In 2020, the world has been gripped by the COVID-19 pandemic. By definition, a dangerous contagion like the coronavirus can be impeded by vastly limiting or eliminating person-to-person contact, the very thing that, in ordinary times, enlivens our democracies and enlarges the scope of our daily lives. Democracy thrives on assembly, transparency and confidence in government institutions. In contrast, the pandemic darkens our public squares and promotes fear and confusion, allowing unscrupulous leaders to accumulate power, threaten personal freedoms and chip away at the rule of law.
As we try to crush the virus, we risk further hastening a troubling global decline in democracy that predates its emergence.
A number of observers are now anticipating that the pandemic’s sweeping tail will further challenge governments as they work to address the devastating impact on financial markets, economies and over-taxed health systems. It is also evident that the pandemic and the responses to it, in all its varying forms – swift or plodding, draconian or half-hearted – will have important ramifications for democracy and human rights. As democratic governance is undermined, so is the ability of governments to adequately meet the wide-ranging needs of people suffering in the wake of the pandemic.
IFES has identified fundamental areas of concern for democracy and governance:
Chaotic elections and a decline in trust in electoral outcomes
- Disorganized polls, dampened turnout and declines in trust in electoral results are all likely outcomes absent sufficient information on holding elections safely during a public health crisis.
Disruption in the rule of law
- Deadlines for political transitions are often embedded in democratic laws or constitutions, and many of these documents are silent on continuity of governance in the event of a crisis. This silence is fraught; it can lead to confusion, contention and manipulation.
Erosion of information integrity
- The pandemic provides near-endless fodder for viral misinformation, disinformation and hate speech campaigns, all of which threaten the franchise and undermine faith in democracy and its institutions.
Looming barriers to political access
- Individuals who are marginalized because of their gender, disability, age, displacement, ethnicity or other identifiers face new and magnified challenges in a public health crisis. Barriers to political participation can have lasting ramifications, silencing diverse voices and stifling equality of opportunity.
Abuses of public sector trust and resources
- The impartial use of government power and resources for the public good is an essential component of public sector integrity. In a crisis, especially when emergency powers have been invoked, there are increased risks of abuse of power for personal or political gain.
Declines in transparency and accountability
- This global pandemic offers an alluring blank check to governments – in particular those already leaning away from democratic processes in the direction of authoritarianism – to use emergency powers to curtail individual and collective political rights and limit access to public information, which can have enormous implications for the accountability of the state and its institutions, as well as the long-term resilience of democracy.
In our own response, IFES is tracking the impact of the pandemic on elections around the world, and providing election management bodies and other partners the information they need to plan and execute safe and credible elections, including how to navigate the legal quagmire involved in postponing or cancelling mandated elections, understand the setbacks to human rights and mitigate the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the political participation of people with disabilities.
This IFES COVID-19 Briefing Series aims to assist the global community of democracy and governance practitioners, policymakers and supporters with a focus on these seven fundamental threats to democracy and governance—both immediate and longer-term.
It begins with a nuanced and practical look at the operational steps that must be taken to prioritize public health and safety while holding credible elections, from the perspective of both election and health practitioners and drawing on more than 30 years of IFES experience supporting election administrators to navigate crisis and handle the mechanics of complex election events. This series will continue over the coming weeks with papers focused on each of the remaining six threats to democracy and governance, which are likely to accrue over time absent concentrated efforts to contain them.
Lead Editor: Erica Shein, Director, Center for Applied Research and Learning
Editors: Chad Vickery, Vice President, Global Strategy and Technical Leadership; Angela Canterbury, Director of Strategic Communications and Advocacy
Learn more at IFES' COVID-19 Survival Guide for Democracies and explore the series below: