2006 Was Not a Banner Year for Freedom

When John Kerry came in second in the presidential election, he had to go back to the U.S. Senate, where having a defeated candidate around causes some awkwardness. That was nothing compared to the discomfort felt by Ayman Nour, the 2004 runnerup in Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential election.

Sentenced last December to five years in prison on a dubious forgery conviction, he was charged in February with slandering the victorious incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, by calling him "a loser" — which is not only untrue but, as long as Mubarak is president, impossible.

That was the story in much of the world this year, where the movement toward democracy often stalled or yielded unpromising outcomes. The planet is freer and more democratic today than it was five or 10 years ago, but not notably more so than 12 months ago.

Things were going the opposite direction in Russia, where democracy looks like a direct route from repressive autocracy to … repressive autocracy. President Vladimir Putin outlawed foreign funding of nongovernmental organizations, made it a crime to slander public officials and ended the year under suspicion in the poisoning murder of a dissident living in Britain — the latest of several Kremlin critics to meet an untimely end.

Putin may be envious of Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka, who retained his title as the last dictator in Europe. In March, Lukashenka got 83 percent of the vote in an election denounced by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe because of "disregard for the basic rights of freedom of assembly, association and expression."

The Middle East had elections that were fairer, though not necessarily more positive in their effects. In the Gaza Strip, the terrorist Hamas movement won January’s parliamentary vote, an outcome that soon had Palestinians on the verge of civil war. Despite the installation of Iraq’s elected parliament, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said life is now worse than under Saddam Hussein.

Shortly after convening a conference intended to debunk the Holocaust, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad saw his allies trounced in local elections and, when he appeared at a Tehran university, was shouted down by students chanting, "Death to the dictator!" In Lebanon, pro-Syrian Hezbollah supporters, still smarting from Israel’s July invasion, have been mounting protests to bring down the government elected last year following the withdrawal of Syrian forces.

Thailand’s army accompanied a coup with an announcement: "We apologize for the inconvenience." The generals also promised that within two weeks, "we are gone." Three months later, they’re not. Though China was already unfree, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth says it "took a few steps backward."

Things looked better in Latin America. Mexicans narrowly elected Felipe Calderon to the presidency, but opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador claimed fraud and carried out a self-styled inauguration ceremony — though polls indicated that 85 percent of Mexicans accepted Calderon as the rightful victor. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, loser of two presidential elections since being evicted by the voters in 1990, finally won by getting 38 percent of the vote — less than in his original defeat.

Chileans witnessed the death of a despot, Augusto Pinochet, who let himself be voted out of office, while Cubans waited for the death of a seriously ill one, Fidel Castro, who didn’t. Castro continued to serve as an inspiration to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who used his successful re-election campaign to warn critics, "There is no room in Venezuela for any project other than the Bolivarian revolution."

More than three years into the war in the Darfur region of Sudan, where more than 200,000 people have died, the United Nations approved the deployment of a peacekeeping force, which was promptly vetoed by the Sudanese government. After 45 years, the Democratic Republic of Congo finally held a democratic election for president. The winner was incumbent Joseph Kabila, who like his father before him had previously ruled without popular consent.

To encourage reforms, a Sudanese cell phone billionaire offered a prize of $5 million, plus a $200,000 annual stipend for life, to African rulers who gain power democratically and hand it over on schedule to an elected successor. An adviser admitted the prize may not be awarded every year.

President Bush, looking for an acceptable euphemism for developments in Iraq, said the other day that "we’re not succeeding nearly as fast as I wanted." When it came to the spread of democracy and liberty in the world this year, no one would say we are succeeding too fast.