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Regression of Democracy around the World amid COVID-19 Pandemic

democracy, politics, corona, covid-19, democratic
Image: Jorg Carstensen/DPA/PA Images

The usurpation of Parliament’s power for an indefinite period by Viktor Orban’s government in Hungary amid Corona Pandemic has provoked much concern regarding democratic regression or backsliding. Having absolute majority in the Parliament the Obran government has passed a ‘Coronavirus Act’ that granted the government to enact laws and rule by decree without prior approval of the Parliament. Such concerns for democracy, in the wake of pandemic have been observed throughout the whole world irrespective of developed, underdeveloped or developing nations in terms of the massive expansion of executive power by granting extensive emergency power; imposing strict centralized public policies; suppressing data related to COVID-19 disaster and silencing dissenters’ voices abruptly.

Corona pandemic, being the most unprecedented humanitarian challenge has already fueled a crisis for democracy around the world.  It is most likely that in the post-pandemic period the government-governed relationship will be reshape in democratic countries, in which a new avatar of managerial and welfare state might be seen more effectively. The pandemic has already marked profound impact on the working of democracy, restoration of civil rights and human rights of all kinds throughout the whole world. As a consequence of this incarnation of the omnipotent state the so-called democracies are facing authoritarianism of different extents. Like Hungary, many populist governments have been seen using the unrestraint executive power for the sake of party interest as well as image building of the populist leaders. In other words, corona pandemic is most likely to mark a transformative and un-hitherto impact over civil and human rights by backsliding democratic norms and values.   

In the midst of this pandemic the world, as an excuse of fighting the coronavirus is witnessing massive abuse of power in terms of perpetrating violence, detaining people without justification, imposing atrocities of different forms and emergence of unrestrained legal authority. According to a research conducted by Freedom House, Washington DC, at least 59 countries have witnessed police-violence associated with coronavirus response; 91 countries experienced new or increased restrictions on the news media; and most of the democratically elected governments have used opportunities to pass ordinance or decrees to execute their long-planned agendas. In countries like Egypt, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Philippines and the nations of Central Asia and South Asia, it has been seen that the COVID-19 crisis has been used as an opportunity to further repression over political activists, dissenter voices, right defenders, journalists, social media activists, and even, in some cases they have been placed in terrorist lists. For example, The Venezuelan President Nicolas Madura has detained journalists, civil societal activists and all dissenters who criticized or raised questions against Madura Government’s policies towards fighting corona pandemic. Such abuse of power has been witnessed in Central American country EI Salvador where the Government used police for widespread detentions against those who are broadly political oppositions. It undermined the Supreme Court ruling that declared it is unlawful to seize the property of people who are accused of violating quarantine guidelines. Such examples of democratic backsliding and gross violation of human rights have been seen widely in Central Asia, South and South East Asia and even in European developed nations where democratic values and norms are deeply rooted in comparison to developing and mostly post-colonial nations of global South.

The emergence of surveillance state has been another perilous outcome of this pandemic that restrained individual’s space and caused a plunging into democratic disarray to a great extent. The main focus of this surveillance has been the social media platform. In Turkey hundreds of people have been arrested for allegedly writing and sharing provocative posts about the pandemic on social media platforms. The Indian states like Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and some other states issued regulations specified that information on COVID-19 cannot be printed or published without the prior permission of the State Health Department. In North Africa, specifically in Egypt, the President Abdel Fatah Al- Sisi has used state machinery to silence the dissenters’ voice mercilessly in guise of fighting pandemic situation. Such acts causing democratic regression have been extensively seen in countries like Combodia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Kazakhstan and Bangladesh. According to a report titled “Democracy under lockdown” (Oct, 2020, Freedom House), in sub-Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe Covid-19 crisis has been abused to arrest, abduct, rape, assault and intimidate human rights activists, leaders of opposition party, members of civil society, journalists and those who raised voices against government’s COVID related policies.

The political use of hatred towards marginalized and minority communities is another major alarming outcome of this pandemic so far the question of democratic regression is concerned. In so-called democracy like Britain, the Black people and people of Asian descent have been detained more to ensure quarantine policies in comparison to White people. Such apartheid and racial arrogance, even in the 21st century have been seen in Bulgaria where Romany people faced atrocities of various forms; in Kuwait and in Columbia the ethnic minorities and non-citizen minorities had been subjected mercilessly in the charge of ‘super-spreaders’. In India, though not formally but socially, the minority Muslims were targeted and were made almost solely responsible for the spread of corona cases due to an Islamic religious gathering in New Delhi in early 2020. In Costa Rica the marginalized Nicaraguan migrants were allegedly viewed as the super-spreaders of corona cases, whereas, in Serbia too, a narrative of ‘anti-migrant culture’ had been developed when they were labeled as corona-virus carriers. 

The deepening of fractures of democratic institutions has been felt excessively throughout the World amid this pandemic. Suppression of facts, creation of a fog of information, lack of transparency and crisis of accountability have been notoriously seen around the world. Even in countries like United States of America the then Trump Government had been criticized for creating fog of misinformation whereas Modi Government in India had been made responsible for ‘national catastrophe’ by renowned British medical journal Lancet a few weeks ago. Many illiberal leaders have grabbed the pandemic situation as opportunity and have extended their power beyond Constitutional bindings. In Philippines the leaders of opposition and some civil societal activists have accused Dutarte for extending his emergency power up to 2021 and it is most likely that he could maintain his unrestrained power till 2022 to help his allegiant successor to win the forthcoming Presidential election in the next year. Moreover, the way Dutarte took COVID-19 in early 2020 had been a disaster in terms of public health and economy. He addressed the nation not to get scared of COVID-19 and had been seen defying social distancing guidelines as well in public.

To sum up, it may be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has been emerged as one of the biggest humanitarian threats so far in recent decades. Among its many-folded far-reaching implications the most effective is the regression or backsliding of democratic norms and values. It has exposed the different extents of democratic consolidation of different parts of the world irrespective of developed, developing and under developed nations. The challenges posed by this pandemic have to be mitigated through proper public policies, reasserting public institutions, fostering a vibrant civil society and most importantly, by promoting democratic values throughout the world.


Dr. Abhisek Karmakar
Dr Abhisek is an Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Galsi Mahavidyalaya, West Bengal. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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