Human Rights Watch says the world's democratic leaders need "to do better" in meeting global challenges if they are to build momentum in toppling autocrats after a wave of protests against authoritarian rule last year.
In its World Report 2022, released on January 13, the rights watchdog said autocratic leaders faced significant backlash in 2021, but democracy will only flourish if democratic leaders do a better job of addressing global problems to show people that democracy delivers.
The report notes that leaders with autocratic tendencies call the shots in many parts of the world, including Russia and China, while continuing to make inroads in regions where the democratic process is being undermined through illicit actions, including corruption, meant to consolidate the authoritarians' grip on power.
"Today’s democratic leaders are not rising to the challenges facing the world," HRW Executive Director Kenneth Roth noted in the introduction to the report.
“In country after country, large numbers of people have taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, which shows the appeal of democracy remains strong.... But elected leaders need to do a better job of addressing major challenges to show that democratic government delivers on its promised dividends,” he added.
The report says that leaders with authoritarian tendencies frequently use government funds to finance self-serving projects rather than public needs.
Roth points out that in Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban
has spent European Union subsidies on football stadiums, "which he used to pay off cronies, while leaving hospitals in a decrepit state."
In Russia, the report says the legislative crackdown that began in November 2020 intensified ahead of September general elections, especially by expanding and toughening legislation on "foreign agents" and "undesirable foreign organizations."
Russia's "foreign agent" laws require those designated to register with the authorities and label their content with an intrusive disclaimer, with criminal fines for not doing so.
Kremlin critics say the "foreign agent" designation brings up Soviet-era connotations that are intended to root out any independent civic activity in Russia.
Many activists, journalists, and associates of jailed opposition politician Aleksei Navalny have left the country in recent months amid increasing pressure on independent media and those voicing dissent. Several of those who left were on the "foreign agent" list.
"Authorities used some of these laws and other measures to smear, harass, and penalize human rights defenders, journalists, independent groups, political adversaries, and even academics," the report notes, adding that authorities "took particular aim at independent journalism."
In Belarus, the report says, authorities last year escalated smear campaigns and prosecutions against political and civic activists, independent journalists, and human rights defenders on trumped-up, politically motivated charges, following a wave of protests in 2020 triggered by strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka's claim of victory in a presidential election widely seen as manipulated in his favor.
In China, President Xi Jinping solidified his grip on power "while the government doubled down on repression inside and outside the country in 2021," it said. Furthermore, Beijing's “zero-tolerance” policy toward COVID
-19 strengthened the authorities’ hand as they imposed harsh policies in the name of public health.
Despite so many examples of authoritarian gains last year, the report notes that there is hope for a resurgence of democracy in some parts of the world, as "alliances of opposition parties have formed" ahead of forthcoming elections in countries such as Hungary and Turkey.
Roth says that since autocrats can no longer rely on "subtly manipulated elections" to preserve power, a growing number are "resorting to overt electoral charades that guarantee their desired result but confer none of the legitimacy sought from holding an election."
"This growing repression is a sign of weakness, not strength," Roth said.
"If democracies are to prevail, their leaders must do more than spotlight the inevitable shortcomings of autocratic rule," he added.