Restrictions for the unvaccinated: the next democratic dilemma in the Covid-19 pandemic
Even as Covid-19 vaccines become more widely available, many countries have struggled to increase their vaccination rates. Only three countries in the world currently mandate vaccination for the entire population: Austria, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan (1.8 per cent of the countries covered by International IDEA's Global Monitor of Covid-19). More common is mandatory vaccination for certain groups of people (for example, health and service sector workers), which have been implemented in 38 countries (23 per cent). There are also increasingly common measures that simply restrict access to public spaces for the unvaccinated. In fact, French President Emmanuel Macron recently said that he was hoping to "piss off the unvaccinated" by increasing restrictions and applying pressure on the unvaccinated. Such policies and mandates have been met with anger and dismay in some quarters, but are they justifiable with reference to fundamental principles of democracy and human rights? While the science is clear that vaccinations are the best and most efficient option for ending the pandemic, what are the risks of such restrictions on the health of a democracy? Excluding the unvaccinated from public life risks deepening already existing divisions. In the US, for example, unvaccinated people often have a lack of trust in government. There is also evidence that lower income individuals are less likely to get vaccinated, and there are racial disparities in rates of vaccination. In other countries, vaccine hesitancy overlaps with religious beliefs and mistrust of western governments. Also worrying is the fact that restrictions that were meant to be temporary have been extended or re-imposed, sparking fear of creeping authoritarianism. In the US, the Supreme Court is currently deciding whether the Biden Administration is overstepping in its decision to mandate vaccination or testing in private companies. Despite these concerns, opinion polls in Europe show that in the last months, mandatory vaccination is supported by a majority of respondents. For example, in Austria, 60 per cent of the population supports mandatory vaccination. Moreover, in Germany, where a 2G policy (only allowing the vaccinated and those who have recently recovered from Covid-19 to access certain venues) has been implemented, 69 per cent of the population is in favour of a universal vaccination mandate. In the US, almost 70 per cent of the population supports a vaccine mandate. How should governments balance respecting democratic freedoms with protecting public safety? Thus far, it seems that many regimes are making the decision to prioritize public safety. In fact, 46.9 per cent of all democracies have implemented at least one restriction for unvaccinated people, whereas 38.6 per cent of authoritarian regimes and 26.1 per cent of hybrid regimes have implemented them. Source: GSoD Indices, idea.int/gsod Yet another option is to use “Covid passes” to restrict access for those who are unvaccinated and/or those who have not recently recovered from the virus and/or those who have not been tested recently. 41.2 per cent of all countries use Covid-19 documentation domestically in one way or another. Here, democracies are again more inclined to implement it: more than half of democracies have implemented Covid-19 documentation, whereas only around a quarter of both hybrid and authoritarian regimes have. In the European Union, even a centralized system of Covid passes was set up to open public spaces and to make travel between countries easier. When taking into account that the rights and freedoms of a society as a collective should be protected in a democracy, introducing measures that can prevent health care systems from collapsing could be a way of maintaining the quality of democracy. The data from the Global Monitor shows that regimes of all types are trying to find a balance between restricting individual freedoms and ensuring safety for vulnerable groups of people. With the rise of 2G policies throughout Europe, the trend seems to be that in order for governments to ensure the safety of citizens, the deepening divisions in society between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated are apparently accepted as a proportional consequence.
Democratic backsliding: Different causes, divergent trajectories
In International IDEA’s recently published report on The Global State of Democracy 2021, one of the most remarked-upon findings was that the United States of America is now a backsliding democracy. While many people have a relatively intuitive sense of what democratic backsliding means, the underlying causes and potential outcomes deserve some further exploration. By democratic backsliding, political analysts generally mean that a democracy is slipping backwards in terms of its democratic performance, and that there are signs of rising authoritarianism. One succinct definition holds that democratic backsliding involves “state-led debilitation or elimination of any of the political institutions that sustain an existing democracy.” Democratic backsliding differs from more generalized democratic erosion in terms of both intent and focus. International IDEA’s research in this area has highlighted the linkage between democratic backsliding and actions that specifically damage both horizontal constraints (via attacks on the legislature and the courts) and accountability to the voting public (via interference with media integrity and civil liberties). In most cases of democratic backsliding, the ability to hold free and fair elections is not immediately impacted – though this may come later. Applying the implications of this research in a diagnostic way, International IDEA tracks the average value of its indicators for Checks on Government and Civil Liberties for every country, and where we see a decline compared to five years ago that is greater than the threshold we’ve defined, we classify that country as backsliding. That also means that each country is compared to itself, not to some abstract and universal standard. In our analysis of the United States (one of seven backsliding countries in 2020: Brazil, Hungary, India, the Philippines, Poland, and Slovenia), we show that while the country performs very well across many indicators of democracy, there are significant and serious declines in these vital parts of the democratic system, and there is reason to be worried about the trajectory of the country. By analogy, it’s a bit like someone who appears to be very physically fit, but has very high cholesterol. An individual is healthy in many ways, but s(he) is at high risk of a serious medical incident. One of the most notable trends in the United States in the last five years has been a decline in what we call Effective Parliament. The inability of the US Congress to check the executive or investigate the actions of former-President Trump – even after the change in the majority party after the 2018 midterms – is reflected in a sharp decline in this indicator in 2017 and following. At the same time, police brutality in response to protests (particularly those organized by the Black Lives Matter movement) led to a rapid decline in the Freedom of Association and Assembly. Unlike the concerted legislative effort to disempower or capture institutions that has taken place in other backsliding countries (e.g., Hungary), the US experience with democratic backsliding appears to have more to do with political and institutional weaknesses that came to light when an illiberal leader pushed the limits of what had previously been understood to be acceptable in US politics. However, the departure from office of that leader does not mean that US scores will immediately rebound. As the problems identified were not primarily legislative, they cannot be legislatively corrected. The US Congress must improve in its ability to fulfil its functions, and governments at all levels in the United States must recommit themselves to the protection of Civil Liberties for all Americans in order for this backsliding episode to be reversed. The United States is far from being the only backsliding democracy that we’ve observed, and (as noted above) it is one of seven countries in the midst of a backsliding episode in 2021. This provides us with enough comparative data to consider how backsliding episodes vary in their causes and outcomes. After several years of democratic backsliding, Serbia became a hybrid regime in 2020. In contrast, after only two years of democratic backsliding, Romania (discussed below) began to improve again in 2020. Hungary provides an example of prolonged democratic backsliding that has stabilized into a severely flawed form of government. Hungary has been a roundly condemned example of democratic backsliding over the last decade, and the country’s experience with a deliberate transition to “illiberal democracy” illustrates one common path. Since Fidesz returned to power under the leadership of Viktor Orbán in 2010, the party has pursued the consolidation of power through legislation that has weakened the judiciary, attacked civil liberties and academic and media freedom, and in other ways weakened the ability of the legislature to check executive power. The declines in key indicators of backsliding happened at first suddenly in 2010, and then more gradually until the present. Hungary seems to be stabilizing at mid-range performance in these indicators – neither sinking further nor improving. Romania’s experience with democratic backsliding began in a manner similar to Hungary, but was very short-lived. In late 2017, a series of laws were passed by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) government -- led by party chairman Liviu Dragnea – that would have severely undermined judicial independence and anti-corruption efforts. The public responded to these legislative moves with some of the largest protests in many years. Hundreds of people were injured in clashes with police during those protests, leading to calls for the EU to take action to protect civil liberties in Romania. However, following a change of government in 2020, the new National Liberal Party (PNL) government took steps to reverse the challenges to judicial independence that began in 2017. Romania’s performance improved across a range of indicators in 2020, ending the backsliding episode very quickly, though Romania’s democracy continues to face many challenges. Democratic backsliding most often involves a deliberate campaign to undermine institutions, close civic space, and restrain the media. Sometimes this has been pursued through targeted legislation; in other cases demagoguery and intimidation have been the favored methods. The varied paths of democratic backsliding indicate that the solutions will vary as well. In The Global State of Democracy 2021 Report, International IDEA laid out a number of policy recommendations for reinforcing and revitalizing democracy. In a later post, we will highlight a number of these, particularly addressing how democratic backsliding can be halted and reversed.
The storm that comes: information manipulation of electoral results
Images of Keiko Fujimori supporters protesting the electoral results in Peru, or Donald Trump acolytes storming the Capitol on January 6th are bound to become more common. Attacking the legitimacy of electoral results is being added to the disinformation playbook of illiberal forces all over the world, and this threatens the quality of democracy globally by attacking the glue that holds democracy together: trust. Without trust in the results, the legitimacy of elections becomes vulnerable. This vulnerability is well known, and we are witnessing its exploitation around the world. We are seeing an increasingly common pattern: In the weeks (or even months, such as in Brazil or Germany) before the election, political actors will subtly question the integrity of the electoral process, sowing a seed of doubt among their supporters. Afterwards, if results are not leaning towards the candidate or party, a coordinated disinformation campaign will be unleashed online, and any excuse will be used—mail-in voting, voting from abroad, counting of votes in certain areas of the country, double voting, undocumented immigrants voting—to send a clear message: results cannot be trusted. How is this possible? First, coordinated disinformation campaigns online make it possible for certain leaders’ false narratives to grow over time. The narrative of leaders or parties in the US, Peru, Moldova or Germany was sustained by an orchestrated campaign online to support it. Second, fraudulent counting and tabulation can sometimes occur. In fact, these methods have long been used to rig elections. Yet, today such instances are less and less common as rigging elections becomes more sophisticated1 . Still, political operatives continue to use it as justification. Third, questioning the results this way may provide a small opening to overturn them. In Moldova, losing incumbents questioned the results to influence a second round. In Israel, it decreased the support a possible coalition capable of unseating the ruling party might have had. More dangerous attempts might be taken to justify a repetition of the elections or even a military take-over, such as the one that took place in Myanmar. This kind of campaign helps build a populist narrative based on the idea that the incoming government is not legitimate. This narrative simultaneously attacks the incoming government, the electoral management body and the media landscape, threatening three fundamental pillars of democracy. These attacks leave a serious dent in democracy. They erode trust in the system and its rules, which subsequently erodes the legitimacy of democratic institutions. The use of coordinated online manipulation campaigns that unjustifiably question electoral results is something of a novelty that needs to be addressed before it becomes the norm after elections. To start addressing the problem, three action points are key. Firstly, civil society and educational institutions must prioritize broad voter education campaigns to make voters and citizens aware of what disinformation looks like and why it is dangerous. Secondly, electoral management bodies and other stakeholders must enhance electoral transparency throughout the process, especially during voting, counting and tabulation. Last but not least, it is critical to set up a multi-stakeholder approach that includes technology platforms, governments and civil society to make sure social media is at the service of electoral integrity. This can be realised through targeted takedowns, flagging of voting-related disinformation and pre-emptive measures ahead of voting and tabulation processes to stop inauthentic behaviour and false narratives. These measures would reinforce trust in elections. Without trust, it not only elections that are at risk; democracy itself could go into freefall.  On the current trends to rig elections, see “How to Rig and Election” by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.