The devastating effects of COVID-19 on democracy - but what if there is a silver lining?
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the staff member. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
This article was first published in Swedish in Omvärlden
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The COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging the world, from public health to the economy. In its rampage, democracy is also taking a toll, with governments imposing restrictions on civil liberties and some using the health crisis as an excuse to tighten their grip on power. Economic crisis in the aftermath of the health crisis can heighten citizen frustrations, leading to greater political instability. But it can also provide breeding ground for demands for greater democratization in authoritarian regimes, and open up avenues for regime change.
There will be the world before and after COVID-19. One thing is for sure. It will never be the same: its response to global pandemics, the profound effects on globalized economies, and its impact on democracy. COVID-19 will reshape the world order in more ways than we can fully grasp while still in the midst of the pandemic.
We know that all economies will be hit hard by the COVID-19 crisis, but that poorer countries will suffer more than the richer ones, with their vulnerable economies, underfinanced health systems and weak economic and social safety nets. We are also increasingly hearing voices highlighting the COVID-19 crisis’ potentially devastating effects on democracy.
While there are many reasons for concern, let us nuance these alarm bells to better identify where they are likely to ring the loudest in a few months from now when the health crisis will (hopefully) have subsided.
Most countries are currently imposing draconian measures, often at the expense of fundamental democratic rights, to curb the spread of the virus. In mature democracies, the freedoms that have taken the greatest toll are those related to the free movement of individuals and freedom of association and assembly. However, when such measures are imposed in mature democracies such as France, Norway or Denmark, they are vetted through democratic processes, implemented by robust democratic institutions and are imposed with a clear expiry date. In those places, the restrictions on freedoms are likely to be lifted when the pandemic has subsided and the democratic order will return to normal. However, some of those mature—but far from perfect—democracies were already facing societal challenges before the crisis—take the yellow vest movement in France—which are likely to be further aggravated by a looming economic recession. In a return to normalcy, citizens will however again be allowed to vent their frustrations through democratic channels such as protests, elections and a free media.
In newer democracies, such as for example Chile, or more fragile ones such as Iraq, Lebanon or Haiti, the challenges will be greater. Many of them have less resilient economic and political systems, already high levels of inequality and often weak social safety nets and public services, and were already facing severe strain, a crisis of legitimacy and massive popular protests before the crisis. These deep societal frustrations are likely to be further aggravated and lead to societal combustion in a context of global economic recession, even if basic political freedoms are restored.
In countries that International IDEA’s 2019 Report on the Global State of Democracy has identified as democratically backsliding (Hungary, Turkey, Poland, India and the Philippines) the crisis may lead to a deepening of backsliding. In many of these contexts, recent restrictions can help to further weaken already embattled democratic institutions, such as parliament, opposition parties, the courts and the media. In Hungary, recent measures enable imprisonment of up to five years for journalists spreading disinformation about the virus. Prime Minister Orban, who has been tightening his grip on power for the past ten years, may today have put the final nail in the coffin of Hungary’s democracy, using his supermajority in parliament to allow him to rule by decree indefinitely.
In outright authoritarian regimes, however, the pendulum can swing either way. In the short-term, we know that many of these regimes have imposed even more draconian measures, passed by one-party states with no real opposition, including further expanding the use of citizen surveillance mechanisms to track the epidemic and expulsing foreign journalists.
However, history shows that economic crisis can provide a fertile breeding ground for demands for democratization in entrenched authoritarian regimes. This was the case in for example Indonesia in 1999 and Tunisia in 2011.
While China has maintained a firm grip on power and maintained a closed lid on any democratic aspirations, it has been able to do so through an economic system that has moved the country from lower middle income to upper middle income in less than two decades. If that economic system begins to cripple, citizens may not be as willing to accept the political rules of the game and look to their peers in Hong Kong for inspiration.
In Iran, societal frustrations were already high before the crisis and a number of protests shook the regime in 2019, although the regime was quick to crack down on dissent. The regime is likely to have lost more legitimacy during the COVID-19 crisis with the devastating effects on the pandemic and protests may take off again with a weakened regime facing an economic crisis.
In electoral democracies headed by political leaders with authoritarian tendencies, the story might be yet another one. Leaders like President Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India and their handling of the crisis might not withstand popular scrutiny. While they might show disdain for a free and critical media and in the latter two cases a free civil society, they all depend on electoral support to stay in power. And at least in the case of the United States, the support for President Trump has to a large extent been linked to a robust economy. A global economic recession will likely cripple an important basis for electoral support. As long as they can be voted out of power, these leaders will be subject to the harsh judgment of voter scrutiny.
So let us nuance the debate on democracy in the context of the Corona crisis, keep a watchful eye during and after the crisis. And let us not forget about democracy once the health crisis is replaced by an economic one. Economic recovery will require not just healthy economies, but also healthy democracies. Societies in which citizens can express their frustrations, choose their political leaders, scrutinize power and ultimately, sound the alarm bells—without restrictions and fear of reprisals—when the next pandemic looms on the horizon.