Liberal Democracy in Peril


We are experiencing a further rollback in democracy, rule of law and human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic has served as an opportunity for many to intensify attacks on national and international norms and standards, including further weakening of checks and balances, broadening of corruption, and undercutting media freedom.

A proclivity in some societies for strong leaders has only contributed to the downward spiral, undercutting of the very essence of democratic principles that uphold political rights and civil liberties.

Immense and unparalleled government-imposed and enforced lockdowns, quarantines, travel bans, and other legal measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus and protect lives have in many countries been designed to disregard human rights and liberties enshrined in constitutions, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Based on the scientific evidence that humans had no natural immunity to a new, deadly disease, people not only granted legitimacy to these drastic measures, but also willingly surrendered civil liberties and fundamental freedoms in the hope that the response of governments to the global pandemic would prevent calamitous loss of life.

While some level of restrictions on individual rights and liberties is expected during a state of emergency, what is not needed nor endorsed are measures in response to exigencies that are disproportionate in scope and unjustifiable in intent.

In such cases, coronavirus emergency measures have been used as a weapon for unwarranted attacks on the protection and implementation of human rights and freedoms.

These attacks occur also because many decision-makers have become used to excluding the public from discussion of the COVID-19 pandemic. In many cases, the exclusion has been a result of the government’s inability or unwillingness to muster the state’s capacity to deal with a crisis of this magnitude.

At the same time, the shift to a type of governance where people’s views, arguments, and expectations rooted in science and the law are ignored and access to official information is denied to them, is making way for elite rule not only to prevail but to become the norm, while popular participation and consent are squashed.

In such countries, government is faced with a crisis of legitimacy as people’s trust and confidence in it erode.

In times of crisis, liberal democracy is very fragile, particularly given the willingness of governments to exercise unchecked authority at the expense of civil liberties. Those changes usually go hand in hand with increasing support for strongman leaders, who it is hoped will break the political status quo.

Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the most unnecessary and unwarranted attacks on civil liberties during the present crisis have occurred in Hungary and Poland. In early 2020, Hungary declared an indefinite state of emergency that included emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights that were not proportionate to the threat which they were supposed to counter.

Further, since corruption obviously undermines the fight against the spread of COVID-19, countries like Hungary, which already tops the EU anti-fraud agency’s ranking on irregularities in their allocation of EU funds, are even more fragile and prone to authoritarian influences.

Poland too has stood out as showing less and less regard for democracy, rule of law, and human rights during the pandemic, the most salient example being the Constitutional Tribunal’s decision in October 2020 to roll back the reproductive rights of women by imposing a near-total ban on abortion.

Poland and Hungary should serve as a warning to all other countries, especially those that already have a low political culture. In such countries, the pandemic may serve to highlight persistent challenges and strengthen the attack on liberal democracy.

The article is syndicated by Network

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