How the Pandemic Threatens Democracy
Can democracies withstand a crisis with no end in sight?
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Democracy during the pandemic is under the microscope, U.S. military acknowledges civilian deaths, and China's oil imports increase.
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Democracy during the pandemic is under the microscope, U.S. military acknowledges civilian deaths, and China’s oil imports increase.
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How The Pandemic Is Disrupting Democracies
Citizens of the countries most badly affected by the coronavirus, and facing the most severe public health measures, have at least been able to take comfort in the fact they freely chose their leaders. As the pandemic expands toward summer, however, its worrisome effects on democracy are coming into focus.
Hungary already failed a democratic test at the outset of the pandemic, enacting laws that stifle free speech and postpone any future elections—effectively keeping Prime Minister Viktor Orban in power indefinitely. This week, the democracy watchdog Freedom House demoted Hungary from a fully-fledged democracy to the level of “hybrid regime.”
Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party came close to forcing through electoral rule changes that could have opened the door to ballot tampering. The move was only stopped at the last minute when the election it would have affected was postponed.
Less surprising are the leaders who have used the pandemic as a PR opportunity: The prime ministers of both Ireland and Israel found themselves almost out of office after their parties lost key parliamentary seats in elections held just before the coronavirus struck. The crisis has allowed them to recast themselves as serious men in serious times: Both are expected to enter into government (albeit in coalitions) in the next few weeks.
What about the United States? Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden doesn’t think the United States is immune from the trend and thinks U.S. President Donald Trump will find a way to delay voting in November. “Mark my words: I think he is gonna try to kick back the election somehow, come up with some rationale why it can’t be held,” the Democratic candidate said during an April 24 event. A Trump campaign spokesman dismissed the charge as “the incoherent, conspiracy theory ramblings of a lost candidate who is out of touch with reality.”
An international problem. Writing in Foreign Policy on May 7, Steven Feldstein, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor, sees coronavirus-related pressures on democracies around the world. “Pandemic-fueled leadership wobbles are widespread but especially serious in Brazil, Indonesia, and the Philippines,” he writes. The worries don’t stop there: Bolivia, Lebanon, Kenya, and Nigeria are all faced with challenges that could decide their future democratic trajectory.
Even as countries focus on their first priorities—defeating the coronavirus—upholding democracy is at risk of taking a back seat. “If democratic backsliding intensifies, then we can add another casualty to the terrible toll already inflicted by the coronavirus: the demise of democracies that were too fragile to withstand the authoritarian inclinations of their leaders,” Feldstein writes.
What We’re Following Today
How high is the U.S. unemployment rate? We’ll find out today as the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its monthly report on the U.S. employment situation, expected to be the most in-depth look yet at the extent of the country’s growing unemployment crisis. A report earlier this week estimated approximately 20 million Americans had lost their jobs between March and April.
As FP’s Keith Johnson and Michael Hirsh reported last month, the United States and Europe have taken divergent routes to stem unemployment, with the European model so far proving more effective.
Pentagon acknowledges civilian deaths in operations. The U.S. Defense Department released its annual civilian casualties report on Thursday, claiming 132 civilians were killed in the course of its global operations. The number is disputed by rights groups and other monitors, who claim the number is much higher.
The report records civilian deaths from a February 2019 airstrike in Somalia that the Pentagon acknowledged in a rare public announcement last month. The United States conducted a record 63 airstrikes in Africa in 2019, up from 47 in 2018.
China takes on more oil. China’s oil imports are continuing to increase, suggesting it is on a gradual road to economic recovery following its coronavirus epidemic. Data from the Chinese customs agency shows oil imports increased slightly from March to April, rising from 9.68 million barrels per day to 9.84 million barrels per day. There is still a while to go before a return to pre-pandemic normalcy: The import levels are more than a million barrels per day fewer than the same time last year.
On March 25, Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson looked at how China’s economy was fairing as it began to reopen, and explored whether Europe and the United States can follow the same route out of their current economic downturns.
Keep an Eye On
Basic income. As the global debate continues over how much government support should be given to citizens during the pandemic, a first of its kind study in Finland has shown how beneficial direct cash transfers can be. The experiment, which gave 560 euros per month to 2,000 randomly chosen unemployed residents from 2017 to the end of 2018 led to lower levels of depression and higher levels of satisfaction with life.
Although part of the study was to see whether unemployed Finns would be more attracted to low-paying jobs if part of their income was guaranteed, the overall days worked during the study only increased slightly compared to the control group. Christian Kroll, part of the Helsinki University research team, said the study’s results could be interpreted positively by both proponents and opponents of basic income. “But as we’ve all learned in the early part of 2020, insecurity is not a good way to live,” Kroll said.
The new federalism? The shift in leadership from the White House to the governor’s state house has been one of the defining dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States to date, and a new poll underlines the shift. The Financial Times-Peterson Foundation poll found 71 percent of likely U.S. voters trust their state governor over the U.S. president to “make the right decision” on when to ease social distancing guidelines and reopen businesses.. U.S. President Donald Trump has attempted to shore up the White House response in recent days by reversing a decision to disband a presidential coronavirus task force.
Odds and Ends
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador began his term in office at the end of 2018 by making a crowd-pleasing gesture—he would forgo the traditional presidential residence at Los Pinos and instead turn the palatial grounds and buildings into a public museum. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Los Pinos has a new incarnation as a living quarters for doctors and nurses treating patients at a nearby hospital. Meals, laundry and cleaning services are provided to the health care workers over the course of their stay, and a shuttle bus is provided to take them to work. “(The palace) is a space that was built for public servants and the nurses and doctors are public servants and they are risking their lives to save the lives of other people,” Zoe Robledo, Mexico’s Social Security Director, told Reuters.
That’s it for today.
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Colm Quinn was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2020 and 2022. Twitter: @colmfquinn
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