Democracy faced sharp, widespread setbacks worldwide in 2023 with violence and manipulation marring a series of elections, Freedom House said Thursday.

In its annual report, the US-funded pro-democracy advocacy and research group switched classifications for two countries, downgrading Ecuador from free to partly free and upgrading Thailand from not free to partly free.

Overall, political rights and civil liberties declined in 52 countries and only 21 countries saw improvements, the 18th straight year that global freedom has declined and a much more lopsided trend than a year earlier.

"Even if you look at it region by region, usually we are able to say that one is an outlier, but every single region registered a decline," said report co-author Yana Gorokhovskaia.

"The deterioration is pretty widespread," she said.

The report spoke of efforts by incumbents "to control electoral competition, hinder their political opponents or prevent them from taking power" in Cambodia, Turkey and Zimbabwe and -- unsuccessfully -- in Guatemala and Poland.

Ecuador was downgraded due to election disruption by violent criminal gangs, including the assassination of anti-corruption presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio following a campaign speech.

Thailand was upgraded due to competitive elections even though establishment forces prevented young progressive Pita Limjaroenrat, whose Move Forward Party won the most seats, from becoming prime minister.

"This isn't, I would say, a full-scale victory for democracy or freedom and Thailand," Gorokhovskaia said.

But she saw as progress that the second-place Pheu Thai party of former prime minister and tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra was allowed to take over after years of efforts by the military-backed establishment to suppress it.

The biggest improvement on Freedom House's 100-point scale was posted by Fiji, which gained seven points.

Fiji, listed as partly free, held a tense election in December 2022 in which voters ousted Frank Bainimarama, who had led the Pacific archipelago since staging a bloodless coup in 2006.

Since the election, Fiji has made important progress including by reducing censorship and amending voter registration laws to improve women's participation, Gorokhovskaia said.