In 2004, the global spread of democracy stalled

December 24, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Saddam Hussein ends this year where he began it, in a jail cell awaiting prosecution for crimes against humanity. But he may be relieved to hear that the delay is for his own good.

"This is going to be, probably, the trial of the century, and we have to get it right," said Iraqi national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie. "We can't suddenly try and sentence him to either life in prison or whatever, execute him 100 times, as some people want to do."

This time last year, Iraq was under U.S. military occupation, awaiting the arrival of democracy and gripped by violent turmoil. Today, likewise - despite the deaths of about 880 American service members this year.

For the world, inertia was the rule. The global advance of freedom and democracy is stalled. Rarely in recent years has there been so little progress.

The bad news is that in 2004, according to the human rights group Freedom House, the world added only one new free country - the Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbuda, home to just 68,000 people. The good news is that the world didn't lose any free countries.

It did, however, lose one "partly free" country. After helping to lead the earlier worldwide parade away from repression and dictatorship, Russia is in a solitary march backward under the leadership of Vladimir V. Putin. It was rated "not free" by Freedom House for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

There are now 89 free countries, up from 76 in 1994. Forty-four percent of humanity lives in free countries, with 19 percent in partly free countries and 37 percent unfree.

Not only did he amass power and eliminate opposition at home, Mr. Putin also campaigned in neighboring Ukraine for a presidential candidate whose subsequent victory was overturned on grounds of fraud. The Kremlin's power was no match for ordinary Ukrainians who jammed the streets day after day to demand a new election, which will take place Sunday. As the cheated candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko, told his followers this week, they "peacefully, beautifully, elegantly and without any drops of blood changed Ukraine."

Mr. Putin's authoritarian bent didn't appear to hurt his popularity at home - perhaps because, as one expert claims, "Putin is more liberal than 95 percent of Russians." His approach, says Freedom House, has brought about a sharp loss of political and civil liberty in Russia. Since 1997, it reports, "only Haiti has seen comparable declines."

The architect of Haiti's decline, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was forced into exile by an armed insurgency, though he claimed he was kidnapped by the U.S. government. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, by contrast, survived not only opposition from Washington but a recall vote.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, held the biggest one-day election in history, with 125 million people going to the polls to choose among 448,000 candidates. Afghans elected a president for the first time, though Hamid Karzai's authority was so limited in most of the country that he was nicknamed "the mayor of Kabul."

Most Muslim countries have yet to enjoy the experience of free elections. When the Arab League canceled a summit because some governments resented the agenda, which included "democratic processes" and "human rights," The Economist magazine noted, "Not a single Arab leader has ever been peacefully ousted at the ballot box."

Once upon a time, something similar could have been said of sub-Saharan Africa: Between 1960 and 1990, only one African ruler was voted out of power. Since then, though, 18 have been. That group does not include Zimbabwe's long-reigning dictator Robert G. Mugabe, who has curbed not only dissent but life expectancy - which on average has fallen from 60 years to 35 years in Zimbabwe since 1992.

The biggest single obstacle to democracy in the world remains the government of China, home to more than half of the "not-free" people in the world. Preferring not to join those ranks, 100,000 protesters marched in Hong Kong on New Year's Day to demand the right to vote for the leaders of their semi-autonomous region.

They didn't get it, any more than Iraqis will get to execute Saddam Hussein 100 times. So far, the Chinese government is managing to suppress demands for democracy. But the rulers in Beijing, like the former Iraqi dictator and plenty of other autocrats, may have an inkling that time is not on their side.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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