COVID-19 emergency responses and protecting democratic space

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,
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: