The issue of democracy and democratization has been a subject of debate in social sciences for years. The effects of policy reaction to the sudden global shock of the COVID-19 pandemic on democratic backsliding has catalyzed the search of just how much the event has harmed democracy. The public policies made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have complicated social life and democratic processes. In fact, these political actions have been considered a serious threat to democracy, as governments may attempt to limit democratic rules under the cover of “pandemic management.” This serves as a prime example of one of the many modern forms of democratic erosion, this specifically aligning with calculated erosion — where a government or party tests the boundaries of a democratic system, whether through executive aggrandizement or curtailing civil liberties. Given this, it is evident that the further we politicize the pandemic, the more we contribute to the democratic erosion we urge to avoid.
In March 2020, the Washington Post declared that the coronavirus pandemic has eradicted its first democracy, after the Hungarian parliament voted to give Viktor Orban, their prime minister, the authority to rule by decree in the name of fighting COVID-19. This meant that Orban would be allowed to govern using quick, unchallenged proclamation of law — a form of governance mainly used by dictators, absolute monarchs, and military leaders. Furthermore, as of December 2021, Freedom House reported that since the coronavirus outbreak began, democracy and human rights have worsened in 80 countries, with a particularly drastic degradation in struggling democracies in incredibly repressive states. Though the power to rule by decree was later on revoked in Hungary, numerous civici observers warned that these new authorities have the possibility of being used again in future crises. With the pandemic still pressing on to this day, it is not difficult to assume that this instance will remain unique to Hungary.
One of the most concerning pieces of democratic erosion that has come about from the pandemic is the rise of authoritarian trends. As stated by the president of Freedom House Michael J. Abramowitz, “What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crises for democracy.” Of course, the recession of global freedom precedes the pandemic — 2020 being the 15th consecutive year showcasing a decline. However, the pandemic has only worsened the situation. Within the past year, the global weakening of democracy has accelerated. In fact, the nations experiencing a decline in freedom have largely outnumbered those that have experienced improvements by the largest margin on record since the negative trend began in the year 2006. The International Crisis Group has warned that the pandemic has created substantial space for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19, either in an attempt to solidify power domestically or pursue their interests on the international stage. As one Freedom House survey respondent said of Turkey, “Coronavirus was used as an excuse for the already oppressive government to do things that it has long planned to do but had not been able to.” Distrust in authoritarian governments also is prolonging the pandemic by confounding vaccination efforts throughout Eastern Europe. In Ukraine, while the vaccines are abundant and COVID-19 is growing, a doctor states that, “Ukrainians have learned to distrust any authorities’ initiatives, and vaccination isn’t an exclusion.”
In addition to the rise of authoritarian practices, the coronavirus has also directly impacted many specific aspects of democracy in countries around the world — from postponing elections to crackdowns, arrests and torture of citizen protesters to using military force and coups to resolve long-standing conflicts and consolidate power:
- Despite coups becoming less common now than they have been in the past 50 years, there have been six coups in 2021 as military and authoritarian leaders take advantage of COVID-19 and the political unrest that has erupted because of it.
- Elections were postponed or outright canceled in approximately 79 countries or territories because of the pandemic, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
- However, 124 countries have managed to hold national elections or referendums since February 2020 despite COVID-19 concerns, including the United States where, in fact, the November 2020 election saw the highest turnout in 120 years.
While some countries like South Korea were able to quickly adapt their electoral processes to pandemic conditions in methods that increased voter participation, the restrictions caused by the pandemic in other areas have limited democratic progress. For instance, in Burundi, the first competitive presidential elections since 1993 were held in 2020, but quarantine restrictions due to coronavirus meant that international election observers were not present.
As the global health crisis has become politicized, especially in the realm of discussing the full re-opening of public spaces alongside the production and distribution of vaccines, the question of the impact that COVID-19 has had on the dramatic wave of citizen protests in recent years still stands. As reported by the Carnegie Endowment’s Global Protest Tracker, over 110 countries have experienced notable protests, including 78% of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning countries. While popular protests in Chile and Sudan had led to democratic improvements, the Sudanese military coup in October 2021 seems to render tdepict improvements short-term. Protests against authoritarian governments continue in Sudan and Myanmar. However, Freedom House identified 158 countries where new restrictions were imposed on protests in 2020.
So, where do we go to build back democratically? Several have argued, like the National Democratic Institute, “building back democratically is central to pandemic recovery and long-term development.” Recommendations include calls for governments, civil societies, and donors to protect and invest in the safety and integrity of elections, combat homegrown and foreign disinformation, and protect free and independent media that can provide factual information about the virus. As of late, the push for a robust global vaccine distribution may be key to countering authoritarian regimes in developing nations — ending the pandemic for all in order to prevent further democratic backsliding.