Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, China. Picture: REUTERS
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, China. Picture: REUTERS

This week, North Korea blew up its border liaison office with South Korea.

Nothing says “Talks are off” quite like detonating your only real point of contact. And Chinese and Indian soldiers “attacked each other with stones, iron rods and bamboo poles wrapped in barbed wire laced with nails” along a disputed section of the countries’ shared 3,500km border, Bloomberg reports.

It’s an ironic twist to out-of-control nationalism, given a 1996 agreement that banned firearms “to deter escalation” in the fractious region, according to the BBC.

These are just the latest items in a news cycle on steroids. A nonexhaustive list of 2020 headlines includes wildfires in Australia, a biblical locust swarm in East Africa, Cyclone Amphan in India and Bangladesh, and floods (and a landslide) in Indonesia and Brazil. Not forgetting Covid-19, of course.

Then there were the more directly man-made events – a list that includes the US-Iran standoff; ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Syria and Libya; pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong; state-sanctioned nationalism in India ratcheting up tensions between Hindu and Muslim communities; and, more recently, the protests against racism and police brutality in the US that reverberated around the world.

With the four horsemen of the apocalypse on the gallop across the globe, it’s no wonder that two important political barometers got lost in the noise. But Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2020” report and The Economist Intelligence Unit’s “Democracy Index 2019”, released earlier this year, both point to the creep of authoritarianism – made worse by Covid – that has led us to where we are now.

Ranking democracy

Each report provides a ranking of the depth of democracy in countries. And both point to a concerning widening of the democratic deficit.

In 2019, by The Economist’s measure, the world reached its lowest score for democracy since the index launched in 2006. This was the result of a democratic pullback in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, alongside a more general slide in civil liberties, electoral processes and pluralism around the world.

Interestingly, the correlate to this was an increase in political participation, as frustrated populations sought alternative avenues of expression – though not always successfully, as Freedom House points out.

For that organisation, 2019 marked the 14th successive year in which freedom around the world was eroded.

The report makes mention of two particular trends. First is the abuse of minorities by both democratic and authoritarian states. Second, how the jackboot of authoritarian regimes and the “ethical decay” of established democracies have together made the world “increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance”.

“These movements have in many cases confronted deeply entrenched interests that are able to endure considerable pressure and are willing to use deadly force to maintain power.”

Then Covid-19 happened – and, with that, the global democratic deficit deepened.

Democracy under threat

In this article in Foreign Affairs, (it’s free to read, but you do have to register), Larry Diamond explores the shifting sands of global politics – and the fortunes of democracy – during the pandemic.

In part, the threat of the coronavirus lies in the augmented powers that national emergencies bequeath governments. At its most benign, this is about curtailing rights and freedoms – of movement, for example – to contain the spread of the virus. It’s arguably necessary, and temporary.

More tricky is the balance of surveillance and privacy, which requires careful and consistent monitoring, as well as a commitment to turning off the trackers once the crisis is over.

In the marginal, if not already outright illiberal states, we’ve seen power grabs by the likes of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. We’ve also seen how democracies have fallen foul of excesses – witness right-wing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s white-anting of democratic institutions and politicising of the military to secure his hold on power. (Read The Economist’s take on it here.)

In India, where power is already being increasingly centralised under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the crisis has given further voice to his noxious brand of nationalism. In an outspoken interview with OpenDemocracy, writer and activist Arundhati Roy warns of a prelude to genocide as minority Muslim communities are referred to as “corona jihadis” and “human bombs” by mainstream media and politicians alike.

Then there is the threat the virus poses to elections. As Diamond points out, more than 60 countries and territories have already delayed polls as a result of the pandemic. (Alan Doss and Mo Ibrahim offer some thoughts on this in an African context, in this piece for The Economist.)

But there’s a potentially bigger danger in all this.

In this article in the World Politics Review, David Kampf weighs up whether the coronavirus is undermining not just democracy, but other factors that are thought to keep a lid on global conflict: economic interdependence; strong regional and global institutions; and nuclear nonproliferation.

Overarching all of these in some way is US hegemony. Or, rather, it was.

Kampf, Diamond and the Freedom House report all point, in various ways, to the failings of the US – in either its Covid-19 response, or in securing democracy, or both.

In President Donald Trump’s small hands, the US has failed to provide global leadership, and thus to shore up stability as the world unravels. It is no longer “a beacon for others to follow”, writes Kampf.

Like the reversal of democratic fortunes, the global drive towards conflict was not caused by the coronavirus, he argues. Covid-19 has simply laid bare the realities of an increasingly rudderless, restive international order. We should heed those warning signs, before it’s too late.

*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM​

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