Steve Chapman

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.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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