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Democracy on decline in health checkup

Freedom House warned of a continued decline in global democracy in an annual checkup blaming a "leaderless struggle" undercut by autocrats and populists.

WASHINGTON (AN) — Freedom House warned of a continuing decline in global democracy on Wednesday in its 14th annual health checkup that blamed a "leaderless struggle" undercut both by autocratic regimes and populist nationalism.

The U.S.-based international organization, founded in 1941 by prominent Americans such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Wendell Wilkie and Ralph Bunche, sounded the alarm on what it views as a steady erosion of political freedoms and civil liberties around the world.

The organization's report, "A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy," looks at 195 nations and 15 territories. It prominently blames lagging democratic leadership due to U.S. President Donald Trump's "America First" policies and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-first politics.

"Democracy and pluralism are under assault. Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world," the organization's Freedom in the World 2020 report begins.

"At the same time, many freely elected leaders are dramatically narrowing their concerns to a blinkered interpretation of the national interest," the report says. "In fact, such leaders — including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies— are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas."

The report found political rights and civil liberties deteriorated in 64 nations, compared with improvements in just 37 others. "The negative pattern affected all regime types, but the impact was most visible near the top and the bottom of the scale," it said. "More than half of the countries that were rated 'Free' or 'Not Free' in 2009 have suffered a net decline in the past decade."

The gambit of citizen protests

Intolerance of diversity, marked by a crackdown on ethnic, religious and other minority groups, was a major characteristic of democracies and authoritarian governments, Freedom House said. China's crackdown on more than 1 million ethnic Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province was "a totalitarian offensive," it said, and one of the year's most appalling examples of domestic repression.

Yet the past year also was marked by a wave of mass protests and pro-democracy demonstrations by people demanding better governance and greater civil liberties. The protests against governments worldwide also exposed an erosion of public trust in political leaders who need to listen more to people’s real problems, said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.

Guterres said last October the protests in the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and Asia illustrate deep political unrest, disgust with corruption or discrimination and resentment at rising prices, persistent inequality and financial systems that benefit elites.

Freedom House said the unchecked brutality of autocratic regimes and ethical decay of democratic powers are making the world more hostile to fresh demands for better governance. "A striking number of new citizen protest movements have emerged over the past year, reflecting the inexhaustible and universal desire for fundamental rights," the organization said.

"However, these movements have in many cases confronted deeply entrenched interests that are able to endure considerable pressure and are willing to use deadly force to maintain power," it said. "The protests of 2019 have so far failed to halt the overall slide in global freedom, and without greater support and solidarity from established democracies, they are more likely to succumb to authoritarian reprisals."