COVID-19: Democracy takes it for its cold

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Ximena Sampson (go to author's page)

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a challenge for public health, but also for global democracy, warn the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and Freedom House, two NGOs.

Since the onset of the pandemic, democracy has weakened in 80 of the 192 countries studied by Freedom House. This decline can take different forms, says Amy Slipowitz, co-author of the report. Democracy under lockdown (Democracy in confinement):

  • abuse of power, such as arbitrary detentions, violence against civilians or the repression of political opponents;
  • attacks against vulnerable groups, who are sometimes referred to as scapegoats;
  • the lack of clear and transparent information from governments on COVID-19;
  • media censorship, arrest of journalists and restrictions on freedom of expression;
  • an indefinite postponement of the elections.
People's Front alliance leader and outgoing Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa greets supporters during a campaign rally ahead of the election on August 5, 2020, in Ahungalla, Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka is a good example of global trends, according to Freedom House. The government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, re-elected in August after a double postponement of the ballot, has stepped up its authoritarianism in recent months, ordering the arrest of anyone who criticizes or contradicts the official line on the coronavirus.


In fact, COVID-19 accentuated an already existing crisis, believes Amy Slipowitz. For the 14th year in a row, political and civil liberties were in decline around the world.

The pandemic is not a major turning point, but rather it is contributing to this decline that we have seen for nearly a decade and a half.

Amy Slipowitz, report co-author Democracy under lockdown

In its 2020 (pre-COVID) report, Freedom House already expressed concern about the erosion of democracy globally, especially in established democracies like India. The Hindu nationalist government has policies in place to try to marginalize the minority Muslim population, in addition to restricting press freedom, explains the researcher.

Since the pandemic, the situation has worsened further with disinformation campaigns accusing Indian Muslims of being super propagators of COVID-19.

Three policemen look at a man's documents.

Police officers check passers-by in the Amritsar suburb after lockdown is imposed.

Photo: Getty Images / NARINDER NANU

Even the United States is not spared. Freedom House reports that the pandemic has deepened the fractures within America's democratic institutions and that public health has been politicized. IDEA notes that the Trump administration also used the pretext of public health to deport 40,000 people who had crossed the border illegally, including asylum seekers and minors, thus putting aside the formal process. In addition, the excessive use of force by federal agents to quell protests against racism is of concern.

Rights and freedoms threatened

While some established democracies are at risk, the situation is even more worrying in fragile states, believes Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary general of IDEA in Stockholm.

Just as the virus tends to hit much harder on those with pre-existing health problems, the impact on democracy is greatest in countries that had problems before, where the rule of law was under siege, where the checks and balances were weakened and where the capacity of the media to function independently was systematically abused by the government, he believes.

The virus attacks those who already had weakened democratic defenses, accelerating ongoing democratic regression processes.

Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

We only have to think of the case of Hungary, where President Viktor Orban's autocratic drift is already well documented. In this same category are also governments that we hear less often, such as those of Bangladesh, El Salvador or Zimbabwe, which have not hesitated to use the pandemic to expand their powers, underlines Mr. Casas Zamora.

Masked protesters hold placards on July 27, 2020 in Manila.

In the Philippines, citizens are protesting against a new anti-terrorism law that they believe will worsen human rights violations in the country. Over 120,000 people have been arrested for violating the curfew.

Photo: Getty Images / Jes Aznar

In total, more than 50 states, including around 20 democracies, have introduced restrictions on freedom of expression or freedom of the press since the start of the pandemic, he notes.

An abuse of emergency powers

The government's use of emergency powers is perfectly legitimate as long as their use is limited in time and they are subject to the control of Parliament and the judiciary, notes Mr. Casas Zamora.

But the risk is that some governments invoke them without setting a deadline, he adds.

When a state of emergency is put in place, we can reduce freedom of association or freedom of movement, but we must always ensure that these restrictions are proportional, that they are limited in duration, that they are legitimate and do not discriminate against certain people or groups, also believes Amy Slipowitz.

Armed men watch the street.

Police have imposed a curfew in two cities in Sri Lanka after a new case of COVID-19 was discovered. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has denounced arbitrary arrests.

Photo: Getty Images / ISHARA S. KODIKARA

The researcher recalls what happened in the United States after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when Congress passed emergency laws that increased state surveillance and detention powers in the name of counterterrorism.

Freedom House highlights the case of two states that are not long-standing democracies, yet have resisted the imposition of abusive measures: Tunisia and Georgia. These two cases demonstrate that any country can take action to manage health risks while respecting human rights., estimates the organization.

This is also noted by Kevin Casas Zamora, who notes that most countries have used emergency powers in a reasonable way so far. We will see in a year who abused it, he believes. It is still too early to tell.

Postponed elections

The electoral calendar has also been affected by the pandemic. Freedom House documented disruption of national elections in nine countries in the first eight months of the year. However, it is not the postponement itself that is problematic, points out Amy Slipowitz, but rather that the new election date is not immediately announced and that steps are taken to ensure that measures are put in place to make the election credible and secure for voters.

Supporters of candidate Luis Arce, dressed in their traditional attire, wave blue flags at his final campaign rally in El Alto, Bolivia, on October 14.

Elections in Bolivia, originally scheduled for May 3, have been postponed three times and will ultimately take place on October 18.

Photo: Getty Images / AIZAR RALDES

More than 70 ballots, at the national or sub-national level, have been delayed because of the pandemic, adds Kevin Casas Zamora. But there are at least as many that have been maintained and, as the pandemic continues, more states are deciding to keep their electoral calendars.

In Canada, New Brunswick held an election on September 14, while British Columbia and Saskatchewan are set to do so on October 24 and 26.

By-elections are also scheduled for October 26 in two Toronto ridings.

This does not concern Holly Ann Garnett, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston and a specialist in electoral integrity. Everything seems to be going well and the proper safety procedures are in place, she says.

People line up outside the Dieppe market, staying two meters from each other.

The New Brunswick general election on September 14 was the first vote of this magnitude held in Canada since the start of the pandemic. In the New Brunswick election, the turnout was 66.1%, down slightly from the 2018 general election. A record number of people voted early.

Photo: Radio-Canada / Michèle Brideau

She has no doubt that, if it does, a federal election could also take place without any concerns. Elections Canada has been in existence for over 100 years; it is an organization which enjoys the confidence of the public and which has high technical capacities, believes the researcher.

The pandemic has exacerbated the problems of fragile democracies. But a country like Canada, which already has a long-standing, strong and stable democracy, is much better positioned to tackle some of the challenges that could arise from COVID-19.

Holly Ann Garnett, professor at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston.

While Canadian democracy is not in danger, it has had to face certain challenges, thinks Kelly Blidook, professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, an expert on political representation.

The House of Commons suspended in person on March 13. Sessions resumed on April 28 virtually, with 338 deputies having to connect from home.

Justin Trudeau standing in a half-empty Chamber.

After long discussions, the government of Justin Trudeau has agreed with the opposition parties for a return to Parliament in a hybrid way. Some Members may be present in person, while the others will participate in the debates by videoconference.

Photo: The Canadian Press / Justin Tang

During this period, committee work was interrupted and the opposition had far fewer opportunities to question the government, says Blidook. Yes, it affected democracy, but the stakes were, after all, minor. The government continued to function effectively and respond to the needs of citizens, notes the researcher.

Since September 23, the Commons have been operating in a hybrid fashion. A few MPs are present in person, while the others participate by videoconference. Voting is electronic.

The Canadian response has generally been quite good and comparable to what many other democratic countries have done, emphasizes Mr. Blidook.

We have managed to avoid a significant erosion of democracy and rights. Government officials have also been prevented from sending contradictory messages which misinform the population and create mistrust.

Kelly Blidook, professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Long-term worries

What the secretary general of IDEA fears most are the political consequences of the economic recession caused by the pandemic. <q data-attributes = '{"lang": {"value": "fr", "label": "Français"}, "value": {"html": "We just have to think about the financial crisis of 2008-2009: the political bill did not arrive until several years later, with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of different forms of populism "," text ":" We just have to think about the financial crisis of 2008-2009: the political invoice did not arrive until several years later, with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of different forms of populism "}} 'lang =" en”>We just have to think about the financial crisis of 2008-2009: the political invoice did not arrive until several years later, with Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of different forms of populism, believes Mr. Casas Zamora.

Supporters of Donald Trump hold signs that read Make America Great Again in Louisville, Ky. On March 20, 2017.

Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election by promising to make the United States great again.

Photo: Getty Images / JIM WATSON

Although the economic crisis is not the only factor explaining these phenomena, he explains, it was, however, a major element because of the feeling of impunity, of the impression that no one paid the price for the economic catastrophe and that the political system was not able to adequately manage the consequences and responsibilities.

The political consequences of the economic crisis may linger for years, but they could be considerable.

Kevin Casas-Zamora, Secretary General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

Another disturbing effect of the pandemic is the weakening of the image of the United States in the world, as a consequence of its response catastrophic pandemic, believes Mr. Casas Zamora.

This will have a huge effect on the ability of Americans to exert political influence on the rest of the world., he says. If democracy has spread so widely over the past half-century, it is because the most influential geopolitical actor has been a liberal democracy: the United States. But if that influence wears off and it is a dictatorship, China, which becomes the most powerful geopolitical actor in the world, is in danger of changing.

The task of spreading democracy across the world may then become much more complicated, he laments.

Read also :

  • Our democracies challenged by the coronavirus
  • 2020: democracy on the decline in the world?
  • It’s not the form that matters, it’s the opportunity to debate
  • How is democracy doing?

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