, the successful constitutional referendum was undermined when the military later decreed constitutional amendments that were much wider in scope than those the voters approved. This ad hoc approach to governing leaves citizens vulnerable, as the authorities can rescind their democratic rights at will.
Bahrain now performs at the governance level of pre-2011 Syria because of the government’s brutal offensive against nonviolent protests, which has included the use of excessive force and torture, trying civilians in military courts, and allowing the Saudi military to enter the country and buttress its repressive strategy.
Additional regional findings:
Increases in violence and organized crime had a negative effect on the scores for the Latin American countries assessed in this edition. The trend included high rates of violence against journalists in Mexico and Honduras, and growing interference by organized crime in the electoral process in Guatemala and Mexico.
The Asian countries in this year’s survey suffered major setbacks in the face of power grabs by the executive branch and ruling parties, particularly in Sri Lanka and Vietnam. Freedom of expression was also constricted, as the Indonesian and Cambodian governments, among others, cracked down on the media.
One of Africa’s leading democracies, South Africa, suffered score declines because of the increasing dominance of the ruling African National Congress and the government’s ongoing efforts to limit media freedom. Electoral abuses in Malawi and Uganda, in addition to growing corruption in Tanzania, were also responsible for significant score drops among the African countries assessed in this edition.
Countries at the Crossroads provides comparative data on 72 critical, policy-relevant countries, offering readers useful time-series data and comprehensive narrative evaluation of the progress and backsliding in each country.