On October 8th, I attended the webinar “Authoritarianism and Democratic Decline” hosted by Freedom House. The engaging discussion was moderated by Anne Gearan, a White House correspondent with the Washington Post, and featured Irwin Cotler, retired Canadian politician and Chair of the Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, and Mike Abramowitz, President of Freedom House. The past fourteen years have seen a steady global decline of democracy, led by China and Russia oppressing political opposition and the exportation of oppression around the world. This webinar highlighted the weakening of democracy during the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
Democracies have been weakened amidst the pandemic in the areas of transparency. Restrictions on protests, large events, and the reporting of virus cases has led national leaders to abuse power and weaken institutions in public health under the guise of national security. Marc Behrendt, director of the Europe and Eurasia programs at Freedom House, explains that although the U.S. has shown significant drops, “these declines are happening in both mature democracies, as well as in countries that have previously had more trouble with freedoms and democracy development.” According to Abramowitz, a recent study concluded that two-thirds of respondents believe COVID-19 will have a long-term impact on democracy. The world was placed into lockdown in only a few short weeks. Borders were closed, police were called in to disperse crowds, and contact tracing efforts put into place. Our “new normal” may succeed in mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but there is a question of whether the world will be less democratic than before the March shutdown. The global health crisis allowed for leaders in democracies and dictatorships alike opportunities for abuse. Civil liberties as well as checks and balances have been temporarily ignored in favor of executive power. Even in crisis, governments have to remain operational.
Cotler brought up an interesting point concerning the integrity of international institutions, namely the UN Human Rights Council. Elections were held this year at the height of the pandemic. China, Russia, Pakistan, and Cuba were elected days ago. Last year, Iran was elected to the UN Commission on women’s rights right after the government sentenced human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh to 38 years in prison.
How Did We Get Here?
Mike Abramowitz summarized three major causes of recent democratic decline. First, it is not a coincidence democratic erosion coincided with the Great Recession and the current COVID-19 recession. Many democracies were unable to deliver widespread economic growth, and this created openings for populists like Presidents Trump and Bolsonaro. Second, the model used today in Brazil, Turkey, Venezuela, and many others was first used in the first election of Vladimir Putin as Russian president in 1999. While Freedom House considered Russia as “partially free” then, authoritarian leadership threatened the use of violence, attacked the independent courts, attacked the media, and enacted laws restricting protests. The third cause has been the rise of social media. These points are both very interesting and concerning. When the Arab Spring began, many in the west believed that social media and instantaneous spread of information would be a positive change in authoritarian countries. What they failed to consider then was the likelihood that, as Abramowitz noted, “the bad guys could figure out how to use it as well.” The system in place today is one of authoritarian elite supporting each other. Cuba and Russia are some of the strongest supporters of Maduro in Venezuela. This makes it difficult for democratic actors to make an impact, especially when the traditional tools of sanctions have failed to change the situation.
There have been restrictions on protests put into place in over 150 countries, but they are not stopping citizens from exercising the right to protest and share their opinion. The huge demand for democracy amidst crisis demonstrates that the negative trends we are seeing now do not tell the whole story. Countries such as Hungary, Poland, and Azerbaijan have passed emergency laws, declared states of emergency, or have begun tracking citizen’s movements. Confronting one of the worst health crises in modern history will take extreme measures, but it is crucial for emergency laws to have a clear timeframe and for legislative bodies to remain engaged and active. Liberal democracies must show self-restraint and must pressure others to follow suit.
Bieber, Florian. “Authoritarianism in the Time of the Coronavirus.” Foreign Policy, 30 Mar. 2020, foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/authoritarianism-coronavirus-lockdown-pandemic-populism/.
Brown, Frances Z., et al. “How Will the Coronavirus Reshape Democracy and Governance Globally?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 6 Apr. 2020, carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/06/how-will-coronavirus-reshape-democracy-and-governance-globally-pub-81470.
Cherneff, Elizabeth. “Freedom House: Democracy Scores for Most Countries Decline for 12th Consecutive Year.” Voice of America, 16 Jan. 2018, www.voanews.com/usa/freedom-house-democracy-scores-most-countries-decline-12th-consecutive-year.
Cotler, I., Abramowitz, M., Gearan, A.” (8 October 2020.) “Authoritarianism and Democratic Decline. Spruce Peaks Art Center.
Serhan, Yasmeen. “The EU Watches as Hungary Kills Democracy.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 Apr. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/04/europe-hungary-viktor-orban-coronavirus-covid19-democracy/609313/.