Covid pandemic a ‘stress test’ of democratic resilience to backsliding


Democracy is suffering in several European nations, including Hungary and Poland, according to a European Commission audit on the rule of law published Wednesday. The new report, the product of months of work that put all 27 E.U. nations under scrutiny, reflected concerns that the European Union has failed to combat democratic backsliding among some of its members, though it has long prided itself as a bastion of liberal values, The Post reports:

The release of the report coincided with a preliminary agreement by European diplomats to tie access to E.U. funds to respecting the rule of law, as negotiations on a $2.1 trillion E.U. spending package accelerate in the coming weeks. Defenders of principles such as an independent judiciary and a free press have accused the European Union of enabling illiberal leaders by failing to cut off the money that props them up.

The report also noted challenges to media independence and fighting corruption, saying the pandemic served as a “stress test” of democratic resilience of the 27 EU states, Reuters adds.

“Poland’s justice reforms since 2015 have been a major source of controversy,” it said, while in Hungary, “the direction of change has given rise to serious concern” about judicial independence.

Citizens around the world are demanding a post-COVID-19 social compact based on better governance, especially in countries with poor records on democratic freedoms and human rights – as recent events in Lebanon have so tragically demonstrated, argues Joe Powell, the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of the Open Government Partnership.

The UK’s newly reconstituted Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) should explore ways to prioritize development support to countries in ‘moments of democratic transition’, or ‘where reform efforts are underway that could help lift countries out of low-income status onto the road to self-reliance’, he writes in Finding Britain’s role in a changing world: Protecting the UK’s ability to defend its values, an essay collection edited by Foreign Policy Centre Director Adam Hug.

Internationally, the UK government has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position itself at the front of a much-needed renewed global coalition of democracies, which stand up for the international rules-based order and can show the world a more hopeful path away from authoritarian or illiberal democratic models, adds Benjamin Ward, UK Director of Human Rights Watch. With some notable exceptions, however, traditional champions of liberal democracy have been distracted in recent years, allowing authoritarian leaders space to export their playbook and contributing to the 14 straight years of decline in global freedom reported by Freedom House.

There is now an opportunity to take some specific steps that would renew UK leadership, Ward suggests:

  • Ensure that the FCDO prioritizes support to countries in moments of democratic transition, or where reform efforts are underway that could help lift countries out of low-income status onto the road to self-reliance (including FCO-DFID priority countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Nigeria).
  • Ensure support to open societies, open economies and open democracies features prominently in the spending review.
  • Promote a G7 priority that liberal democracies work together more effectively to support
    open societies and open economies (including on trade), and create a stronger coalition to
    push back against rising authoritarianism.

The European Commission has come up with different ways of limiting backsliding, adds analyst Joanna Gill. Written into the treaties Article 7, is often called the “nuclear option”. It is the EU’s punishment clause, allowing it to discipline member states when there is a “clear risk of a serious breach” of the bloc’s core principles, such as rule of law.

A concerning trend of democratic “backsliding” has taken place in recent years, writes Rasha Aridi, the author of a new study, as governments gradually shift away from their democratic ideals and slip closer toward authoritarianism (see below). Even leaders in well-established democracies, such as the United States and India, have adopted more authoritarian rhetoric. But in other countries, like Russia and China, leaders are actively working to undermine democracy’s legitimacy. A certain set of circumstances pave the way for this democratic backsliding—and how citizen movements and international support for democracy can play a role in defending it.

Democratic Backsliding in Sub-Saharan Africa was the focus of a House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations (above), chaired by Karen Bass (D-CA) (right), a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. Witnesses included Christopher Fomunyoh, PhD, Senior Associate for Africa, National Democratic Institute for International Affairs; Dorina A. Bekoe, PhD, Research Staff Member, Institute for Defense Analyses; Mr. Jon Temin, Director, Africa Program, Freedom House; Mr. Joshua Meservey, Senior Policy Analyst, Africa and the Middle East, The Heritage Foundation.

The success of democratic transitions and nonviolent movements, particularly those that face repressive regimes, often depends on behavior of security forces, argues Dr. Maciej Bartkowski, ICNC Senior Advisor and Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University.  In this respect, if it gets into the right hands, both in movements and among the members of security forces, his guide – For Members of Security Forces: A Guide to Supporting Pro-Democracy Movements – could help tilt the balance of power in favor of those who raise up without arms against an autocrat, he writes for the ICNC’s Minds of the Movement.

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