Saturday, May 2, 2020

Democracy post-corona

21 April 2020


Amidst the coronavirus crisis, India’s leadership so far has shown itself to be up to the task. In a battle against the pandemic India can chart a new course in human history and show to the world that democracy is not a fanciful political system for only the rich nations. Despite certain instinctive dangers to the future democratic fabric, the so-called imperfect, rambunctious and seemingly unworkable democracy of India is acting as the bulwark against a rising tide of authoritarianism and retreat of democracy globally.

But the fact that pandemic is not only wreaking destruction on public health and the global economy but disrupting democracy and governance worldwide cannot be denied. Corona has hit at a time when democracy was already under threat in many places, and it risks exacerbating democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation. Therefore, Indian civil society is deeply obligated to be substantially vigilant to ensure that the basic democratic values remain unblemished in post-corona era. The deliberate use of the terms such as chaotic democracies, liberal democracies, responsible democracies, etc are indicative of the motives to reshape the egalitarian governance to suite the wish of the leaders.

Populist and autocratic world leaders were ill-prepared for the pandemic initially. A disdain for science and expertise, combined with nepotism and neglect of state institutions, including health care, made governments such as those of U.S. President Donald Trump, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro more vulnerable. Before the health crisis became impossible to deny, government propaganda outlets or supportive media in these countries systematically downplayed the dangers posed by the coronavirus. For instance, In the United States, Fox News blamed Democrats for playing up the threat. In Serbia and Turkey, pro-regime media gave voice to pundits and so-called experts who claimed that their populations were genetically protected from infection.

The severe public health emergency of course requires extraordinary measures. But the current pandemic situation also has the potential to impact the democratic governance—such as electoral processes, civilian control of uniformed forces, and civic mobilization—and potentially reset the terms of the global debate on the merits of authoritarianism versus democracy. The pandemic will almost certainly usher in broader effects on governance by overburdening countries’ basic governance functions, taxing their socio-political cohesion, unsettling relations between national and local governments and transforming the role of nonstate actors. Most countries have restricted public gatherings and citizens’ freedom of movement, and more than fifty countries in the world have declared states of emergency.

In India too, measures like closing businesses, enforcing physical distancing which they like to call social distancing, and keeping people off the street, including curfews and bans on gatherings, are needed to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus. But there is a serious risk that these efforts are leading to a new wave of authoritarianism as is evident from the experience in various countries. Some governments in the world are using the crisis to grant themselves more expansive powers than warranted by the health crisis, with insufficient oversight mechanisms, and using their expanded authority to tighten their grip on power. Thus, the pandemic may end up hardening repression in already closed political systems, accelerating democratic backsliding in flawed democracies, and further bolstering executive power in democratic countries.

Illiberal 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, a new law allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree. Furthermore, parliamentary oversight is suspended for the duration of the crisis, with only the prime minister permitted to determine when it will be lifted. The new law introduces draconian fines for spreading fake news and breaking quarantine and curfews, with penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment. In the Philippines, the parliament passed legislation granting President Rodrigo Duterte nearly limitless emergency powers. In Cambodia, a new law would give the government unlimited access to martial power while drastically curtailing citizens’ political rights. Numerous countries have already passed emergency laws or declared states of emergency—a tactic autocrats can use to consolidate power. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the emergency to postpone his corruption trial, block parliament from sitting, and grant extraordinary domestic surveillance powers to the internal intelligence agency.

A clear trend of heightened control over free expression and the media, under the guise of fighting “misinformation” about the virus is being seen across the world. The crisis is also accelerating governments’ use of new surveillance technologies. In Israel and South Korea, 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.

What if governments start using the current need to restrict public gatherings as a pretext to crack down on the wave of anti-government protests that have roiled global politics over the past several years? What if these bans stay in place indefinitely? What if they are 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: a shelter-in-place order could be sufficient.

Almost across the globe, the right of freedom of assembly has been severely restricted. There is nothing like free movement in most of the countries. In a number of countries, elections are beginning to be delayed. Voting for the Democratic primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Serbia and North Macedonia, national elections scheduled for April have been postponed. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed.

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. In India also, election for the upper house of the parliament is postponed indefinitely and there are chances that the bye-elections due in few states might also be delayed. Holding elections in the current environment is certainly difficult and even dangerous, but what if depriving people of their right to choose their leaders become a tendency in post-corona world under the garbs of apprehensions of some epidemic of regional nature?

Governments’ emergency responses to the pandemic risk aggravating the already significant trend of shrinking space for civil society in many parts of the world. The pandemic will strain basic socio-political cohesion in many states. The differential effects of the health crisis along key axes—rich versus poor, urban versus rural, region versus region, and citizen versus migrant—may sharpen existing social divides. The pandemic may compound those strains by exacerbating political polarization where it already exists.

Don’t you think that all those who are concerned with democracy’s future must closely monitor the wide-ranging, fast-moving political effects of the pandemic, rapidly devise responses to lessen potential harm, and seize any positive opportunities the crisis may pose in the future? The unfolding global crisis will be coming soon perhaps as even bigger wave of political disruption. Potentially devastating increases in economic inequality, unemployment, debt, and poverty, as well as pressures on the stability of financial institutions, will put enormous strains on governance systems of all types. The probabilities for severe instability in the time to come are clear. This pandemic may lead to a serious decline in democracy around the world. It is crucial that liberal democracies such as India’s show devotion and diligence in upholding the fundamentals of the republic.


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