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Democratic governance after the COVID-19 pandemic

15 September 2020

Every year on the International Day of Democracy, the Netherlands Helsinki Committee joins people the world over in commemorating the long-standing efforts to create resilient democracies by securing the rule of law, safeguarding human rights and strengthening civil society in the OSCE area. This year, as a member of the European Partnership for Democracy, the NHC has contributed to the publication of a paper on ‘Imagined continuities: political scenarios after the COVID-19 pandemic’.

The paper addresses several possible medium-term consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on democracies around the world; filling the gap in the current debate where the focus has been predominately on long-term economic effects, or indeed short-term implications on democratic governance.

The COVID-19 virus has hit at a time of increasing challenges to governance and a widely recognised trend of gradual autocratisation in many regions of the world. If a crisis is bound to accentuate existing trends, then democracy is in serious danger. But crises also bring opportunity and can radically change politics.

The likely outcomes of the pandemic, and their relevance on democratic processes, are subsequently framed in the context of two major meta-fault lines that have been dominating our discourse long before the pandemic:

In the battle of ideas at the global level, the pandemic is likely to accentuate the ideological divisions between two major fault lines: democracy vs authoritarianism and globalisation vs nationalism.

Within this context, the paper identifies several likely scenarios for mid to long term effects of the pandemic on democratic governance, varying from the unfavorable possibility of widespread state breakdown, to the more advantageous scenario (for proponents of democratic governance) of “Catalysts”, or democratic breakthroughs in key states.

Rather than just analyzing the possible scenarios and categorizing likely outcomes, the paper focuses on considering  what factors might affect the likelihood of each scenario coming true.

And more importantly, what can we do to influence these factors?

  • Can we do more to address democratic practice and culture through key policy challenges faced by democracies?
  • Are we looking closely enough at what it would take to achieve progress in weaker democracies, and whether there might be regional champions that could play a stronger demonstrative role?
  • In a world in which crises and instability are likely to be more frequent, could more be done to support democratic crisis responses?
  • How can supporters of democracy promote democratic principles in the digital sphere?

It may therefore be the right moment to debate a revitalisation of democracy support: bringing in new players, experimenting with different democratic innovations, setting longer-term strategies or investing in different digital technologies.

Click here for the full report.