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Democracies in Times of the Covid-19 Pandemic

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By Alexander Viehmeier


Humans in virtually every part of the world are currently being rattled by the Covid-19 pandemic. The risks to the health of people all around the globe are thoroughly documented, with – at the time of writing this article – almost half a million documented infected persons suffering from a plethora of symptoms. The economic risks of the pandemic have been recorded just as well, most notably highlighted by severely dropping stock markets and growing unemployment around the world. But what about the democratic risk of the global pandemic? Different countries have introduced different measures in order to curb the spread of the corona virus. Some of them have the potential for cutting participatory power and have been met with stronger opposition than others. 


Federalist Troubles


Italy, as the EU’s most severely hit member state, imposed strict restrictions that saw the public life gradually grind to a bare minimum. Public events have been banned, schools and universities are closed, non-essential business and industries are shut and citizens are allowed to leave the house only for essential tasks. While the measures are widely supported and deemed ‘necessary’ (Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio), regional presidents heavily opposed PM Conte’s suggestion that the central government might need to strip the power from regional governments in matters of the health policy. Alongside the regional presidents, opposition leader Matteo Salvini demanded further clarification of the measures. Furthermore, the government has indefinitely postponed a referendum on a constitutional amendment regulating the number of MPs. 


Similarly, German politics have experienced disagreements between the different states and the national government in Berlin. The ban of public groups of more than two, the closure of nearly all businesses except for supermarkets and pharmacies, as well as the closures of schools and universities are unanimously supported throughout the parties of the Bundestag. However, the government was repeatedly criticised for a lack of action in the early stages of the pandemic that eventually caused the states to declare restrictions themselves. The differences of the restrictions and the absence of nationwide measures led to frictions between the presidents of the states. The Christian Democrats furthermore have halted the search for a new party leader.  


Opposition to Plans of Nationalisation


In France, the government has faced similar criticism for a hesitant handling in the early stages of the pandemic. The now-in-place restrictions are, however, supported by a wide majority of politicians and the public. President Macron, who has been criticised for not cancelling the first round of municipal elections, has subsequently postponed the second round of elections until June. Next to similar measures to Germany, the French parliament passed a ‘Public Health Emergency Bill’ that grants the government wider powers for the time of the pandemic. Additionally, French finance minister La Maire revealed plans on potentially nationalising big companies in order to save them from bankruptcy. 

Similarly, plans of the government in Spain to temporarily nationalise hospitals and private health care companies have been strongly condemned by the regional politicians, most notably the leaders of the Basque and Catalan regions. Both parts of the country have seen their regional elections postponed amid the measures to combat the current situation. Other measures including the state of emergency, giving the government more extensive powers, the restriction of the public life and the closure of schools and universities are supported by a majority. A number of politicians has already contemplated an extension of the lockdown amid a recent surge of infections. 


Indefinite Emergency by Law?


Just like most other nations in Europe, Poland has closed schools and universities, implemented rules of social distancing and has suspended big events. However, the governing party PiS maintains that the presidential elections planned for May 10th will take place. The opposition parties accuse the incumbent president Duda, who is currently ahead in the polls, of politicising the Covid-19 pandemic and using his media presence to his advantage, while all other candidates have suspended their presidential campaigns. Additionally, the Polish government is criticised for passing an unnecessary special law that establishes an indefinite state of emergency-like scenario, as existing laws would adequately cover the current situation.


Similarly, the Hungarian government has been reprimanded for proposing a bill that would grant PM Orban sweeping powers in a state of emergency. There is a broad consensus in the political world that restrictions under the current state of emergency such as banning large gatherings, closing non-essential businesses and reintroducing border controls need to be taken. However, the opposition strongly criticised the proposed bill for being prone to abuse, its missing safeguards and its indefinite nature, potentially granting a lifelong mandate to PM Orban. Under the bill, the state of emergency can be extended with a 2/3-majority, which the ruling party currently possesses. The bill could essentially allow PM Orban to rule by decree, jail journalists whose news reports are deemed fake, suspend the application of certain laws and force the parliament into a break; all in order to guarantee the stability of the country. 


Public Opposition to Government Approach


Though some governments have not only been criticised by opposition politicians for their differing approach in trying to contain the current pandemic. In Sweden, the governments approach has drawn criticism mainly from the public and academically acclaimed scientists. Swedish state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell has come under fire for not pushing for a tougher lockdown and instead following the concept of herd immunity. Aiming for a controlled rate of infection of major parts of the population in order to build a broad immunity to the SARS-CoV2 virus while protecting at-risk-groups has been likened to playing ‘Russian roulette’ by academics.

 

The comparatively weak measures to curb the extent of the pandemic has been backed by a large part of the political world in Sweden, with the Christian Democrats raising their voices for an independent corona commission to evaluate the current situation. 


Similarly, Dutch PM Rutte has been criticised from the leaders of two Dutch opposition parties for not introducing more extensive measures. While the restrictions are tougher than in Sweden and include gatherings below 100 people being banned, closing schools and universities and recommending to work from home if that is possible, Rutte stressed that he is not aiming for a complete lockdown. While he said that group immunity is not a goal of the imposed measures, it is an effect of the policy. This has garnered criticism not only from opposition leaders, but also from politicians outside of the Netherlands, who accuse Rutte of letting the virus run loose and the Dutch of being the weakest link in the European chain.    

 

The European Union


The European Union has little to no power in terms of the individual health policies of the member states. Yet, it has been strongly criticised for not coming to the aid of struggling countries. Considering that some countries in the EU initially put export restrictions on relevant medical equipment, Italy’s ambassador to the EU complained about a lack of solidarity in Europe and demanded that Brussels needs to go ‘beyond engagement and consultations.’ Meanwhile, the Italian government deemed the EU to have reacted too slow in responding to Italy’s requests for help. Although French President Macron has called for a strong and united European response to the pandemic, the Bulgarian PM showed himself concerned about the lethargic response from the European Union. The Commission of the European Union has now made 7.5 billion Euros available to the member states in order to help their struggling economies.  


Outside of the European Union


The current Covid-19 pandemic has also impacted many democracies outside of the European Union. Local elections in the United Kingdom, originally planned for May 2020, have been postponed by a year. Similarly, Serbia even had to postpone its parliamentary elections for an indefinite time, while the presidential primaries in the United States have been heavily impacted by a recent surge in infections and now face a highly uncertain timeline. 


The Kosovo even saw its government being voted out by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence due to its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, only two months after the government was sworn in. The Kosovar PM had sacked a minister who had backed calls of the Kosovar president for a state of emergency to be imposed, while the PM insisted that this would not be necessary. The junior coalition partner subsequently brought up the vote of no-confidence. It remains unclear how the political impasse can be solved, since no elections can be hold at this time.  


Glimpses of Hope


We can clearly see that the pandemic has impacted the state of democracies in Europe and beyond in a number of different fashions ranging from opposition to the governments approach of handling the pandemic and minor internal troubles all the way to indefinite state of emergencies granting governments sweeping powers and even governments collapsing under the pressure of the situation. In some of these cases, the participatory right of the citizens is in danger of being rendered useless. 


It has to be noted, of course, that there are glaring differences between countries where only government parties support extensive and indefinite measures and countries where governments are being granted extraordinary rights in a time of crisis with the unanimous support of the parliament and the public. While the former case is a legitimate reason for concern, the latter one provides a positive spark and shows that people can be sublimely responsible and stand together in dire times, putting their difference on a halt. We can only hope that this attitude of solidarity can be carried over to the time after the pandemic, so that the crisis has not been in vain. 


As for the state of democracies in Europe and elsewhere, there will be clear need to reflect and evaluate the measures that were being taken and how they created challenges for the participatory right of citizens, once the pandemic is over. The international community, national governments, parliaments and the broad public will need to make sure that participatory mechanisms affected by the pandemic will be reinstated and the democratic voice of the citizens will be properly heard again.


In times like these, signs of solidarity, such as Germany and Switzerland allowing French and Italian patients to be treated in their hospitals in order to relieve their respective health systems, offer a glimpse of hope. The strong and vocal opposition to initiatives that could potentially render participatory powers useless also signals a functioning democratic society. 


However, besides the undoubtedly paramount goal of keeping everybody healthy, the coming measures for keeping the struggling national economies alive also requires solidarity at European level.  So do the democratic standards and it is of the utmost importance to make sure that democracies and participatory concepts do not lose their meaning in a time of crisis.