Coronavirus emergency enhance the risks for liberal democracy?

Employment and Social Affairs

Although coronavirus is a pandemic, a disease spread all over the world, not all the countries have implemented the same responses to this phenomenon that is changing our daily lives and is severely affecting economies. It could be argued that, together with the disease and the challenges posed to health systems in many countries, there is another invisible enemy: a form of government that is threatening liberal democracy, the model which Western countries were used to look at in the past decades but that is no longer the rule in 2020.

It has to be highlighted that liberal democracy was in decline around the world before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, but the new emergency seems to enhance this trend.  There are some countries that should be looking at the liberal democracy model, for example States as Serbia that wants to join the European Union, that are on the other hand confirming a different stance.

Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic announced an open-ended state of emergency on March 15 and parliament has been sidelined. And only on April 2, after several days, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said the government would repeal a March 28 decree which allowed information related to the coronavirus outbreak to be published only if it comes from the national crisis-management task force.

Belgrade government decision arrived after Serbian police detained a journalist who wrote a critical text on the handling of epidemic and released her a day after. Her detentions caused many protests in the international community: the OSCE representative on freedom of the media, Harlem Desir, said he was “alarmed” that the Serbian journalist was detained over her reporting. “Despite being released, it is very problematic that police seized her laptop and mobile phones. Journalists need to be able to do their job freely,” Desir said.

This kind of undemocratic situation is present also within the EU. In Hungary a law that holds a prison sentence of up to five years for spreading “false information” is part of new measures against COVID-19. Dubbed the “omnipotence law” by critics, the bill approved at the end of March in Hungary extend government power during the emergency (for an indeterminate time) while diminishing parliament’s checks on executive. “Hungary is no more a democracy,” political scientist analyst Andras Bozoki told “Birn” news website. “Instead, we have a hybrid regime. Some call it electoral autocracy, others competitive authoritarianism. So not a democracy nor a dictatorship, but something in between. We can expect more serious developments, as there is no political control over Viktor Orban.

During a war, the liberal democratic order is temporarily suspended, and extraordinary measures are passed that significantly extend state powers and limit the population’s rights. State-of-emergency measures are to some extent necessary even against coronavirus, but they can be taken without the use of “war” language. And they should be strictly related and proportional to the threat: which means that measures to limit the movement of people are legitimize.

Thus, in this strange situation even not clear responses could cause problems to citizens. In the United States a kind of inconsistent federal response to “Chinese virus” has led to a enormous increase of cases. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representative, accused President Donald Trump of costing American lives through his constant denials and delays in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The ties between the White House and individual state governors, who are having much of the burden, have also created many dysfunctions. Trump has been very critic with several Democrats on the frontlines of the fight against the pandemic, and he refused even to talk to the leaders of Michigan and Washington, two states very badly hit by the virus. Trump reaction to the virus, giving single states governor the power to decide which measure to adopt to fight the crisis, seems an irresponsible move. A big country, like the United States, that is going toward crucial election in November 2020, should demonstrate national cohesion in this moment and not just think to use the virus for electoral purpose. Safeguard economy is a crucial part of the battle but ignoring the problem and not giving a strong federal response is also a kind of undemocratic response. Maybe is the opposite of the Hungarian response, but at the end of the day it is still a bad example of functioning liberal democracy.


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