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Democracy in the time of COVID-19

69% of respondents in an on-line poll taken on the side-lines of the Kofi Annan Foundation’s recent webinar on the impact of COVID 19 on democracy expressed concerns that the pandemic could ultimately erode their democracies. The webinar was the first in a newly launched series of Kofi Annan Dialogues, which bring together leaders, thinkers and activists to debate pressing issues of global concern.

The respondents concerns were shared by the panellists; former President Doris Leuthard of Switzerland, Former President Dr Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria, and Elhadj As Sy, Chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation board and co-chair of the World Health Organization/World Bank Global Preparedness Monitoring Board.

“Governments are using the pandemic as a decoy to use autocratic rules on the people and this will compromise democracy.”
Dr Goodluck Jonathan

Indeed, around the world, from Hungary to the Philippines, numerous governments have arrogated sweeping executive powers under the guise of pandemic-related emergency measures. There are widespread concerns that once curtailed, democratic freedoms in some countries will be difficult to regain when the crisis is over.

Currently, 54 countries are considered authoritarian regimes, and 37 additional countries are in danger of transitioning to autocratic structures of governance[1].
As the pandemic continues to test democratic endurance, the number of cases of democratic backsliding will most certainly rise.

What is more, the panellists deplored the inability of the international community to come together over this crisis, instead descending into a competition to secure basic medical supplies and rival conspiracy theories aimed at deflecting blame over their controversial handling of the pandemic. As countries turn inwards to formulate national public health responses, nationalism and protectionism seem to be on the rise.

“We will emerge in a world that is less open, less prosperous, and less free.”
Doris Leuthard

The discussion was wide ranging and took its cue from  an open letter recently published by the Foundation, which expressed deep concern about how the COVID-19 emergency might be misused for political advantage, with particular concern for its impact on elections. Over 50 national elections have been postponed across the globe so far, and 19 have gone ahead despite the conditions imposed by the pandemic, sometimes raising questions about their legitimacy.

Panellists warned that postponing elections should not be used as a pretext to impose further restrictions on democratic freedoms. If held, elections should be safe, transparent, well-observed, include all relevant stakeholders, and guarantee a high level of broad participation. Ensuring these conditions during elections has been a challenge for many states across continents, spanning from the latest presidential elections in Burundi to the administering of the US primary elections in certain states, such as Wisconsin.

In this context, it is imperative that the international community reinforce democracy and its institutions, particularly in fragile states and emerging democracies. The dialogue emphasized the need to build up public trust in ruling bodies, reinforce citizen vigilance, and strengthen individual democratic institutions to stabilize democracy.

“Deficit of trust and government accountability is a threat to democracy.”
Professor Ghassan Salamé, moderator of the panel, board member of Kofi Annan Foundation and former UN special envoy for Libya

An essential aspect of this is the growing importance of the internet and ICTs as crucial steppingstones to bolster democracy and to cement public trust. More than ever, countries are faced with an increasing need to invest in robust digital protections to counter digital attacks, which threaten to erode public trust in democracy. This is echoed in the findings of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age, which will be discussed from a Latin American perspective in an upcoming webinar this Friday.

More generally, international cooperation will be essential in helping to promote a coordinated response to the pandemic. This will require collaboration between local operatives, continental bodies, and global networks.

“The international community needs to learn from the mistakes of the early days (of the pandemic) – solidarity instead of competition. We need strong international and regional leadership that provides a credible voice and accountability in shared responsibility and shared response.”
Elhadj As Sy


In French

[1] Ref. According to the Democracy Index, Statistic given by HE Goodluck Jonathan

This article was written by Sebastien Brack, Head of Elections and Democracy at the Kofi Annan Foundation, and Amanda Kutch.
This initiative was possible thanks to the support of Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) – Human Security Division.