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Democratic collateral damage in Asia: COVID-19 hits democracies with pre-existing conditions harder

by Aurel Croissant

Democracy is suffering worldwide. This malaise is not a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the outbreak is accelerating it. The not particularly convincing efforts of several democratic governments to contain the pandemic and its consequences for the economy and society are also re-igniting old debates about the performance capacities of democracies and non-democracies, and Asia-Pacific states are no exception.

Fence with signs with information about curfew.
junpinzon /

We can certainly see some parallels between the disease progression in democracies and that in humans. In a similar way to how patients with pre-existing conditions seem to be more susceptible to falling severely ill with the virus, democracies that are already suffering from political problems such as increasing polarisation and decreasing respect for the standards of liberal democracy are also at greater risk. While the problems of democracy have been building up for many years, in democracies that are suffering from such pre-existing conditions, the pandemic is providing new opportunities for illiberal and anti-democratic forces to dismantle democratic triumphs.

Although the Asia-Pacific region is more democratic than 30 years ago, data from various democracy barometers such as the Varieties of Democracy project and the Bertelsmann Transformation Index shows that the wave of autocratisation that has been taking place over the last 15 or so years has also reached this region. South Korea, Taiwan and Japan are exceptions to this. These states already met the standards of a constitutional democracy before the start of the pandemic, and their democracies continue to show a high level of resilience. Other countries such as India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Indonesia were already experiencing an erosion of democratic processes and structures before the pandemic or they are governed by more or less authoritarian regimes that already curtail basic democratic freedoms anyway. In these areas, the democratic immune system is weak and the potential for infection is high.

Pre-existing democratic conditions express themselves through five symptoms: (1) an institutional heritage of powerful executives and weak mechanisms of horizontal accountability, (2) the historically prominent position of the military in the political system and in performing state tasks, (3) weak support of citizens for liberal concepts of democracy, (4) polarising class or identity conflicts and (5) a decline in the democratic quality of political institutions in the phase immediately prior to the pandemic. None of these factors are caused by the virus, but the pandemic and the governments’ handling of it could substantially exacerbate the identified issues.

For the majority of Asian states, this gives rise to an increased risk of pandemic-related harm to democracy. In fact, democratic collateral damage can already be seen in the measures that many governments have taken to safeguard public health. These include

- Expanding the executive power that was already only insufficiently controlled by rule of law (Sri Lanka, Philippines, India)

- Imposing restrictions on democratic public society (everywhere except South Korea, Taiwan and Japan)

- Militarising pandemic strategies (Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Myanmar, Indonesia, Philippines)

- Postponing or cancelling elections (India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan) and

- Strengthening the instruments of the surveillance state, for example by establishing the movement and social contact profiles of citizens via their mobile phones, identity checks and registration of visitors to public places (from buses and trains to cinemas) in all countries whose states have the necessary powers to do this.

What’s more, democratic regressions during the time before the virus increase the probability of poor crisis management during the pandemic. One example is Indonesia, where the happy ignorance of populism, religious bigotry and political polarisation as well as chronic corruption particularly in the health sector have weakened the state’s ability to respond. The situation in the Philippines is similar, where the populist president Duterte initially downplayed the danger of the virus and then had extensive emergency powers approved. His government still has no plan for the pandemic, but at least it knows precisely how it can silence its critics.

Alongside short-term restrictions on democracy and the rule of law, there is also potential long-term damage as a result of expanding surveillance capacities and means of restricting basic civil liberties. This is not only applicable in countries such as China and Vietnam, where the governments already exercise a great deal of control over their citizens. Even Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong – countries that experts hold up as examples for efficiently tracking potential COVID-19 cases – have introduced electronic monitoring systems that allow the authorities to trace paths of infection and make it easier to monitor infected persons. Although such measures may at this point in time seem legitimate or necessary for the purpose of protecting the population, they are susceptible to future misuse by the authorities.

As the experience gained in recent years shows, it is hard to defend democracy against autocratisation even under “normal” conditions. It has become even harder during the current pandemic. Mechanisms of “horizontal accountability” (independent constitutional institutions) were seldom effective in Asia even before COVID-19. Often, courts and other institutions of horizontal checks and balances are the first victims of the accumulation of executive powers. Mechanisms of “vertical accountability”, in particular transparent and fair elections, are also rarely suitable for preventing the misuse of power. Even if elections are not postponed and the rules laid down allow a fair and free vote, the government still has a huge competitive edge over the opposition. In times of crisis, it is the executive authorities that take centre stage. When government representatives are to be seen round the clock, it is difficult for the opposition to catch people’s attention. Civil society and opposition parties may be able to shift their activities to the online arena, but an uneven playing field cannot be compensated in this way.

This leaves the protective mechanisms of mobilising protests and exerting non-violent resistance (“diagonal accountability”). In the middle of a pandemic, however, even this mechanism becomes less effective. Firstly, the uncertain health situation exacerbates the problems involved in collective action and counteracts the broad participation of social groups. Secondly, emergency measures taken by the governments counteract the mobilising of protest. Such attempts not only endanger the health of those taking part, but also make it possible to denigrate them as “notorious troublemakers” who pose a threat to public health and national security. This scenario can be observed, for instance, in the Philippines.

And now? An alternative option for defending democracy during and after the COVID-19 pandemic would be to mobilise international support. It may reasonably be doubted whether this is currently a promising approach. Those who traditionally donate funds to promote democracy seem to lack the will or willingness to oppose authoritarian developments in Asia. Even before the beginning of the pandemic, the region formed the central stage for the subliminal strategic rivalry between the USA and China. While confidence in liberal democracy is disappearing in many places and those promoting democracy on both sides of the Atlantic are increasingly suffering from a lack of credibility, be it for different reasons, China is positioning itself as an alternative provider of economic, military and diplomatic support for governments in Asia. This is reducing the opportunities for western democracies to take counteracting measures, decreasing the costs of authoritarian abuse and weakening the immune system of democracy in Asia.

In the short term, therefore, the prospects for the rule of law and democracy in Asia are not very promising. The “absolute chaotic disaster”, in which populists in Asia and other places are playing a part, is damaging people’s belief in democracy and contrasts with the myth of decisive action taken by the authoritarian government in Beijing. Indeed, the Chinese propaganda really seems to be proving effective.

At the same time, the situation in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan shows that maintaining a healthy democracy is a key factor for preserving public health. Liberal democracies in Asia can respond effectively to the pandemic and simultaneously minimise consequential economic and democratic damage, provided they have the necessary political will and state capacities to implement solutions. Initial empirical studies show that, in areas where both exist, democracies are actually more effective in implementing measures to contain the wave of infection than autocracies.


Further Reading

Amnesty International (2020), Philippines: President Duterte gives "shoot to kill" order amid pandemic response.

Bernhard, M., Hicken, A., Reenock, C. et al. (2020), “Parties, civil society, and the deterrence of democratic defection”, Studies in Comparative International Development, Vol. 55, p. 1-26.

Bertelsmann-Stiftung (2020), BTI Transformationsindex, Gütersloh.

Booth, M. and J.A. Lassa (2020), “Are populist leaders a liability during COVID-19?”, in: The Jakarta Post, Jakarta, 08.04.2020.

External Democracy Promotion Network (2018), Democracy promotion in times of uncertainty. Trends and challenges, PRIF Report 13/2018, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt.

Frey, C.B. et al. (2020): Covid-19 and the future of democracy, Vox – CEPR’s policy portal, Centre for Economic Policy Research, 20.05.2020.

Holmes, R.D. and P. D. Hutchcroft (2020), “A failure of execution”, in: Inside Story, Carlton, 04.04.2020.

Lührmann, A. et al. (2020), Autocratization Surges – Resistance Grows. Democracy Report 2020, Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem), Gothemburg.

Lührmann, A. and S.I. Lindberg (2019), “A third wave of autocratization is here: what is new about it?”, Democratization, Vol. 26, Nr. 7, p. 1095-1113.

Zeleny, J. (2020), Obama says White House response to coronavirus has been 'absolute chaotic disaster', CNN Digital Expansion, 09.05.2020.

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