Many news outlets and humanitarian organizations have reported that the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting new and unparalleled levels of decline in freedom in countries around the world. Freedom House reports that the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries worldwide since the start of 2020, because the pandemic has presented leaders and governments with the opportunity to abuse their power, effectively silencing critics and opposition, and eroding institutions and systems of accountability. One respondent to a Freedom House survey in Cambodia even claimed that the government has used coronavirus as an “opportunity to demolish democratic space.”
However, while it is true that governments and leaders such as those in Cambodia, Egypt, Zimbabwe, and Hungary may be using the pandemic as an excuse to justify their actions to the international sphere, the limits placed on democracy and freedoms in these countries under the guise of coronavirus are not substantially worse than they would likely be in the absence of a global pandemic. For the past fourteen years, this world has experienced a net decline in freedom; in the year 2019, there were almost two times as many countries suffering democratic setbacks as there were those making gains. For example, out of the 41 globally established democracies, 25 experienced net losses in 2019. So, while COVID-19 may continue to present new, more refreshing opportunities for democratic decline, the deterioration of freedoms during the pandemic are neither new nor unprecedented.
One particularly pertinent example of this phenomenon is Cambodia. In April 2020, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has been using the virus as an excuse to bolster its crackdown on political opposition, introducing a state of emergency law that grants the government the ability to strengthen crackdowns on media, activists, and critics in general. While this is certainly concerning for the state of democracy in Cambodia, it’s crucial to put this information into context. The repression of human rights is not a newly occurring phenomenon in Cambodia; in fact, the same article wrote that “the new law simply formally enshrines existing practice.” Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power since 1985
, and has routinely suppressed movements towards free and fair elections and other democratic freedoms for the past 35 years.
In fact, Cambodia has received a freedom status evaluation score of “Not Free” since Freedom House began its “Freedom in the World Annual Report”, receiving a score of less than 26 out of 100 for the past two years. Of particular relevance are two categories measuring civil liberties via degree of freedom of speech and belief. The country received a score of 1 out of 4 in response to the level of free and independent media, citing that the government uses lawsuits, criminal prosecutions, massive tax bills, and occasionally violent attacks to intimidate the media. Additionally, Cambodia received a 2 out of 4 in an evaluation of the degree to which individuals are free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution, particularly due to Hun Sen’s warning that criticism of the government would be “punished severely.” Both of these categories were evaluated in a report published before the start of the pandemic, supporting the argument that while coronavirus may be contributing to the limitation of these freedoms, it is surely not doing so at a disproportionate level.
Another compelling example of this is Egypt; there have been several articles published discussing how COVID-19 has provided an excuse for Egyptian President al-Sisi to suffocate dissent through the use of emergency powers, thereby allowing the regime to seize freedoms under the pretense of virus protection and relief. Specifically cited are efforts to suffocate dissent through suspending schools and universities, banning assemblies, and extending control of the military over the justice system. However, while it is certainly true that President al-Sisi has continued to limit the rights and liberties of Egyptian citizens throughout 2020, this is nothing new for one of the most Authoritarian regimes in the world. In 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that President al-Sisi was stifling opposition candidates’ campaigns and arbitrarily arresting them, violating the constitution, ignoring the government’s international obligations, and granting the military governing power. Additionally, during a period of peaceful dissent in 2018, HRW reported that authorities “increasingly relied on counterterrorism and state of emergency laws,” this included arresting and prosecuting journalists and activists, as well as punishing criticism of the government. The abuse of power under the guise of emergency situations is not a new occurrence for the Egyptian government.
For as long as published Freedom House “Freedom in the World” reports date back, Egypt has been categorized as “not free”, scoring just 14 out of 60 points in the civil liberties arena, and a meager 7 out of 40 points in the political rights category. Additionally, in the categories cited as experiencing particularly substantial erosion during COVID-19, scores were already astonishingly low; freedom of assembly scored a 0 out of 4 for the 2019 year, despite it being allowed in the constitution. Protection of the rule of law from illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies also scored a 0 out of 4 last year, and academic freedom received a 1 out of 4. Therefore, while it is entirely true that al-Sisi’s regime has continued to limit the freedoms of its citizens throughout the pandemic, the specific actions cited in many of the articles claiming major democratic backsliding in Egypt during coronavirus are not measures unique to the pandemic.
Authors Acemoglu and Robinson present a plausible counterargument when they assert that economic crises present obstacles to democratic consolidation. In step with this argument, the economic strain caused by coronavirus could be accelerating anti-democratic trends at a higher rate. This economically-oriented counterargument presents the most compelling pushback to this blog post. However, the authors also argue that economic crises make it easier to solve collective action problems, which could lead to fluctuations in political power rather than consolidation of it.
It’s also worth adding that the expansion of political power is to be expected during a public health crisis, especially one as devastating as coronavirus. The implementation of stay at home orders, limits on public gatherings, economic lockdowns, and other preventative measures can be seen as rather authoritative under any circumstances. While this is certainly not by any means an excuse to abuse executive power and engage in human rights abuses, the entire world has experienced limitations on their freedoms to a certain extent as a result of the virus. Because many governments have used the coronavirus as an excuse to continue their power consolidation and democratic backsliding, it’s understandable that one might draw the conclusion that coronavirus has exacerbated the erosion of global democracy. However, in many instances, governments have simply continued along the authoritarian trajectory they had been on prior to the pandemic. So while, yes, global democracy has grown weaker under COVID-19, it has also grown weaker every year for the past fourteen years, and there is not enough evidence to conclude that democracies in these countries would have been any more intact had the pandemic not occurred.
Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James 2006, Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. Chapter 2.
EuroMed Rights. “COVID-19: A New Trojan Horse to Step up Authoritarianism in Egypt.” Accessed December 2, 2020. https://euromedrights.org/publication/covid-19-a-new-trojan-horse-to-step-up-authoritarianism-in-egypt/.
IIP. “COVID-19 and Democratic Backsliding.” Accessed December 2, 2020. https://www.iipvienna.com/new-blog/2020/4/15/covid-19-and-democratic-backsliding.
Freedom House. “Democracy under Lockdown.” Accessed December 2, 2020. https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/democracy-under-lockdown.
Drazen, Allan. “Four Reviews of ‘Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.’” Edited by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The Economic Journal 117, no. 517 (2007): F162–83.
Freedom House. “Egypt.” Accessed December 2, 2020. https://freedomhouse.org/country/egypt/freedom-world/2020.
Freedom House. “Egypt.” Accessed December 2, 2020. https://freedomhouse.org/country/egypt/freedom-world/2020.
Human Rights Watch. “Egypt: A Move to Enhance Authoritarian Rule,” February 12, 2019. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/12/egypt-move-enhance-authoritarian-rule.
Human Rights Watch. “Egypt: New Moves to Crush Dissent,” January 17, 2019. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/01/17/egypt-new-moves-crush-dissent.
Taylor, Adam. “Analysis | Democracies Are Backsliding amid the Coronavirus Pandemic.” Washington Post. Accessed December 2, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/10/02/democracy-coronavirus-freedom-house/.
I found your article extremely interesting as it forced me to revalue my thinking in regards to Covid-19 and democratic backsliding. It is true that, as you said, each country has its history and context and we cannot blame the pandemic for all cases of authoritarianism. As you proved with Cambodia, the erosion of democracy might have happened anyway.
Nevertheless, V-Dem has created a pandemic backsliding index (https://www.v-dem.net/en/analysis/PanDem/) based on Lührmann and Rooney’s criteria. This index is based on the difference between what you call “expected expansion of political power” and the way would-be autocrats would use Covid-19 to “impose disproportionate measures” which they keep even when the crisis has improved (Lührmann and Rooney, 2020).
As you say, there is a great difference between using the pandemic situation to commit abuses -as a would-be autocrat might use any other type of crisis- and to consider Covid-19 the cause of all episodes of democratic erosion. I agree with you that it might be too soon to establish these types of causal relationships. However, a global health crisis that has changed the priorities of not only citizens but governments is a complex phenomenon. We cannot be too dismissive of what the effects of Covid-19 have been world-wide and, hopefully, future research will help us answer this question.
Thank you for your article!
Lührmann and Rooney (2020) Autocratization by Decree: States of Emergency and
Democratic Decline. Retrieved from: https://www.v-dem.net/media/filer_public/31/1d/311d5d45-8747-45a4-b46f-37aa7ad8a7e8/wp_85.pdf
I found your argument very interesting, and I believe you are right in arguing that the COVID-19 pandemic generally did not jumpstart widespread democratic erosion, but rather continued existing trends. At the same time, I would still argue that democracy, in at least a few places, has suffered appreciably more than it would have in the absence of the pandemic. You point to long-term trends in Egypt and Cambodia to argue that the repressive legislation passed during the pandemic is in many ways simply a continuation of previous policy. However, the examples you cite do constitute notable assaults on democratic freedoms. Take for example the proposed passage of the “state of emergency” law in Cambodia. Although, as you say, it merely “enshrines existing practices,” the legalization of said practices in it of itself further reduces the (albeit already weakened) ability of Cambodian citizens to resist, and is therefore significant. Even arguing that Cambodia was already headed down this road, this does not mean that Hun Sen’s government chose to propose its “state of emergency” legislation during the pandemic by sheer coincidence, or that it would have attempted to do so now in its absence.
As you observe yourself, the pandemic has necessitated even well-intentioned expansion of political power and restrictions on certain freedoms. Hun Sen and like minded authoritarians, it is argued, are exploiting these genuine necessities in order to disguise their aggrandizement of power as salutary policy. Would-be autocrats can point to similar restrictions in democratic countries in order to legitimize their actions. Essentially, the pandemic, it has been argued (see, for example: https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/democracy-under-lockdown) has substantially reduced the severity of international scrutiny that world leaders are subjected to. This reduction in accountability, it is thought, is what has motivated some of these autocrats to act now, and I do not believe that your argument fully takes into account the significance of this fact. Without this decrease in accountability, it is possible that some of these autocrats would have hesitated to pursue such draconic policies. Insofar as the pandemic at least accelerated democratic backsliding, I would argue that it is partially responsible for the damage that has been done.