What do the US elections mean for democracies around the world? How does the rhetoric surrounding the campaigns affect the way we see democracy as a global society? And what lessons can be learned from the mass mobilization of voters in our journey towards more inclusive democracies and societies around the world?

NIMD’s Director, Thijs Berman reflects on the repercussions of the US elections. He brings us insights from our programme countries, on what they are thinking about, and on how they feel the elections have started to have an effect beyond the US.

The world is watching by Geoff Livingston, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://bit.ly/3qv4xfe
During the US elections, the world’s eyes were on democracy at work in a country with deeply polarized visions on society.

Four weeks ago, the US and the world waited on the edge of their seats as the ballots were counted. As the votes trickled in over the course of the week, I must admit to having developed a bit of an unhealthy obsession.

With all the focus on the effects of this election on the US, it occurred to me that this highly anticipated and intensely watched event would reverberate across the world. After all, the world’s eyes were on democracy at work in a country with deeply polarized visions on society, which even led to fears about the potential of a violent outcome.

I reached out to our colleagues in the NIMD network to find out how they feel about the impact of this election in their countries.

The way we talk about democracy and elections

The first thing that struck me was how many of my colleagues feel the rhetoric around the electoral campaign will impact the situation in their own country.

Words matter. The way we talk about democracy is crucial to the strength of democracy around the world – it shapes the importance we place on our democracies and the trust we as populations place in the democratic institutions that hold that democracy up.

My colleagues in Kenya express concern that Trump’s divisive approach towards the election and vote count could possibly fuel conflict, especially ahead of the 2022 general election in Kenya.

As Caroline Gaita, Director of our Kenyan partner Mzalendo, puts it: “Given our history with post-election violence, the US elections make us think. If leaders take on this kind of divisive route, how are Kenyans going to respond to it?”

Caroline feels that divisive rhetoric is not unique to the Trump campaign, however, and fears it could have long-lasting effects. In her view, Biden’s campaign was highly personalized. Depending on their race, gender or sexuality, Americans were targeted by the campaigns and made to understand what another term under Trump would mean for their welfare and rights.

Vote Biden yard sign by G Witteveen, license CC BY-NC 2.0, https://bit.ly/3lH3BAX
“Depending on their race, gender or sexuality, Americans were targeted by the campaigns and made to understand what another term under Trump would mean for their welfare and rights.”

For Caroline, this raises a mirror to Kenya’s history of personalized politics, where voting habits are traditionally tied to voters’ backgrounds. This is a history Kenya is currently trying to break out of, with more policy-based campaigns.

What this shows is the US’s diminished role as a moral authority and paragon of democracy. Rather than looking to the US model, Kenya will need to draw inspiration from its own progress, and continue to work towards a more inclusive democracy, especially with elections around the corner.

Mzalendo Director, Caroline Gaita, at Kenya’s People Dialogue Festival in March 2020.

Inclusion and mobilization

This presidential election was unprecedented in many ways. It may have breached almost every convention about respectful competition. But what was also unprecedented was the mobilization of voters on both sides – and perhaps this was partly due to the lack of respect. Never before have so many citizens put such tremendous efforts into encouraging people to register as voters. And never before have so many citizens cast their votes.

There was also an unprecedented increase in candidates from marginalized groups. The 2020 elections saw a 105% increase in the number of women running for Congress in comparison to 2016, including a 138% rise in women of colour. We also witnessed a 30% increase in the number of women running for State Legislature, and a 41% rise in LGBTQI+ candidates (more than the US has ever seen before).

At NIMD, we ask ourselves: How have political party processes facilitated the rise of women to the highest offices, for example? And how can we continue to empower politicians from minority groups, to see a similar increase in our programme countries?

We can also learn from the mass mobilization of US voters.

Mobilus In Mobili, license CC BY-SA 2.0, https://bit.ly/3orLYGS
Trump campaigners in the lead up to the election.

In Uganda, NIMD’s Country Representative Frank Rusa notes the high voter turnout and the razor thin electoral victories in some states that brought victory to Biden.

This just serves to show that every vote counts. It has inspired many political and civil society activists in Uganda to reflect on how to improve grassroot civic organization and mobilization, ahead of Uganda’s general election in January 2021.

Since the largest ever elections turnout in the history of America was in part due to young voters, these lessons could be especially pertinent in countries with a large youth population.

Young people are often marginalized from political processes, and our partners around the world can draw on the example of the US elections to ensure that this group exercises their civic rights, are informed and participate in political processes.

What will Biden’s presidency bring?

My colleagues’ responses to my enquiries about the elections show that the US elections themselves are already having an impact on democracies around the world.

But what will happen once Biden steps into the White House in January? Although some elements are clear, it’s still too early to know exactly what the Biden presidency’s foreign policy priorities will be. What really does stand out are the very different views across many of NIMD’s programme countries on what Biden’s term will bring.

In Central America, for example, our colleagues expect that changes in US foreign policy could have a significant positive impact.

In Guatemala, some sectors of the population are hopeful that Biden’s presidency will boost the fight against corruption. And there are hopes across El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for a change in immigration policy, towards more humane treatment of immigrants to the US.

rchappo2002, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://bit.ly/3geIDYX
Biden’s victory has fuelled hopes for a more humane immigration policy.

At the same time, conservative sectors in the region have been in favour of Donald Trump throughout his presidency and campaigns. Some, including the Pentecostal churches, may feel disenfranchised and resentful as US foreign policy turns away from some of the more traditional values within society.

Our colleagues from EECMD in Ukraine also observe differences in views in their country regarding the effects of the new Presidency, especially regarding stability.

Biden was at the forefront of an anti-corruption reform agenda as US Vice President. In Ukraine, some now hope that, with Biden bringing this back onto the agenda as a priority, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau and the rest of the country’s anti-corruption architecture will be reinforced. There are also hopes that Biden will help undermine an attempted counter-revolution that is currently gaining momentum in Kyiv with support from Ukraine’s pro-Russian political forces and the country’s oligarchs.

Others in this part of the world are more sceptical about the scope of the change. The Obama administration, many of whom will take on senior roles in Biden’s cabinet, failed to ease the Ukraine crisis back in 2015-16. The trust and hopes that some Ukrainians put in Biden to ease tensions, is not felt unanimously.

So, what’s next?

Time will tell how shifts in US foreign policy will affect our programme countries. For now, we will await 20 January having drawn lessons about inclusion and mobilization. Perhaps most importantly, the elections have shown a need to reflect on the power of language. As NIMD and as individuals, we have a responsibility to stand up for democracy, and to talk actively about its values. Because the repercussions of attacks on these values can tear at the fabric of society.

This is a democracy, Geoff Livingston, license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://bit.ly/2VJCBWJ
The way we talk about democracy is fundamental – it shapes the importance we place on our democracy and the trust we put in it.

This is one of NIMD’s five strategic objectives, set out in our new Multi-Annual Strategy for 2021-25. We will talk actively about why democracy matters, underlining the importance of accountability, multiple parties, inclusiveness, dialogue and peaceful elections.

As our Multi-Annual Strategy outlines, we will back this up through our commitment to each of the democratic values above. In the next five years, we will strive to contribute to inclusive democracies, and amplify the voices of marginalized groups. We will continue to invest in dialogue, as a way to build trust, and foster peace and mutual acceptance through politics. And we will strengthen links between the population and political, so that politicians are accountable to the people they represent, and the people can feel more confidence in their democracy and democratic institutions.

Today is World Philosophy Day, a day for nations to renew their commitment to this important subject. Philosophy matters to NIMD because not only does it give us ideas for how to support democracies better, but also shows us the secrets of political behaviour in the first place. To mark World Philosophy Day 2020, we explain some philosophical ideas around that most important of democratic acts: voting.

VOTING comes in countless forms – from ballot boxes to inked fingers to shouting in a village hall. While methods vary, one thing is consistent across cases: folks generally agree that the public deciding together is a good way of peacefully managing society. But this hasn’t always been the case, and so the question we should ask on World Philosophy Day is why?

No matter your political affiliation or seniority, occasionally revisiting foundational concepts is useful for self-reflection and for refining one’s own ideas about politics and society. When it comes to voting, one simple dichotomy to reflect on is whether you think voters truly are rational or not.

Your answer might tell you a little more about why you support democracy, and how you can work to make it better.

So voters are rational, right?

On the one hand, you could say voters are smart people who act pretty rationally. After all, we’re smart enough to run household budgets, file tax returns, be creative with art and music, and so on. I even nearly completed a Rubik’s cube once.

So surely on election day, rational actors can come together, check the policies, and choose the government that best serves their needs. Democratically-minded folks sharing this view see voting as a smart idea because we get the public to pool their wisdom and choose together.

Having a diverse range of views and parties provides what many describe a ‘marketplace of ideas’ – a chance to freely express political ideas in pursuit of a consensual solution.

 

This type of thinking is often cast under the term ‘Rational Choice Theory’. Its backers argue we can see it at work modern elections, where parties perceived to be the best at handling the economy often have an upper hand in the polls. Furthermore when surveyed, voters often put issues such as the economy and healthcare at the top of their priorities, and subjective moral issues often take second place. The fact democracies such as the US, UK and Norway appear to be so wealthy is sometimes credited to their democracies too.

So why do rational choice thinkers reckon it’s good to put things to a public vote? It’s because instead of one person, family, or group deciding who gets to lead, we let the rational-enough public have its say, and the smartest, most convincing candidate wins. The election incorporates the diverse perspectives of the public, and we get the best leaders as a result. The fact the public chose together also means we’re more likely to accept results even if our side lost, and to see peaceful transfers of power.

So smart people, good governments, society moves forward. It all sounds rather convincing, right?

…Or are we less rational than that?

Before you go putting all that faith in the voting public, there’s a second side to this coin. What if voters aren’t rational? Should we even trust them with the vote at all?

Well, obviously being pro-democracy but anti-universal suffrage is a bit of a non-starter, so let’s scrap that. Even if you think voters don’t act entirely rationally, chances are you still want them to vote. Not only do elections get everyone on board with the system so society can continue to function, but they promote national conversations and build movements that lay the ground for future. This means a perception of elections that is very different from that of rational choice theorists.

Elections and the related demonstrations, rallies and debates are a chance to bring voters together behind movements, driving positive public-backed changed. (Image: Protest by Jennifer C. via Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0)

 

If voters are in fact irrational, that means polling decisions are made with many considerations. Perhaps economic, perhaps social, perhaps even due to a personal dislike towards a candidate, or even bigotry. That means elections results are more than a cold calculation of policies, and a decent voting system will reflect society’s opinion in a very different way – even if voters aren’t all rational.

Therefore elections are the chance to build enthusiasm behind movements, and for dialogue to bridge these rising individuals and groups together in the spirit of national progress. Sure, someone could come in and use heat and division to win a big slice of the vote (such as Trump’s “Make America Great Again!” or the ultra-nationalist Austrian Freedom party’s “more courage for Viennese Blood”), but messages of positivity are almost always more effective and most people, given a choice, don’t vote for extremist parties.

Parties and politicians can communicate a lot, be it through manifestos, social media, the press, and so on. Understandably, making a rational choice can be confusing or overwhelming! (Image: Confused by collegedegrees360 via Flickr used under CC BY 2.0)

 

However this goes against rational choice ideas as it implies that voters’ perceptions can be manipulated, and therefore voters are irrational. People don’t just act on information, they also act on feelings – and modern politicians and marketers have realized this. In normal consumer marketing, emotional messages are shown to do better than ones pleading to our rational side. Companies are increasingly keen to show they align with our own values rather than simply sell products, with oil companies advertising their green credentials and paper companies advertising their tree-planting schemes. In elections, we see emotive slogans, not detailed policy briefs, at the top of campaign documents. It means democracy is vulnerable to those willing to bend or break the rules for their own gain.

So voters’ emotions can be misused or manipulated, but they can also lead to extraordinary things. A price worth paying for keeping our lives democratic? Or is this a point to the demagogues?

Either way, you’re a democrat

Hopefully you’ve now had a chance to reflect now on where you’d sit in this debate. Both sides have pitfalls, and we can in fact manage elections to minimize some of the risks highlighted by each theory. But whichever side you fall onto, one thing I’d want to leave you with relates to participation.

No matter whether you think voters are rational or not, participation in almost all democracies is skewed because women and young people participate much less in politics than men. If we want to know more about whether voters are rational or not, we first need to get them all on board. Barriers – be they social or economic – still stand in the way of these groups’ political activity.

Therefore let’s hope that our collective rationality, or a powerful new movement, comes forward to include these people in our democracies.

To celebrate its 75th anniversary, the UN is holding a global dialogue, asking people around the world to reflect on the future they want.

For NIMD, the answer is clear… the future we want is a more inclusive society, where democracies can thrive and political actors can put public interests, not crisis aversion, at the top of the agenda.

As part of our reflection, NIMD’s Sahel Regional Director Mirjam Tjassing looks at how we can contribute to a better, more resilient democracy in Mali.


On the 18th of August 2020, a group of young officers took over power in Mali. Under the banner of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP), their move ended in the dissolution of the parliament by the President, who then himself resigned. Since then, national consultations have led to the formulation of a Transition Charter and Road Map. The installation of the transitional organs is underway.

After the coup, ECOWAS immediately called for a return to constitutional order, a short transition under civilian leadership and rapid elections. This sounds very reasonable – that is, until you take into consideration that tens of thousands of Malians had been in the streets protesting for several weeks, demanding the departure of former President IBK; and that the coup was greeted in Mali with somewhat of a relief. Interestingly enough, after the coup there was no military presence in the streets, no pillaging or disorder; Malians were going about their business as usual again.

Mali’s now ex-President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, representing Mali whilst in office. (Image via Presidence du Benin used under under CC BY 2.0)

 

The ECOWAS embargo imposed on Mali was not at all appreciated by the population. It was felt that foreign interests had weighed in more on that decision than a real consideration of the situation in Mali. This position was supported by civil society organizations from neighbouring countries. Today, the sanctions have been lifted, but the consequences of the standoff between ECOWAS and the CNSP may be felt beyond the borders of Mali. This is a moment of truth: how serious is ECOWAS about democracy?

Collective failure

Obviously, in a functioning democracy, there is no place for military takeovers. But how effective was Mali’s democracy to begin with? The coup in Mali was a collective failure by the Malian political class and the international community to safeguard democratic principles.

This failure has allowed politics in Mali to be reduced to a set of strategies to redistribute power and wealth and to mitigate the “nuisance capacity” of others within the political class. Politics seldom play a role in policy orientation or the defence of the common good. Therefore, rushing to elections, as if that would magically change this, is not only useless, it is dangerous. It was done in 2012, and look where it landed Mali. So our focus should be less on sanctioning and more on the real question: how to make sure there will never be another coup?

Democracy is more than just elections

Elections are essential for democracy, but they do not define it. For elections to play their role, they need to be actual instruments of representation. In recent years, however, insecurity, grave suspicions of fraud and manipulation of results have all seriously undermined the credibility of elections in the eyes of the Malian public.

But there is something else, something that is less talked about, namely that elections imply political programmes. On the basis of NIMD’s study on the cost of politics, we know money has taken the place of political programmes and had a crippling effect on representation and accountability. And without representation, there is no real democracy.

In short, counting on the electorate to elect credible representatives despite electoral fraud and large scale vote buying seems ineffective as a strategy.

Voting is only part of the picture; while ballots themselves could be secure, targeted disinformation, restrictions on who can run, or the corrupt use of campaign finances can all undermine the democratic nature of polling day. (Image via DEMOSH on Flickr, used under CC BY 2.0)

 

It is important to remember that democracy is not an end in itself, it is a means to achieve stability and peace. It is about putting development and basic services at the heart of governance, instead of the needs of a political and economic elite. There is increasing agreement today that violent extremism, intercommunal violence and migration are all the direct consequence of poor governance.

Setting the democratic reform agenda

Whether on coups or popular uprisings, the question is how to stop governance by disruption. What can be done to make democracy effective, so that it actually meets the needs of the people and absorbs voters’ frustrations? ECOWAS’ focus on the questions of who is going to lead the transition and for how long distracts from the real question of what is needed to help Mali on its way to an effective democracy.

Let’s put the ECOWAS Additional Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance to good use. Not to support heads of state whose legitimacy is called into question. Not to throw around blame and sanction a population that is already suffering from a multidimensional crisis. Instead let’s use it to help guide reforms for free and fair elections and for a better institutional equilibrium that Malians themselves are proposing in the Transition Road Map.

NIMD Sahel Director Mirjam Tjassing (left) with Malian leaders at a dialogue meeting in 2019.

 

And, as we are in the midst of a crisis of representation, let’s not focus too much on which individuals get a seat at the table, but let’s look for ideas. Let’s listen to what Malians have to say. Modern day technology offers all kinds of opportunities for expression. Online, Malians are expressing themselves through the hashtag #MaTransition. Now is the country’s chance to develop political and reform guidelines for the post-election period in a participatory manner.

All eyes on ECOWAS

Let’s not forget: the world has never been this connected, information has never been this easy to access. Citizens from other West-African countries are watching what is happening in Mali. We cannot continue to selectively cite ‘democratic and republican principles’ ​​to defend a status quo when the perception is that democracy is not effective and republican values ​​are not respected. It will only serve to discredit the international community, its conventions AND democracy.

So instead of trying to desperately hold together a crumbling house of cards, let’s help Mali provide a new foundation for itself, and a new lease on life.

The international Coronavirus outbreak has serious implications for democracy worldwide. In the #NeverLockdownDemocracy blog series, the NIMD network takes a global view of how we can respond to the pandemic as we continue our work to protect democracy. Follow @WeAreNIMD on Twitter and the hashtag #NeverLockdownDemocracy to never miss a post.


By Kathleen Ferrier, NIMD Supervisory Council Member and Former Member of the Parliament of the Netherlands

2020 will be remembered as the year of COVID-19. The year that an invisibly tiny creature, a deadly virus, got us all on our knees and showed us that in spite of our man/woman-made divisions – such as ethnicity, education, age, and our physical abilities – we are all equal. We are all vulnerable human beings, all dependent on the planet we live on, and on each other. COVID-19 also showed us how vulnerable democracies can be, which made me think: what should our immediate priorities be to defend democracy today?

The great leveller?

Once we realized that anyone and any country could fall victim to COVID-19, we hoped this could bring people together. There was public acceptance that we are all equal and we need to care for our environment, and we became excited about the prospects for change. From our homes in lockdown, we thought about a world away from the rat race, with more quality time with loved ones and more respect for the earth and our fellow human beings. Many assumed that going ‘back to normal’ should not be an option, because normal caused the problem.

With all people, rich and poor, vulnerable to COVID-19, it was hoped the balance of power may shift in light of the virus. (Image credit: scales by Daniel Hermes via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0)

 

In the beginning there was hope that the virus would be humanity’s wake-up call, the ‘great leveller’. By showing our interdependence, we were hoping the virus would promote democratic values, such as active participation of people as citizens, in politics and civic life, protecting human rights and (of course) free and fair elections.

But halfway into 2020, we are seeing that this is far from a sure thing. In fact if we want this kind of change in society, we will have to fight for it.

The reality

What COVID-19 has really done is shine a light on the shortcomings in modern social, economic and political structures. But awareness alone is not enough to lead to actions. And those opposed to democracy are taking actions already.

Their actions mean that not only is public health at risk, but democracy is as well. In many places, hard-won democratic rights are being swept aside through the use of emergency measures, like we are seeing in Zimbabwe. Elections are being postponed, like in Hong Kong, or held under problematic conditions – see the discussions in the United States on voting by mail. Essential freedoms are eroding.

These trends make it clear: sitting idle is not an option. Democracy is indeed under threat – but we also have momentum. The virus has opened our eyes to society’s divisions, in a way many people had never seen before.

As passionate democracy advocates, this forces us to act.

But where and how to start?

If we are to seize this opportunity, there are three priorities for governments and those serious about strengthening democracy in the wake of COVID-19.

The first is to achieve a credible and free flow of information between experts, governments, and the public. That is crucial for securing two things: firstly a fact-based debate on policy options, and secondly the public trust in politics that democracy relies on. In this matter New Zealand sets an interesting example, where the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern used regular, open and empathetic communications with the public to win their support for what were fairly severe anti-pandemic measures.

New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern has won international praise for how she communicated with New Zealanders during the pandemic. (Image credit: The Prime Minister of New Zealand visits NATO by NATO via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0).

 

Secondly, it is crucial that the teams that work on the COVID-19 policies are diverse and inclusive. Measures taken now will have a huge impact on our future. National crisis teams that don’t reflect the diversity of their countries won’t have the knowledge or insights needed for crafting decent and effective policy. Instead of a better democracy, we will get the repeated pattern of exclusion based on race, gender, and the other arbitrary factors we divide ourselves with.

And thirdly, we should tap into the energy behind what is happening on our streets. In places such as Brazil, Belarus, and Thailand, people are taking to the streets to make their voices heard in higher numbers than we have seen for a long time. Many of them are young people, women, or members of communities left at the periphery of politics, now coming forward to voice their discontent with undemocratic acts.

The time is now

This energy is what drives democracy – the energy to make one’s voice heard and to participate in civil society. We see it in Minsk, where women dressed in white lead the protests, and when large, ethnically mixed groups, take to streets of cities in Europe and the USA because Black Lives Matter. Leaders of all nations should take heed.

COVID-19, with all its restrictions and uncertainties, provides a momentum to build a more just and inclusive democracy in its aftermath. If we let this energy for change slip through our fingers, we will be paying the price long after the pandemic is over.

The momentum behind movements such as Black Lives Matter reflect a public that wants to be heard; and in an effective democracy, politicians need to listen. (image credit: #blm by Aaron Fulkerson via Flickr, under CC BY 2.0)

 

I am not saying that this is easy, I am saying that this is urgent. The rise of populism and movements like QAnon are, at least partially, based on citizens’ perception that political decision-making and politics is not about them, and not about the challenges they are facing day by day. COVID-19 presents an opportunity for leaders to show that they take democracy seriously, and prove that perception wrong.

How NIMD will play its part

NIMD will use its position as a network organization, with its country offices across the world, to seize the momentum for democratization. We should not go into defense, but into offense, working together with old and new allies. NIMD is prepared to use the new situation to stand for democracy everywhere it is at risk – and that is unfortunately in many places.

The Chinese word for crisis consists of two characters. One means dangerous (wēi) and the other (jī) meaning opportunity. This COVID-19 crisis is indeed dangerous, but it is an opportunity as well. These times show us how fragile democracies are, and how quickly change can come about.

They also show why NIMD’s work strengthening democracy is so important. And I am glad to be part of NIMD and have the chance to use this momentum, to stand up for democracy.

The international Coronavirus outbreak has serious implications for democracy worldwide. In the #NeverLockdownDemocracy blog series, the NIMD network takes a global view of how we can respond to the pandemic as we continue our work to protect democracy. Follow @WeAreNIMD on Twitter and the hashtag #NeverLockdownDemocracy to never miss a post.


By Franklin De Vrieze, Senior Governance Advisor, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), & Edin Elgsaether, Knowledge Advisor, Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD)

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, over 100 countries have passed emergency laws or declared states of emergency. However, there is a fine balance between protecting public health and the risk of reducing the democratic space by restricting civic and political rights. Indeed, we are witnessing an endemic situation for the democratic space, alongside a devastating economic impact.

Responding to this crisis is a conundrum for governments; and their decisions will have far-reaching consequences for political participation and inclusion, risking a new crisis of democracy. Without a government response based on inclusion, accountability and transparency, it is likely that the interests of women and marginalized groups will remain unaccounted for.

To break the current trends of shrinking democratic space and increased inequality, it is important to ensure that the emergency powers – although vital in protecting health – are not used to shrink the democratic space.

How crises exacerbate existing problems

Crises tend to accelerate trends and changes that are already in motion. Up to 70% of the global population was already experiencing increasing inequality. The economic consequences of the pandemic could further accelerate the gap between the top and bottom. According to a new UN report, COVID-19 and Human Development, current levels of deprivation have not been seen since the mid-1980s for some dimensions of human development.

COVID-19 in Washington DC by dmbosstone, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, https://bit.ly/2G6EKb0
A women casts her vote in Guatemala’s 2007 elections. But will her and her daughter’s right to vote be affected by the pandemic? (Image credit: USAID Guatemala via Flickr)

 

Historically, times of crisis have been worse for women and marginalized groups as their employment is often precarious and they have less access to financial resources. Their lack of political clout means measures taken in response to a crisis rarely account for these groups’ needs, as witnessed after the Financial Crisis in 2008. This is perhaps not unexpected, as in time of crisis decisions are taken without scrutiny and by a few people – often privileged men.

Looking at today’s crisis, the UN‘s COVID-19 and Human Development Report states: “The pandemic was superimposed on unresolved tensions between people and technology, between people and the planet, between the haves and the have-nots.” With the World Economic Forum once again finding low levels of political empowerment and decreasing economic participation for women, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis will likely be catastrophic for women’s participation in politics, leading to less inclusion in the longer term.

From crisis to opportunity

It’s clear that defeating the pandemic will take extreme public health measures. This we have seen particularly in the forms of restrictions to freedom of movement and assembly, brought about to reduce the infection spreading. Yet those very measures could undo decades of work on economic, political and social empowerment of women and marginalized groups. The flipside of that is if we take an inclusive approach, there are in fact opportunities to strengthen accountability, transparency and representation. We cannot let this happen.

The likelihood that the restrictions on social contact will be prolonged is a powerful incentive to parliaments and political parties to innovate in order to continue and further strengthen oversight and representation. Since most emergency legislation has already been passed, parliaments can focus on ensuring accountability when it comes to the scope, economic and social impact, restriction of rights, budgetary consequences, timespan, implementation methods, and unintended consequences of the legislation.

For example, the Chamber of Deputies of Argentina is allowing parliamentarians from vulnerable groups to participate in committee meetings via Zoom. This ensures that they can raise concerns and alert the oversight function of these committees about any unfortunate impacts of measures on vulnerable groups. The UK’s National Audit Office enhanced its oversight during the pandemic when it started proactive auditing of the financial consequences of the UK government’s response. Both cases show that there are openings for governments to think and change the way they work during the pandemic.

During the pandemic, governments may opt for daily news briefings to field questions from national media – another change in daily parliamentary life. Here we see UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (centre) joined by two scientists during one such briefing. (Image credit: Number 10 via Flickr)

 

Political parties and members of parliaments can also step up and represent the interests and needs of their constituencies, including women and marginalized groups. Through technology, politicians can reach out more broadly and hear more diverse voices which might otherwise be harder to reach. A growing number of parliaments are organizing remote Committee meetings and virtual hearings, such as in Myanmar, the Maldives, South Africa, Ukraine and elsewhere. This can also make it easier for many groups to be reached and heard, as organizing a meeting online takes less planning and logistics.

Scrutinizing emergency powers and legislation

The most common government response to COVID-19 has been granting some form of emergency powers, allowing for quick decision-making and the ability to enforce strict rules such as social distancing. These carry a risk to civic and political rights and to equal socio-economic opportunities. The application of such laws therefore needs to be time-limited. This can be guaranteed through review clauses or sunset clauses, which stipulate how long emergency powers last, when they must be reviewed, and whether they can be renewed.

Government restrictions on assembly and gathering have the spillover effect of shrinking democratic space, so it’s important these power are rolled back as soon as it is safe to do so. (Image credit: Duncan C via Flickr)

 

For instance, the Norwegian Parliament has adopted an emergency act which is valid for one month, and the government has now asked for an extension with one more month. As an extra check, the emergency measures can be stopped if one third of the members of parliament ask for it. The federal parliament of Canada adopted emergency legislation which remains valid until the end of September; and the UK’s COVID-19 act includes the review clause 98, which foresees six-monthly reporting to, and review of the law by, parliament.

Contrast that with countries such as Hungary, where emergency legislation has been adopted without any time limit nor any oversight mechanisms, and we see a threat to democracy emerging from the crisis.

Rolling back the emergency powers

The far-reaching powers the emergency legislation can grant, plus the need to act quickly, means there is often little scrutiny of its passage. Assessing the implementation and impact of emergency legislation through post-legislative scrutiny (PLS) is a way to help restore scrutiny of the democratic process. PLS is the act of evaluating laws that a parliament has passed. It refers to the moment in which a parliament applies itself to the question of whether the laws of a country are producing expected outcomes, and if not, why not.

Many emergency powers are enacted through secondary legislation or ministerial decrees. Through PLS, parliamentarians can check if the use of the secondary legislation fits the aims set out under emergency acts. However, parliaments should not limit their PLS to health and economic emergencies. They have also to consider the democratic functioning of society and the fulfilment of civic and political rights as something they must regularly scrutinise, evaluate, and improve.

Our organizations, Westminster Foundation for Democracy and the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, are supporting democratic inclusion and accountability through our work with parliaments and political parties. In view of current trends of shrinking democratic space and increased inequality, it is important that the roll-back of the emergency powers starts now.


For further reading:

The authors recommend the following resources for further reading on the topics in this blog:

https://www.macleans.ca/opinion/if-the-coronavirus-emergency-legislation-is-any-indication-parliament-must-remain-open/

https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8874/

https://www.ipu.org/parliaments-in-time-pandemic

https://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/research/research-projects/coronavirus-government-response-tracker

https://tracker.wfd.org/

http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GGGR_2020.pdf

https://www.wfd.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/WFD_DeVrieze_2020_PLSinEurope.pdf

https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/30/authoritarianism-coronavirus-lockdown-pandemic-populism/

https://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/16/04/2020/public-debt-parliaments-and-pandemic

https://www.wfd.org/2020/05/26/call-for-papers-are-emergency-measures-in-response-to-covid-19-a-threat-to-democracy/

The international Coronavirus outbreak has serious implications for democracy worldwide. In the #NeverLockdownDemocracy blog series, the NIMD network takes a global view of how we can respond to the pandemic as we continue our work to protect democracy. Follow @WeAreNIMD on Twitter and the hashtag #NeverLockdownDemocracy to never miss a post.


By Juan Meléndez, Executive Director NIMD El Salvador

On 14 March the President of the Republic of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, sent a tweet:

Translated to English, it reads: “Italy ‘will let those over 80 die’ because its health system is collapsed and they need to make space for those who have more possibilities to live. I really don’t know what to expect of the Congress. We need a state of emergency now!”

He was preparing the ground to restrict constitutional rights under a state of emergency. However, the Italian embassy in El Salvador soon responded to correct the President, and pointed out this news was fake.

Two days later, President Bukele published another tweet, in which he stated, “Avianca’s flight from Mexico to San Salvador departing at 4:00 pm and arriving in our country at 6:50pm brings 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19”. At that time, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, so he ordered the closure of the international airport.

Mexico’s Foreign Minister responded angrily and denied the information, even provoking a small diplomatic conflict. In reality, there were 12 Salvadorans in that flight, all of whom were using masks. The President’s intention was to close the airport, and that in fear, the population would accept this decision – at the expense of their individual liberty to travel.

It worked. On social media, many people voiced approval for the measure because they did not want the Coronavirus in the country. The airport therefore closed.

Isolated events or a new approach to the Pandemic?

On March 2019, El Salvador changed its government. Nayib Bukele became the first Millennial President of El Salvador, with an electoral campaign that mostly played out on social media. The campaign was characterized by a constant stream of attacks between the candidates and their respective political parties on various social media platforms. Above all, there was a shower of fake news, much of which came from the candidates themselves. The main arena of conflict was Facebook.

To make sense of the situation, the NIMD team in El Salvador monitored the candidates’ behavior on social media. We sought to verify unknowns such as who was using the most bots, and found they all used fake followers to pretend to be the most popular. NIMD El Salvador also began verifying factually accurate news and reporting with the support of the digital magazine FACTUM, and they made reports to counter some of the disinformation and misinformation that arose during the campaign. Thirdly, an attempt was made to educate the population to identify false content through videos posted on our social networks, showing the steps to check their veracity. These videos were developed in partnership with Facebook, using Neuseum’s fake news identification methods to identify fake news and avoid spreading it.

Here is a example of the videos made by NIMD El Salvador (in Spanish):

Since taking office, the President has followed Trump’s example and made Twitter his official communication mechanism. In lockdown, people are more active on social media, and so they should be; on Twitter the President announces closing hours, new restrictions, and new cases of COVID-19. Everyone is reading and writing messages, and many people are spreading false information and news.

Social media’s impact on democracy could therefore be both constructive and deconstructive. It offers us more information and communication than ever, yet also permits the undermining of democracy through misinformation and even disinformation. Having closely researched this since 2018, there is a risk we may see that deconstructive side as a result of the pandemic.

Bad information means a bad result for the public

When the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Metapan, in north-west El Salvador, at the border with Guatemala, many said that the patient had entered the country through a blind spot; others that he was in a quarantine center; others that he was the son of a doctor; and others that he was the son of a businessperson. To date the government has not clarified the origin of that first case. Beyond the gossip, it is important to know more about the progress of the origin of patient zero, so the government and academics could make projections and plan closures based on solid, reliable information.

However videos have circulated, some shared by the President, of sick people in Ecuador collapsing to the ground and of mass graves to bury bodies in Brazil. This misinformation has (perhaps intentionally) increased fear in the population, caused discrimination against healthcare workers, and encouraged people to hoard medicine and food. But above all, it has caused people to become confused and to face the disease with emotion rather than knowledge.

So is there a vaccine for fake news?

At this time we cannot go without social media, in the case of El Salvador, because it is one the few ways we can hope to be more informed. Citizens need and deserve to be informed, because we need to know how the disease behaves, what treatments there are, and what we can do to reduce the spread through our individual actions. Getting that information quickly and transparently is absolutely critical.

So, what can we do when the authorities spread fake news? Thankfully modern media and rights means there will always be other reliable sources. That is the value of democracy; academics who reveal real data, and national or international media that do fact checking – this allows us citizens to clarify things.

Without those democratic systems in place, it will have to be left to citizens to determine what is real or false, and even to deny fake news – even if the President publishes it.

The international Coronavirus outbreak has serious implications for democracy worldwide. In the #NeverLockdownDemocracy blog series, the NIMD network takes a global view of how we can respond to the pandemic as we continue our work to protect democracy. Follow @WeAreNIMD on Twitter and the hashtag #NeverLockdownDemocracy to never miss a post.


By Charley Steur, Strategic Advisor, NIMD Myanmar

Under normal circumstances the streets of Myanmar would be packed with crowds during the month of April. Myanmar’s New Year Festival of Thingyan, also known as the water festival, is the country’s biggest public holiday. Thingyan is celebrated by soaking people with buckets of water and supersoaker waterguns. Music blares from every street corner and the air is filled with sounds of celebrations.

A photo from Thingyan celebrations in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. (Image credit: Steve Dowall via Flickr)

 

But this year Myanmar was quiet. The Covid-19 pandemic has put the Thingyan celebrations and many lives in Myanmar on hold. Places that are usually bustling with people have fallen silent. However, democracy cannot be silenced, with the Myanmar elections still expected to go ahead later this year despite the pandemic. This made the work of NIMD’s partner the Myanmar School of Politics (MySoP) more important than ever.

Like a fish out of water?

The opportunity to practice multiparty dialogue is fairly new in Myanmar. Almost 60 years of military rule means political parties (and the public) are not used to the practice. Moreover, democratic governance in Myanmar remains a complex and contested affair, with the National League for Democracy (NLD) ruling the country despite public trust in the party being at an all-time low.

Ongoing ethnic violence and an apparent failure to deliver peace has undermined public confidence in the National League for Democracy, the party of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. (Image credit: Adam Jones via Flickr)

 

What’s more, meaningful progress in the formal peace process remains elusive. Despite the global coronavirus pandemic, conflict has continued to flare up. This comes on top of Myanmar’s pre-existing challenges, which include civil-military tensions, the ongoing crisis in Rakhine State, and related International Court of Justice case, and the countdown to the upcoming general election.

Therefore, the continuity and consistency of multiparty dialogue in Myanmar is crucial to try and defuse these issues, especially in a time of crisis. MySoP supports this through its Democracy School, Multiparty Dialogue Platform and various capacity building and engagement activities with political parties. Despite the coronacrisis, MySoP is adapting and re-planning its activities to ensure the continuity of the programme.

Challenges to keeping the dialogue afloat

There are several challenges to continue our work in the midst of the coronacrisis. Firstly, ethnic parties have limited resources compared to larger national parties such as the National League of Democracy (NLD) and the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). With their finite resources now having to focus on responding to Covid-19, these smaller parties may be sidelined, or outright excluded from, ongoing dialogue activities.

Secondly, Myanmar’s current political situation must be understood with reference to the country’s long history of military statebuilding. Myanmar is formally designed as a unitary state, with modest decentralization to regions/states and self-administered zones and divisions. However, the sovereign authority of the state is contested by multiple ethnic armed organizations, resulting in a complex structure of territorial control and administration by state and non-state actors. The corona situation has exacerbated the problem by creating confusion over where each sides’ respective mandate ends and the others’ begins.

Thein Sein, a former military general who became Myanmar’s president from 2011-2016, was the first civilian to lead Myanmar in nearly 50 years. The impact of the military regime is still acutely felt today. (Image credit: Prachatai via Flickr)

 

Moreover, the majority of politicians are not paid well – or indeed not paid at all. The Covid-19 situation already has made a significant economic impact on businesses in Myanmar, a country already plagued by pervasive economic inequality. Desperate families who find themselves out of income, coupled with politicians incentivized to look beyond government for income, is encouraging short-termism and immediate crisis management. Contrastingly, dialogue is a long-term process that requires politicians to focus solely on their representative role; participants’ personal economic insecurity can therefore undermine the process.

Additionally, many politicians also take up roles in their community that the government is not able to take up. To show just how serious the shortfall is, many of MySoP’s alumni are volunteering in health centres, delivering food to those affected by the economic impacts of the crisis, or installing water basins for those who lack access to water to wash their hands.

A further challenge arises from the low rate of digital literacy in Myanmar. While the arrival of cheap smartphones and steady, but bumpy, infrastructure expansion has made mobile internet available in most of the country, in Myanmar, Facebook essentially is the internet — and, for many, the only source of information. Disinformation and hate speech, primarily spread on Facebook, exacerbate conflict with devastating consequences. Moreover, online privacy and cybersecurity are issues that many are not familiar with. Therefore, moving our activities online takes much preparation and effort to educate the participants on other online platforms than Facebook.

A dry run for online dialogue

In order to test the water for online multiparty dialogue, we wanted to meet MySoP participants in a forum they were familiar with. MySoP began reaching out to alumni through Facebook live for so-called “warm-up sessions”, so we can informally engage with alumni. This way we can understand their needs and difficulties through what, for them, is familiar platform. From there, we could begin to prepare them for online work through other means.

For example, MySoP will organize meetings with our alumni and electoral stakeholders such as the Union Election Commission (UEC). This gives them opportunity to, despite the lockdown, discuss electoral issues and build more trusting relationships with the UEC. Ahead of any election, parties need to trust the system, and the UEC must secure buy-in from across the political spectrum. This trust is shown to strengthen the electoral commission’s effectiveness and reduce the risk of electoral and political violence.

NIMD’s Myanmar Representative Htet Oo Wai with UEC Chair U Hla Thein at an event with the Myanmar School of Politics in 2019.

 

Indeed in this election year, democratic dialogue cannot be cut short. Thus, while Myanmar was laying down its supersoakers for its first indoor Thingyan festival, the MySoP team was finding ways to continue its programme and dive deep into multiparty dialogue. Although we want to limit the spread of coronavirus, our mission to spread multiparty democracy goes on – and that democracy starts with dialogue.

The international Coronavirus outbreak has serious implications for democracy worldwide. In the #NeverLockdownDemocracy blog series, the NIMD network takes a global view of how we can respond to the pandemic as we continue our work to protect democracy. Follow @WeAreNIMD on Twitter and the hashtag #NeverLockdownDemocracy to never miss a post.


By Violet Benneker, Knowledge Advisor, NIMD

The COVID-19 crisis poses significant challenges to inclusive political dialogues, as physical meetings have become impossible in many places around the world. The way forward has taken NIMD’s inter-party dialogue platforms online for the first time in NIMD history.

This is not without its obstacles. Dialogue relies on positive personal interaction and trust between individuals. Unfortunately, our brains are not wired to do this online.

Yet NIMD’s current experience shows that the COVID-19 crisis also presents unique opportunities. We can still work to limit the damage to inclusive politics we see happening around the world, and support political parties to pick up the democratic pieces of this crisis through dialogue.

The challenge of an online dialogue

We place building trust at the heart of NIMD’s approach to dialogue. This is why we create safe spaces to house our inter-party dialogue platforms. With safe spaces, I mean spaces that are, among other things, shaped by jointly created and equally applied rules of engagement. Such rules make sure all participants of a dialogue can speak and be heard on equal terms. This allows political parties to begin establishing new relations of trust and enables inclusive decision-making processes –  even in the most fragile and conflict-affected settings.

Almost by definition, a safe space for dialogue seems to imply a physical space and inter-personal contact. The participants need to hear each other clearly, see each other fully, read each other’s body language. However, this is difficult to replicate online.

Uganda’s Inter-Party Organization for Dialogue (IPOD) works with senior politicians and party leaders, including the President (seen here in white, shaking hands at a 2019 Summit). The challenge for NIMD’s experts is how to recreate these opportunities to build trust, but without the assistance of these moments of bonding in the physical world..

“Can you hear me?”

Indeed, it is difficult to overstate the importance of this inter-personal contact. A dialogue that deals with sensitive political issues is not just about sending information, which happens easily in online meetings. Successful dialogue platforms also rely on specific skills such as active listening, reading body language, and creating a willingness to share each other’s true needs and interests. Without that level of engagement, dialogues can quickly fall apart, with the worst-case scenario of parties returning to conflict.

After weeks of lockdown, few would deny that this type of real listening is very hard to do online. How many times have you struggled to really understand what that one colleague was saying due to connection problems (“can you hear me?”), experienced the difficulty of bringing a point across through a screen (“sorry, I missed that last bit”), or been distracted by something in the house? This is no different for the politicians that we work with.

Getting dialogue to work online is more than just listening ‘harder’. (Image via Eknath Gommpotherium – Flickr)

The way forward for inter-party dialogue

Our teams across the world now find themselves at the forefront of coming up with creative solutions and practical fixes. They are focusing all their energy on making sure governments’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis is supported by political dialogues that are inclusive and responsive to citizens’ needs.

  • Social etiquette for online political dialogue

Our first challenge is to recreate NIMD’s offline safe spaces in an online environment. Crucially, this means that we have to reinvent the rules of our inter-party dialogues if we are to meet the opportunities, and confines, of doing dialogue digitally.

In Tunisia, NIMD’s partner Centre des Etudes Méditerranéennes et Internationales (CEMI) was one of the first dialogue platforms to go completely online. They are tackling how to recreate the essential preconditions to dialogue in an online platform. The facilitators have found they have a crucial role in supporting the confidence of politicians to engage with each other online, and need to be much more involved than in the normal, offline setting.

CEMI has also managed to convene online training through the Tunis School of Politics, meaning CEMI could provide continuity here, as well as for its dialogue process.

 

Together with the political parties, they are now creating new rules and social norms for online dialogue. These include online social etiquette in areas such as time keeping, speaking and listening. In this way, they are safeguarding some of the most important principles of dialogue, and are recreating a safe space online where everyone can speak, listen, and is heard.

  • Broadening the online audience

Doing dialogue digitally is a challenge, but at the same time, the open nature of online environments is giving us exciting new opportunities to work for inclusivity.

Take the example of Myanmar, where the COVID-19 crisis has come on top of the intensifying ongoing civil wars. Next to developing strategies to create secure and safe spaces for online political dialogue in such a difficult context, NIMD’s partner MySoP is taking the opportunity to engage with a wider audience than usual. For example, they will be facilitating an online meeting with over 100 high level representatives of political parties to talk about the crisis and the impact it has at the regional level. In this way, MySoP continues to contribute to accountable and inclusive political decision-making, even in times of crisis.

  • Acting as citizens’ offline voice

In some countries, we are faced by challenges that are beyond our control and make the move to a (temporary) online programme impossible. For example, there is no equal access to the internet, or connections are not stable enough for lengthy online meetings. In addition, some governments readily use the excuse of the current crisis to postpone political dialogue and rule by decree.

In such countries, NIMD’s dialogue platforms have taken up offline opportunities to act as an avenue for wider society to reach decision-makers with their needs and demands, and feed them with alternatives. One example is Uganda, where NIMD facilitates the interparty-dialogue platform IPOD. There, the main challenges include large differences in access to stable internet connections across the country. This is why NIMD in Uganda has taken up their goal of supporting inclusive politics in new, offline ways.

In response to COVID-19, Uganda created a national taskforce for the handling of the health crisis. Subsequently, NIMD Uganda proposed the IPOD members (all parties represented in parliament) to be included in the national taskforce in order to avoid dominance by the Executive and to promote inclusiveness of policy-making. This proposal has resulted in permits for Secretaries General and leaders of the political parties to continue their work, and bring citizens’ offline voices directly to the taskforce’s ears.

From the 2018 IPOD Leaders’ Summit in Uganda. IPOD’s member parties were able to act quickly from the outset of the pandemic, creating many opportunities for inclusive collaboration between them.

Preparing for the future

The effects of COVID-19 crisis on inclusive political dialogue are acute and grave, and it makes our work difficult. And yet, as governments around the world are ramping up repression and actively closing civic space, our work for inclusive political dialogue is more pressing than ever – even if it is also harder than ever.

This is why I continue to be impressed by all NIMD teams around the world, who are able to find solutions and practical fixes to support inclusive political dialogue – and inclusive democracies in the long run, long after the lockdowns are lifted.

The international Coronavirus outbreak has serious implications for democracy worldwide. In the #NeverLockdownDemocracy blog series, the NIMD network takes a global view of how we can respond to the pandemic as we continue our work to protect democracy. Follow @WeAreNIMD on Twitter and the hashtag #NeverLockdownDemocracy to never miss a post.


By Ángela Rodríguez, Executive Director NIMD Colombia

Undeniably, democracy could be one major victim of the new coronavirus. In Latin America, excessive presidentialism has been accentuated thanks to the declaration of States of Emergency, originally deployed as tools to confront a global crisis by the different countries of the region.

However, the opacity of politicians’ actions during a state of emergency means the risk of moving from weak democracy to authoritarianism is just around the corner. To prevent this, it is crucial to have strong and representative democratic institutions, and a voting public that is willing to conceive politics beyond the elections.

Fostering these two changes is NIMD’s longstanding aim in the region, which we pursue through our Democracy Schools, interparty dialogue programmes, and engagement with parties and civil society. The advent of the pandemic has made our work more important than ever, and so my team and I are finding ways to continue – despite the lockdown. But from my office in Bogotá I can see that there are aspects of Colombian democracy in particular that appear especially precarious thanks to Coronavirus.

The case of Colombia

Colombia is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. Consequentially its social security and health systems have traditionally operated in precarious and exclusive ways; not unlike the wider political system. These constant difficulties add to the current uncertainty around the impact of COVID-19 in the country.

A view of a poorer part of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá. According to the World Bank, Colombia is the second most unequal country in Latin America. 10% of the richest Colombians earn four times more than 40% of the poorest. (Image credit: C64-92 via Flickr)

 

However, while many of the country’s analysts and politicians are debating what to prioritize, whether the economy or health of citizens, few are paying attention to an essential condition for both spheres of society to function effectively: a healthy democracy.

Democracy in Colombia has been undermined amid the global pandemic because of three main elements: 1) major alterations to the balance of powers as Congress ceases its activities, 2) an almost total absence of political parties in public spheres, and 3) vast opacity in the delivery of subsidies from the governments (nationally and locally) to those most affected by the lockdown.

Controlling the virus while losing control of politics

Let’s start with the matter of Congress. The situation is relatively easy to explain, but not necessarily to understand: the date by which the Congress had to resume sessions was 16 March. However it took almost a month for presidents of both chambers to start putting measures for Congress to operate virtually in place.

A meeting of Colombia’s Senate in 2016. Social distancing means a session such as this is out of the question for now. (Image credit: European Union 2016 – European Parliament)

 

Those advocating for the pause in Congress’s activities argue that the lack of protocols for Congress’ virtual operation could undermine legal support for political decisions made during the lockdown. But others argue that the best thing is that plenary sessions of the Congress begin as soon as possible. This group cites other bodies that are operating via the web, such as municipal councils. They also refer to the thousands of Colombians who despite risks of contagion keep showing up – physically – to work every day.

Not a decision taken lightly

Without deciding who is right, there is an urgent issue to raise: any change that involves the de facto removal of a political system’s legislative body can have an immeasurable negative impact on its democracy. Modifying checks and balances, particularly in a situation in which the Executive already operates with an exceptionally broad portfolio, opens the door to authoritarianism and reduces the credibility of democratic institutions.

Democratic institutions, such as parties, electoral boards and parliaments, can also be undermined in other ways. For example, Congress members have continued to receive their salary despite not working; a lifeline not afforded to thousands of Colombians who lost their jobs due to lockdown measures.

Are the political parties in lockdown?

The second element that affects Colombian democracy in the midst of the global pandemic is the almost total absence of political parties from public stage. A couple of them, mainly the ruling party, have become visible to support the President’s measures to combat COVID-19 and to offer a significant donation to help the poorest in the middle of the crisis.

Contrastingly, the other political parties are practically non-existent in the eyes of the people. Accordingly the public does not perceive them as the channel through which to achieve progress with their political needs and demands. But if the functions of the political parties are not recognized and fully carried out, they cannot as effectively represent the public, nor devise policies that serve the public interest.

NIMD Colombia has provided technical support for parties for several years, and we aim to continue this through the Coronavirus lockdown period.

 

The lockdown has not meant all other political problems go away, and people at all strata of society still need representation. Multiparty systems are relatively effective at catering to such diverse needs and holding those in charge to account. That means parties must endeavor to not be sidelined or rendered inactive thanks to the outbreak.

Checking and balancing the virus response

The last definitive element not only aggravates the national crisis due to the coronavirus, but also profoundly undermines the foundations of democracy. Here I am describing the opacities that have surrounded the government’s delivery of subsidies and goods to the poorest.

On one hand, Twitter users have discovered and reported significant flaws in the monetary subsidies being rolled out by the national government. When entering random numbers or the details of deceased persons, they appear as beneficiaries of the subsidies. The government explanation, citing a programming error, was not warmly received by the public.

The ability to give decent oversight, whether it’s between political institutions or from the public, is what gives voters confidence in their political leaders (Photo by mostafa meraji on Unsplash)

 

On the other hand, council members from different municipalities have condemned significant cost overruns in the basket of goods that local authorities purchased for the poorest. For example, in Atlántico, Cesar, Arauca, Norte de Santander, Cundinamarca and La Guajira,  council members received no explanation when they asked about goods being bought by the government at up to three times the normal market value.

In both cases we have a possibly malicious use of the emergency measures decreed by the national government. These issues come from a lack of open data and accurate information on how the Executive is implementing its assistance programmes. This kind of oversight is something that stable democratic institutions can provide through checks and balances.

It’s not time to wash our hands of democracy.

For Colombians, politics can be synonymous with corruption and polarization. But it is in these moments of disaster and shared extreme need when we need to take seriously – more than ever – our role as active citizens and begin to build democracy beyond ballot boxes. Otherwise, the impacts of coronavirus will not only be measured in lost lives and infected people in the present, but in the deepening of poverty and inequality in the future.

Democracy in Colombia has been sick – even before coronavirus appeared – and it is time to join forces to fix it. From NIMD Colombia, and despite the current situation, we continue to work together with political actors to improve their skills for democratic representation.

The international Coronavirus outbreak has serious implications for democracy worldwide. In the #NeverLockdownDemocracy blog series, the NIMD network takes a global view of how we can respond to the pandemic as we continue our work to protect democracy. Follow @WeAreNIMD on Twitter and the hashtag #NeverLockdownDemocracy to never miss a post.


By Shaun Mackay, External Advisor, NIMD

As an organization, NIMD is fortunate. Despite the disarray caused by the pandemic, we have been able to provide some continuity to the parties, politicians and institutions we work with. For example our events and analysis continue via the internet, and NIMD’s dialogue platforms and Democracy Schools persevere with their vital work by using online services.

But what about when something much larger, such as a general election, falls in the times of pandemic?

The historical precedent

Any decision to postpone or cancel elections should not be made lightly; where circumstances permit, elections should always be held, and held on time. After all, even during the height of the Spanish flu which killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, elections were held in the US.

American Red Cross volunteers carry a Spanish flu victim, 1919. (Image via British Red Cross – flickr)

 

But this isn’t 1918, and the choices are not that simple.

The choices

Regular elections are fundamental to the proper functioning of a modern representative democracy. After four or five long years, the electorate gets to exercise what may be its only chance to speak on the performance of its public representatives – by either sanctioning them or renewing their mandates. But what is to be done when a runaway pandemic such as COVID-19 strikes in an election year?

This presents governments with an unenviable conundrum: how to protect the health of the democracy while protecting the health of the people. Is this even possible; or must a stark choice be made?

Some challenges for holding elections

So, what are some of the salient challenges that may confront states wishing to proceed with elections?

  • Campaigning: the large rallies that typically mark elections will only be possible at the risk of exponentially spreading the virus. Virtual campaigning through social and print media (for those with access), and radio will have to suffice. This will raise the cost of campaigning, exclude the poor and indigent, further favouring those with access to finance and technology;
  • Door-to-door canvassing: similarly, this may be dangerous and irresponsible depending on a country’s rate of infection. The high incidence of COVID-19 infections among politicians in Iran is speculated to have resulted from contact with constituents during their recent elections;
  • Polling stations: these will be impacted as it becomes increasingly more difficult to find workers to man them. In the 2020 Wisconsin Democratic primary, an acute shortage of poll workers meant the city of Milwaukee was only able to provide five instead of its usual 180 polling stations. The upshot was unusually long lines that compounded the associated risks. Imagine this in a country that is unable to provide the same quantity and quality of protective gear and sanitizer; and
  • Preparedness of electoral management bodies (EMBs): preparing for elections will be infinitely more difficult where movement and contact is constrained. Even more importantly, most EMBs are unlikely to be prepared for the increased administrative and logistical work necessary to hold elections during COVID-19, without risking the health of voters or diminishing their right to vote.
US President Donald Trump is famous for hosting raucous rallies to mobilise his base, but will he be able to do this when he confronts his democratic opponent at the ballots in 2020? (Image via GPA Photo Archive)

 

The show must go on!

A few countries have already taken the plunge and held elections. Mali, South Korea and the US (Wisconsin) are among them.

But here’s the rub. In some instances, these elections that have been held under the shadow of the pandemic have no doubt diminished the fundamental right of citizens to vote.

In Mali, COVID-19 added to a litany of other challenges, including terrorism and a protracted period without elections. The upshot was that these collective fears negatively impacted the rights of Malians to exercise their vote, as the vast majority opted to stay home.

Just 36% of registered voters turned out. This was disenfranchisement of the majority of voters.

And what about more ‘developed’ economies?

In the same vein, the Wisconsin elections, held after the courts overturned a decision by the governor to postpone elections, saw a significant decrease in voter numbers. Perhaps more importantly, it resulted in a record number of people who voted absentee – that’s postal, internet and proxy voting – which accounted for an estimated 80% compared to just 10% in 2016. People stayed home. A working postal service and access to technology, like the internet, are prerequisites for this. In many countries the limited connectivity levels alone will disenfranchise those unwilling to risk their lives by voting physically.

Although the US has seen protests against the lockdown, such as this one in Minnesota, voters’ behaviour reflected concerns about the pandemic spreading further. (Image via Lorie Shaull – Flickr)

 

When South Korea commenced its early balloting protective gear, social distancing and sanitizers were visible throughout the polling stations. How many countries in the Global South can afford to roll out an election like this?

Cancelling elections: the dangers

With so many risks arising from running elections, it’s easy to suggest they ought to be called off until we’re at the other side of the Corona tunnel. Yet this response also carries risks of its own, both to the public and leadership:

  • Mandate: legislators overshoot their electoral terms, thus leaving the government open to accusations of illegitimacy.
  • Democratic rights: The states of emergency that have been invoked by several governments around the world, could well provide a pretext for those in danger of losing power to continuously cancel or postpone elections. As a consequence, the democracy will deteriorate. A case in point is Hungary, which recently passed a law giving power to Viktor Orban to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time.
  • Precedent: it sets a dangerous precedent for democracies, especially where governments may seek to cling to power.

The solution? Put democracy at the heart of the decision

There is no one-size fits all solution here. This pandemic has disrupted our normal way of doing things – it will impact our democracies. But we must seek to limit this impact.

Each country will have to weight its own circumstance and ability to hold an election while safeguarding the health and ballot of its voters. Both are important and postponement is a responsible alternative for many countries that are unable to emulate the elections in South Korea. As was the case in Ethiopia, seeking consensus on this with the opposition parties will ensure wider political buy-in. And elections must be held as soon as the pandemic is under control.

Cancelling elections altogether is an anathema to democracy and should never be done. That’s why NIMD’s programmes have endeavoured to continue, despite the restrictions the pandemic brings. We cannot afford to allow our hard-won right to vote, to succumb to this pandemic as well!