The Future of Democracy in a Post COVID World

President Donald Trump departs after speaking about the coronavirus during a press briefing in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, May 11, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

No one yet has the answer to the question— When will the coronavirus end, research on this question has produced mathematical models which have produced country-specific data most indicating that it will end in a few months while other reports say it is here to stay for at least two years.  But one thing is certain, it will leave behind changes which far outlive its duration. At the micro-level, people around the world are adjusting their daily routine to accommodate the “new normal” involving social distancing and working from home, at the macro level the changes at the global level will be revolutionary. The crisis is not a temporary crack in an otherwise stable system, it is a turning point in history. The disintegration of USSR and the subsequent “unipolar moment” for America, which lead Francis Fukuyama to proclaim the “end of history” and the ultimate victory of liberal, democratic ideals.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall – Often symbolized as the victory of the liberal and democratic ideals/ Image source: AP

Although such a statement generated great debate, democracy promotion has always been a basic and enduring feature of U.S. foreign policy and there has been a consensus on a projection of liberal democratic values beyond their borders which forms a core component in their strategic thinking. The Bush administration had implemented bilateral and multilateral programs to promote democracy and identified “governing justly and democratically” as a key objective of its foreign aid policies. In  2005, the U.S. House of Representatives established the House Democracy Partnership which works directly with countries around the world to support the development of effective, independent and responsive legislative institutions. Undoubtedly democracy promotion would help US security and economic interests but even beyond the democratic peace proposition, evidence suggests that democratic elections usually do more good than harm. The question as it stands now is, will coronavirus wreak havoc on democratic governance as we know it, as an initial response to this pandemic by various governments has shown how some of them have used this pandemic to expand executive power and restrict individual right.

Populist authoritarianism, which is broadly characterised by strong central power and limited or tailored democracy, was on the rise since before the onset of the pandemic in tandem with the surge in right-wing authoritarianism around the globe. Liberal democracies are now under the pressure of becoming less liberal, less tolerant, although it is too premature to authoritatively assert what the reason for the same could be, the fact that countries such as US and UK which championed democracy to the extent of going to war for the cause have taken a step back hence can no longer deter the slipping of democracy to the background, maybe a potential cause. Many see the election of Donald Trump as a huge blow to democracy within the US  President Trump, after his election, took no time to undermine democratic values and institutions, particularly targeting the U.S. media.

Boris Johnson’s Brexit rally/ Image: Times

As it stood in 2019, among the world’s democracies, a growing number of people have embraced right-wing populism and either have governments led by populist parties or supported by them. Against this backdrop, together with the false propaganda of  “authoritarian superiority” in dealing with this crisis, the future of democracy is in threat. Countries around the world are fighting this virus and the varying success of different types of governments will make it a variable in the future in the larger debate over authoritarianism v/s democratic ways, which in itself sets is a dangerous precedent. For a public health emergency of this scale, there is no doubt that states need to undertake strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus, especially given the particularly infectious nature of the disease, but the hazardous trend visible is the use of the virus by authoritarian leaders as an excuse to undermine democracy. This led to a group of UN-affiliated experts to issue a warning that emergency measures over coronavirus should not be used by governments for political ends. But in the face of widespread criticism against global governance bodies such as WHO by countries around the world, and the deafening silence of the United Nations Security Council there is little hope that international organisations can carry the light of democracy forward.

With social distancing becoming the “new normal” the pandemic undoubtedly threatens routine democratic practices, such as conducting elections or gathering in large numbers to exercise their right to assembly, or even gathering in legislatures. Although one can hope these are temporary disruptions if there are major shifts in electoral administration it will give rise to new complications and risks and addressing them will on low priority as most countries will devote their resources on reviving their economies. Right to privacy is a fundamental right in most democracies, and as Yuval Noah Harari indicates the pandemic may normalise deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries which have so far rejected them, raises the question of how far this would allow the state be allowed to impede the citizens’ private space in the name of public health. China unsurprisingly is the most notable case in deploying surveillance tools, by monitoring phones, using face recognising systems to identify suspected carriers and even track their movements. India, the worlds largest democracy, has made it mandatory for local authorities to ensure 100% coverage of Aarogya Setu app among residents in containment zones and in other specified cases, without proper legislative approval. While the use of such apps can mitigate the virus and despite governmental assurances, it continues to hold the potential to not only produce anti-democratic sentiments but also a breach of personal data, especially in light of a French hacker exposing security issues in the app and in the absence of a defined legal mechanism to protect citizens rights and personal data against misuse by governmental authorities. This virus has the potential to reshape the democratic norms of citizenship in a world which is all set to seriously restrict the entry of people within its borders.

Indian Parliament/ Image source: The Hindu

For citizens of the world, choosing between rights and health will be the death knell of democracy. Although the priority right now should be on containing the immediate spread of the virus, keeping in mind that norms of global engagement are all set to change, the harbingers of democracies must come together and remind the world why a global liberal democratic order is necessary. For the U.S., although effectively manage the virus within its own borders is necessary, it should not be blind to the need for vigilance in the face of authoritarian ambitions.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Rushali Saha

Rushali Saha is a post-graduate student of International Relations at Jadavpur University, West Bengal, India

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