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‘no time to die’ How Covid-19 has hit democracy worldwide

empty parliament building

Even calmer than usual: the Swiss House of Representatives

(Keystone / Anthony Anex)

The ongoing pandemic has put the entire world on hold. Public activities have been cancelled – even the release of the newest James Bond movie – while popular votes around the globe have been postponed. However, there is no reasons for autocrats, nationalists and populists to declare victory.   

Things don’t look so good right now. Far from it, in fact. “Covid-19 threatens the whole of humanity”, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said a few days ago, referring to the pandemic which has put more than three billion people in lockdown, and which could unleash the worst economic recession in modern times.

At this stage, nobody can fully gauge the extent and consequences of the crisis: “we have to understand that we are not the ones making the timeline; the virus makes the timeline”, said White House infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauciexternal link after President Donald Trump had mooted a possible easing of coronavirus-related restrictions.

In my own little town in Sweden I got a first sense of the urgency a few weeks ago when, after returning from a reportage trip to the Arctic, I saw the headline of my local paper announcing: “School referendum to be postponed”. The referendum in question would have been the first such popular voteexternal link initiated by citizens under a new lawexternal link adopted a few years ago.

But this was just the first drop of a corona-related tsunami which has put participatory and direct democracy on hold in many places, including in my country of origin, Switzerland, where the forthcoming May 17 popular vote has been cancelled and ongoing signature- gathering campaigns for initiatives and referendums have been paused.

‘President for Life’? Postponed!

It’s no different in other parts of the world.

In the United States, where political attention has been on the run-up to the November 3 votes (on the presidency, but also thousands of other offices and issues), most signature gathering and campaigns have been suspendedexternal link. In Chile, where citizens last year triggered a comprehensive revision process of the Pinochet-era national constitution, the April 26 referendum on the issue has been suspended.

Even in an electoral autocracy like Russia (which this year ranked 179th of 202 countries in the recently-published Varieties of Democracyexternal link report), the pandemic has enabled Vladimir Putin to postpone an advisory ‘plebiscite’, planned for April 22, which would have put to the people a legal change allowing him to effectively become ‘President for Life’.external link​​​​​​​

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And the democratic impact of the global crisis doesn’t end with suspended citizen activities and popular votes. Parliaments have also been bypassed in many countries, especially where the executive branch has declared states of emergency unseen since war times.

Such cases include one of the frontrunners in the V-Dem report, Norway, where the minority government of Prime Minister Erna Solberg tried to bypass parliament by claiming unlimited powers through a “corona crisis legislation”. In Hungary, the National Assembly will vote on March 31external link to “indefinitely extend the current state of emergency”, which among other restrictions imposes “prison sentences on those deemed to be spreading false information” – false information in the view of Prime Minister Victor Orbán.

Masked candidates

But just as Daniel Craig reckons in the forthcoming James Bond movie – the release of which has been postponed until November 12 – this is “No Time to Die”external link for the most successful and human form of government in history – modern representative democracy.

On the contrary. Just a few hundred kilometers off the shore of China, advanced and vibrant democratic nations like Korea and Taiwan have offered powerful examples of how to deal with the pandemic in a truly democratic way. While responding quickly and firmly to the threat of the virus, governments in Seoulexternal link and Taipeiexternal link also managed to uphold the fundamental democratic rights and freedoms of their people. In Korea, meanwhile, the forthcoming parliamentary elections on April 15external link will be held as planned – albeit with candidates campaigning under rather special conditionsexternal link.

politicians, two wearing face masks

Masked campaigning in Seoul, March 26.

(Keystone / Yonhap)

In Norway, parliament effectively fought backexternal link the government’s power-grab attempt, while in Switzerland, the two chambers of parliament agreed to hold a special session to scrutinize the comprehensive measures taken by government; even if, as it’s important to underline, the executive decisions taken by Bern have been fully in line with recently implemented legislationexternal link approved by a majority of citizens in a national referendum.   

Local leadership across the world

On the global level, in fact, there are very few reasons for autocrats, nationalists and populists to declare victory. On the contrary, the pandemic offers the world a powerful window into a future in which transnational cooperation, local autonomies and digital tools will play a much bigger role than today.

Modern representative democracy will need to adapt to such a new global context in order to stay relevant and successful. That will mean a need to balance the current elitist, populist and autocratic features of many democracies with comprehensive reform agendas to further democratize at all political levels. 

Back home in my small Swedish town, where the current situation will confine me for an unknown period, I will now have the time to assess the first local referendum process (and to make proposals for the postponed campaign) as well as to study all the documents related to the legal status of our river (as a member of the river council).

In addition, like many of us, I will use the opportunity to learn to use the most modern tools for virtual meeting and collaboration.

At the end of the day, the ongoing slowdown of public and private life can teach us all a few lessons when it comes to being patient and committed to a common cause. But while the corona pandemic will be over at some point, the journey towards (more) democracy is a never-ending one.

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