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Democracy in the Time of Covid-19 Risks Catching the Authoritarian Virus

Two highly regarded institutions, UN Permanent Observer International Idea and the Economist Intelligence Unit think-tank, are raising the alarm

Image: Gerd Altmann. Pixabay

Overall, the EIU report shows that the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 exceeded those going the opposite way. The pandemic has prolonged this negative trend into a 5-year stretch, the longest such period since the start of the Third Wave of democratization in the 1970s.

How healthy is democracy in the time of Covid-19? The answer, with nations all over the world struggling to bring the ever-changing virus under control– and in the poorest regions like Africa disastrously failing–gives cause for serious concern. In its latest report titled “The Global State of Democracy 2021. Building Resilience in a Pandemic Era”, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) is raising the alarm. “Democracy” it warns, “faces a perfect storm as the world becomes more authoritarian”.

The failure to contain the pandemic is of course, an epidemiological issue. But in the global health crisis there is also an equally dire political dimension, with the prospect of giving authoritarians the pretext for consolidating a long-term democratic reversal. The Stockholm based IDEA, an intergovernmental organization operating in support of democracy and free elections, with the status of permanent observer to the UN General Assembly, is putting a brave face on the impending authoritarian storm it denounces. For the first time in its 21 years of existence it is enlisting the European Union in support. “We need Global Action for Democracy”, said Finland’s Commissioner for International Partnership Jutta Urpilainen in her keynote address. “The global state action is not a wakeup call. It is an alarm”.

Hard facts in the annual report of International IDEA are grim. “The number of backsliding democracies has doubled in the past decade, now accounting for a quarter of the world’s population”, it points out. The democratic erosion affects established democracies such as the United States and France, both of which have lost the status of “full democracies,” but also three EU members:  Hungary, Poland and Slovenia. More than two thirds of the world’s population now live in backsliding democracies or autocratic regimes. Overall, the Global State of Democracy (GSoD) indices show that authoritarian regimes have increased their repression, with 2020 being the worst year on record.

What is to be done? While the outlook in 2020 was unquestionably dark, the latest IDEA report notes that many democracies around the world have proved to be “resilient to the pandemic, introducing or expanding democratic innovations and adapting their practices and institutions in record time”.
Even so, serious problems of distribution of Covid-19 vaccines persist in addition to widespread disinformation and protests by anti-vax campaigners. The result, the report points out, is inevitably undermining the uptake of vaccination programs. It also risks to prolong the health crisis, with the perverse effect of “normalizing restrictions on basic liberties”.

To contrast the authoritarianism now affecting  57 countries, and reverse course in order to consolidate and relaunch democracy, International Idea  offers no magic cure. Only persistent teamwork and solidarity to build up a “global alliance” based on a 3-point practical agenda in which all democratic stakeholders are called to collaborate.
Too Scandinavian and utopian for the real world? Skeptics may remain unconvinced. Historically however, they would be wrong.

Samuel Huntington. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Democracy in reality is neither permanent nor stable. It ebbs and flows in giant waves, as Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington observed in his classic 1991 opus, “The Third Wave”, echoing in fact what a Neapolitan philosopher called Giovan Battista Vico had observed a mere 266 years before! Nothing is forever in social history.

A more granular analysis on the same topic is provided simultaneously by the much-quoted Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its dense 59-page report complete with tables, charts and its annual Democracy Index for 2020. The title is ambivalent: “Democracy in sickness and democracy in health?” In parallel with the pandemic, notes the London based global think tank, there was an erosion of personal rights accompanied by a decline of the overall score. At the same time, while “every region of the world experienced a Democratic rollback,  the removal of individual liberties was not the most remarkable feature of 2020.” In world rankings, the top five positions for full democratic status in the EIU Index 2020 were occupied by Norway, Iceland, Sweden, New Zealand and Canada.

Only 49.4% of the world population, the report notes, lives “in a democracy of some type”, that is in hybrid dysfunctional democracies, in flawed democracies, classified as “polarized not only on policy issues but on core values.” Just 8.4% reside in a full democracy. More than one third (35.6%) instead live under an authoritarian regime, that is mostly in China.

Overall, the EIU report shows that the number of countries moving in an authoritarian direction in 2020 exceeded those going the opposite way. The pandemic has prolonged this negative trend into a 5-year stretch, the longest such period since the start of the Third Wave of democratization in the 1970s.

Some of the most worrying examples of backsliding are in some of the world’s largest countries such as India and Brazil. The US and three members of the European Union (Hungary, Poland and Slovenia) have also seen some concerning declines. The United States, however, has maintained its position of “flawed democracy” even if its electoral integrity is increasingly questioned. Consolation prize of sorts, Italy that ranks 29th in the EIU Democracy Index among the “flawed democracies,” below the United States and Israel, is mentioned by the EIU report as one of the only three European countries (with Turkey and the UK) that have somehow improved their democratic credentials.

(c) 2021 VNY La Voce di New York/Longitude Magazine

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