This article belongs to the debate » Power and the COVID-19 Pandemic
01 Mai 2021

Democracy and the Global Pandemic

Reshuffled Reputations and the Future of the ‘Free World’

What’s the future of the free world? What does the ‘free world’ even mean? Recent reports from leading democracy assessment bodies depict a shrinking democratic atlas that is more fragmented than it has been for decades after a steep decline in every world region. India, now deemed to be an ‘electoral autocracy’ or ‘partly free’, has left the fold. US democracy’s ranking has dropped below much younger democracies such as Argentina and Mongolia. Poland, once a star entrant to the EU’s putative club of democracies, is the world’s top ‘autocratizing’ state. It’s not all bad news. Some, like Taiwan, are flying high – pipping Japan to Asia’s top slot in democracy rankings.

That said, using different criteria and datasets, the V-Dem Institute, Freedom House, and the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), and International IDEA frameworks generally concur that global democratic regression has intensified, adding context to the important qualitative country reports in this Symposium and its 2020 predecessor, which identify a range of pressing problems including executive aggrandizement, sidelined parliaments, cowardly courts, abuse and extension of emergency powers, or a failure to employ constitutional emergency powers and attendant safeguards. 

As I was writing my first Symposium post on global democracy last May, we were still in the throes of Covid’s first impact. Authoritarian states and their cheerleaders were crowing about their superior virus responses and denigrating democracies as decadent failures. Democracies – the healthy, ailing, and critically ill – were adopting divergent responses with uncertain outcomes. Concerns about global ‘pandemic backsliding’ were voiced but as yet unsubstantiated.

This post addresses two central themes of this Symposium, democracy versus autocracy and the future of good governance, by addressing three interrelated questions: Has Covid helped to rehabilitate liberal democracy’s reputation as a political system by revealing effectiveness in crisis? Has the pandemic crystallized a dramatic redrawing of the democratic atlas? Does the hardening of global tensions between China and competitor states during the crisis risk an unhelpful reframing of global democracy as merely an ‘anti-China club’? Reflection on these questions is urgently needed if we are to begin charting the immediate future of global democracy. At the heart of all three questions lies the issue of reputation; namely, how democratic reputations are made, broken, restored and recognised, and how geopolitics shapes and distorts these processes.

Has Covid Rehabilitated Democracy’s Reputation for Effectiveness?

Regarding the first question, mounting evidence – not least a new Covid Performance Index – suggests that democracies and autocracies fared equally well (or worse) in suppressing the virus. In the autocratic camp, we see China’s success and Russia’s failures. Among the highest ranked liberal democracies, we see New Zealand’s success and Sweden’s failures. This might not amount to wholesale rehabilitation of liberal democracy as a political system but it at least seriously undermines autocracies’ longstanding claims of superior governance effectiveness.

Among democracies (and recently demoted democracies such as India), the finer-grained picture in the 2021 Symposium posts reveals much diversity. The 4 broad categories of government responses in my 2020 thematic post remain a helpful basic framework: (i) effective rationalists – suppressing the virus through rational fact-based policy, respecting maximal democratic functioning and the rule of law (e.g. New Zealand, South Korea); (ii) constrained rationalists – adopting broadly rational and law-abiding approaches but hampered by limited state capacity (e.g. South Africa); (iii) autocratic opportunists – capitalising on the crisis to further consolidate their power (e.g. Hungary); and (iv) fantasists – governments simply refusing to accept the reality of the virus (e.g. USA, Brazil).

It is clear that no pandemic response has been unproblematic. Effective rationalists like Australia have relied too much on executive law-making with little oversight. Constrained rationalists have struggled: while South Africa’s government cannot be labelled an ‘autocratic opportunist’, the 2021 report suggests problematic tendencies toward stifling legitimate criticism of government policy and disabling oversight under the pressures of the highest number of cases in Africa. True autocratic opportunists have continued to actively degrade the democratic system and disable accountability mechanisms (e.g. Bulgaria, Hungary, Indonesia).

Autocracy can just as easily produce drift and complacency. India, after initial success, has descended into what has been described as a “hell”, with record daily cases surpassing 350,000, health systems collapsing, and a government reaction dominated by censoring criticism of its pandemic response. This was not inevitable: the authoritarian turn and concentration of power in Prime Minister Modi’s hands since 2014, his domination of the policymaking process and distaste for dissent means his personal complacency produced government-wide complacency and a lack of preparation.

2020’s fantasists have taken starkly divergent paths in 2021: in Brazil, President Bolsonaro’s continuing denial of the crisis has led to over 390,000 deaths, while the USA has abruptly changed tack under the Biden administration, broadly landing in the effective rationalist camp, including meeting its target of 220m vaccine doses administered in its first 100 days – although the administration’s aim to rehabilitate US democracy’s reputation remains a long-term challenge.

Has Covid Accelerated Global Democratic Decay?

On the second question, whether the pandemic has redrawn the democratic atlas, the broad consensus among democracy assessment organisations is that it has “exacerbated the global decline in freedom”, although the V-Dem Institute suggests its “direct effects on global levels of liberal democracy were limited in 2020.” Given widespread pre-existing democratic decay, even if the Covid crisis only nudged states further down the wrong path it seems to have produced a global tipping point, epitomised by multiple reports de-listing India as a genuine democracy. Immediate fears for further global decline centre on the continuation of emergency measures beyond the needs of the crisis, or their normalization (the dreaded ‘ratchet’ effect). The Chinese government’s propaganda campaigns against liberal democracies during the crisis, and frontal assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms (as well as reshaping its electoral and political system) have also hardened the line between China and democratic states.

On the positive side, reports from both Freedom House and the V-Dem Institute suggest that most democracies have shown resilience (although as International IDEA suggests, this means non-democratic states became significantly less free). It is important, too, to point out that these frameworks can only capture a slice of reality, even the enormous dataset of V-Dem. As Kim Scheppele warns, assessment through indicators is always limited. Moreover, assessment frameworks are descriptive but not predictive: they can tell us the picture is bleak right now but cannot tell us what is to come. Whether some states will rebound. Whether emergency measures will be unjustifiably extended. Whether a quiescent populace today might roil with protest tomorrow. Whether today’s troubles will spur a concerted democratic reaction.

More broadly, assessment reports cannot fully capture the good news stories that do not ping loudly enough on our radars – the tales of innovation, resilience, and defiance that are harder to capture through standardized criteria. Here, the qualitative assessments in this Symposium, and the material curated through the COVID-DEM database, help us to see the future with hope as well as fear. Krista Kovács points to citizen demands for freedom across Poland, Belarus, Russia, Myanmar. Bolsonaro’s spiteful response, telling the Brazilian people to “stop whining”, and countered institutionally by Congress and the courts, may yet prove to be his downfall. Similarly, some believe the unfolding unprecedented crisis „threatens Modi’s grip on India“, while Thulasi Raj in her country report urges the need to “reclaim” Indian democracy.

Do We Risk Reframing Global Democracy as an ‘Anti-China Club’?

While individuals and communities worldwide push back against repressive governments, many powerful democratic governments worldwide pay little heed. Take the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proposal for the establishment of a D10 (‘D’ for democracy) to group together the G7 states (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the USA) with Australia, India, and South Korea. Is the inclusion of India simple denial, ignorance of reality, a reflection of hope – that India’s authoritarian turn can be reversed – or realpolitik?

These questions become ever more pressing given how developments since Covid have hardened the dividing lines between China and rival powers. After a year marked by the Chinese government’s intensifying repression in Hong Kong, intimidation of Taiwan, repression of the Uyghur population, and elaborate disinformation strategies against democratic states, loud voices insist on framing a new ‘Cold War’ between ‘illiberal’ powers and the ‘free world’, with US-China rivalry at its centre. Conversely, others urge the need to work effectively with autocratic states through a new ‘concert of powers’. Both approaches ultimately counsel prizing geopolitical heft more than democratic quality in fostering alliances and conceiving of any true north in the international rules-based order – not that the balance was ever decisively tilted in favour of democratic quality, of course.

There must be a better way forward than adopting a logic of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” to justify a free pass for governments that hollow out their own democratic systems but help to contain Chinese power. In this regard, democratic governments would do well to follow the example of individuals worldwide, showing courage, resolve, ingenuity, and hope in the cause of freedom. Tarunabh Khaitan, for instance, has suggested that the Biden administration’s plan to hold a global Summit of Democracy should include the main political opposition figures as well as governments, arguing that this would respect domestic democratic pluralism as well as strategically push autocratic leaders to publicly decide whether to accept such inclusion.

A Global Community of Hope

Ultimately, the free world is not a colour-coded political map or a weaponized category for legitimacy claims in great-power politics. The true free world is a global community of hope, a community of action and resolve. It links the defiant protester in Yangon with the committed constitutionalist in Warsaw, the ousted professor in New Delhi with democratic innovators in Dublin and Santiago. It reminds us that freedom is ours to claim and reclaim, claim and reclaim, claim and reclaim. That the free world is an imagined future we strive towards, one in which genuine, lived freedom, both political and material, is a shared reality. Thinking of the crisis facing India, such thoughts seem glib. Yet, as the cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has put it, hope is a “collectively mobilized resource”: “democracy rests on a vision. And all visions require hope.”