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Democracy and the Coronavirus: A Strange Mixture

When we finally take a drink from the bottle before us, what will we become? JUBAL KANAYO takes a look at what the future holds for democracies around the world.

Another edition of the Democracy Day is here. Yes, we can all celebrate that our [brand of] democracy is getting old (fearfully, entrenched in a lot of wrong practices specific to these climes) and has come to stay.

But we can only do it from the confines of our homes.

In the last couple of months, the Coronavirus has single-handedly (permit my pun) ensured that a number of things have changes. More than 50 nations have declared a state of emergency. Governments have shut down and people have been advised to stay at home. This has centred power in the Middle, as all everyone has to do is take directives from the central/federal government.

The severe public health emergency of course requires extraordinary measures. But as the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has highlighted, such responses should meet basic tests of necessity, transparency, and proportionality. It is also crucial that they be time-bound and subject to periodic review.

You must be getting the picture now.

In the short-run, democracy, as we know it, will have a few COVID-19-induced alterations. This learning is not wilfull, it is necessary, in catching up with the rapidly changing times. Are we ready to cast off what we know for what is to come? Who could have guessed that we could have another reason (besides Boko Haram, at least) to stay indoors on Democracy Day?

Governments around the world have granted themselves more power than is necessary, crack down on opposition, hardening repression, give rise to economic downturns and plunges in already closed political systems and bolstering more power in settings where democracy has been entrenched.

According to the Carnegie Endowment for National Peace, we can expect a number of fall-outs;

Centralization of Power

Liberal leaders are taking advantage of the crisis to further weaken checks and balances and erode mechanisms of accountability, thereby entrenching their positions of power. In Hungary, for example, a new law allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely, without any parliamentary oversight. In the Philippines, the parliament passed legislation granting President Rodrigo Duterte nearly limitless emergency powers. Similarly, in Cambodia, a new draft law on national emergency would give the government unlimited access to martial power while drastically curtailing citizens’ political rights.

Abridgment of Fundamental Rights

Some authorities are already using the crisis—and their emergency powers—to abridge citizens’ fundamental rights. One particularly clear trend is heightened control over free expression and the media, under the guise of fighting “misinformation” about the virus. The Chinese government has censored information about its response and detained journalists who reported on the outbreak. In Thailand, citizens and journalists who criticize the government’s handling of the crisis face lawsuits and government intimidation. The Egyptian government recently forced a Guardian reporter to leave the country after she had questioned Egypt’s official count of coronavirus cases. In Jordan, the prime minister now has the authority to suspend freedom of expression.

Expanded State Surveillance

The crisis is also accelerating governments’ use of new surveillance technologies. In Israel and South Korea, for example, governments are using smartphone location data to track down citizens who may have been exposed to the virus. In Hong Kong, new arrivals must wear electronic location-tracking wristbands; Singapore does extensive contact tracing and publishes detailed information about each known case. While enhanced surveillance is not per se antidemocratic, the risks for political abuse of these new measures are significant, particularly if they are authorized and implemented without transparency or oversight. In India, for example, the government has pressured local media to maintain positive coverage even as it implements troubling strategies such as “requiring quarantined individuals to periodically upload selfies” and using location tracking to ensure that the photo is taken at the individual’s home. The pandemic has given governments in China, Russia, and other authoritarian states greater justification to deploy even more intrusive systems, including widespread use of facial recognition and social media monitoring.

Banishing Protests

There is a risk that governments may use the current need to restrict public gatherings as a pretext to crack down on the wave of antigovernment protests that have roiled global politics over the past several years. In Algeria, for example, where major protests last year pushed the government toward some political reforms, authorities have banned all protests, marches, and demonstrations. A key issue to watch is whether these bans stay in place indefinitely. Another concern is that they will be enforced in discriminatory ways, meaning that opposition protests could be curtailed while progovernment rallies are tolerated or encouraged. Governments now also have a means to ban protests without officially saying so: shelter-in-place orders have the same effect.

Electoral Disruptions

The pandemic threatens to upend electoral processes around the world. The United States has already delayed several state-level presidential primary votes, and candidates have curtailed rallies and retail-style campaigning. Several European countries—including Italy, North Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, and the United Kingdom—have postponed national or local elections. Ethiopia has as well. In the coming months, elections are slated in Burundi, the Dominican Republic, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mongolia, and elsewhere. Many of these elections may also be postponed. Putting off elections means that citizens are (at least temporarily) deprived of their right to choose their leaders, at a time when leadership choices are of paramount importance. Even where elections do proceed, the chilling effect on turnout could be considerable, particularly among elderly and vulnerable populations.

Bringing it back home, recently, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said it would release special COVID-19-induced guidelines for its staff and other electoral actors ahead of this year’s elections in Edo and Ondo states, as well as the elections in Bayelsa Central Senatorial District, Bayelsa West Senatorial District, Imo North Senatorial District and Plateau South Senatorial District.

Unbalanced Civil-Military Relations

Crisis responses may shift the balance of power between militaries and civilian authorities. In many countries, ranging from Iran and South Africa to Israel and Peru, the military is being called upon to enforce lockdowns and aid the pandemic response in other ways. While this is almost certainly warranted in the immediate emergency period, it may open the door to increased military involvement in the economy and domestic affairs.

In other places, crisis responses may entrench already diminished civilian control over military actors. Pakistan is embroiled in a struggle between military and civilian officials over the pandemic response, leading the security sector leadership to sideline the civilian prime minister and work directly with provincial-level administrations. In Iran, military leaders appear to have assumed significant decision-making authority in managing the response.

In countries where military actors have a history of human rights abuses, ceding more policing functions to the military may have problematic implications. These concerns are already on display in South Africa, where soldiers and police officers were reported to have used excessive force in the first few days of the lockdown, and in Kenya, where human rights groups decried security force abuse in enforcing a curfew.

In the coming months, it will be crucial to monitor whether policing functions and other authorities are transferred back to civilian authorities or whether the pandemic ends up permanently strengthening military actors’ role in political decisionmaking, economic governance, and internal security. On the other hand, in countries where military actors already exert high levels of political influence, an ineffective response may potentially weaken their public image as guarantors of stability.

Extra material was provided by the Dale Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

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