Democracy and the Pandemic

Author: Katrin Auel

The Covid-19 pandemic is causing massive social and economic costs. Within a short time span, whole societies and economies were put under almost complete lockdown, the world nearly came to a standstill. But does the pandemic also threaten our democracies? This blogpost argues that crises such as the pandemic test democratic institutions, and parliaments in particular, in several ways.

Parliaments are institutions with fairly traditional and rigid procedures based on the physical presence of MPs. As the crisis made clear, many parliaments were not prepared for a situation where a gathering of often several hundred MPs suddenly becomes a problem. Few were able move to remote meetings swiftly, partly for technical reasons, but partly also because legal provisions rule out remote voting. 

This was in itself a crucial test. The emergency measures, including lockdowns and closed borders, represent a severe restriction of our human rights and civil liberties. They require democratic approval and accountability.

And indeed, in contrast to shops, hotels or restaurants, most parliaments in Europe stayed open for business, albeit in an often drastically reduced manner. Many held committee or plenary sessions for pandemic-related issues only and have suspended all other business. In addition, many have introduced distancing measures by limiting the number of MPs allowed to be physically present for debates and, in some cases, even to vote.

Thus, the lockdown restrictions have made it difficult, but not impossible for parliaments to meet and to debate. Still, during the early stages of the crisis, parliamentary involvement was usually constrained, characterised by fast track legislation and cross-party consensus. Parliamentary scrutiny was clearly limited, party politics took a backseat. To some extent this is comparable, for example, to the situation in Mai 2010, when the eurozone crisis exploded: parliaments were similarly marginalised.

During the early stages of a crisis, we also often see a broader ‘rally around the flag’ effect. In most European countries, public approval of the government increased considerably since the outbreak of the pandemic, irrespective of the parties in power or the precise measures taken to fight the virus. At the same time, governments can also benefit strategically from emergency situations. In the case of the pandemic, coupling the real threat from the virus with a strategic fear scenario was often an effective means to push through far-reaching emergency measures. Again, recall the eurozone crisis where decisions were declared as ‘without alternative’ (‘alternativlos’) to save the euro or even the European Union itself.

Finally, the pandemic also challenges the most central of our democratic processes, namely elections. From a purely public health perspective, postponing elections seems the sensible thing to do. In addition, holding elections during a pandemic may not only disenfranchise part of the electorate, but also turn elections into referendums on the government’s handling of the crisis. Yet postponing elections means that representatives stay in office longer, and sometimes considerably so, than intended. Over time, this is likely to decrease government legitimacy and public trust. Thus, if elections have to be postponed, the period should be as short as possible.

Is democracy coming back?

During immediate emergencies, executive dominance, constrained parliamentary involvement and limited accountability may be inevitable. A more important test with regard to democratic health is therefore what happens once the first set of measures is taken, and the consequences become more apparent. Do we see stronger scrutiny and criticism of government decisions from within parliament, but also the media and the general public? In other words, are governments being held to account and are the democratic institutions and processes starting to work properly again?

We can indeed observe such a development in many European countries. Despite the generally strong public support for governments, we now have a more critical discourse on how the pandemic is being handled, both within parliaments and within the media and the public. The debates over using electronic tracking data and apps or the introduction of immunity passports are examples.

Worryingly, however, some governments are also using this phase to entrench their power with (at times unlimited!) emergency powers and attacks on free speech under the cover of legislation against fake news related to the virus. Thus, this stage tends to reveal how robust our democratic institutions and processes were to begin with. Again, a comparison to the eurozone crisis warrants some insights: back then, this was also the stage where some parliaments were able to assert or even extend their powers with regard to EU economic governance while others became more marginalised.

The longer perspective

And then there will also be a time when the pandemic will be over. If it is true that times of crises are also opportunities for innovation, this will hopefully be the time for reflection and learning, and parliaments need to be leading arenas for the debates to come.

First, there must be procedures for holding the government ex post accountable for the effectiveness and the proportionality of their decisions. Were the measures really ‘without alternative’? Opposition parties in some countries have already demanded parliamentary committees of enquiry regarding the handling of the crisis.

Second, we need a broader reflection on the lessons that need to be drawn from the crisis. Clearly this concerns domestic questions regarding our health care systems, economic relief measures, distance learning, telework and general digital access or early crisis warning mechanisms, to name just a few. It also concerns questions of cooperation and solidarity within the European Union. Importantly, however, this also needs to include issues that received less public attention during the crisis, such as the sharp increase in domestic violence during the lockdowns or the fact that the infection and fatality rates among members of ethnic groups are disproportionally high.

Finally, this period of reflection will hopefully also, where necessary, lead to a robust update of how we organise our democratic processes, in particular regarding the organisation of elections via postal and online voting, or the introduction of remote electronic participation and voting in our parliaments.  If the debates during the reflection period take place in a pluralist, deliberative and transparent way, our democracies will not only have a good chance of surviving the pandemic unscathed, but may even emerge strengthened.

Note: The blogpost is based on the contribution to an online event on ‘Liberties in Lockdown: In sickness and in health – will democracy outlive the coronavirus?’, organised by the European Liberal Forum.  

Katrin Auel is head of the research group European Governance and Public Finance. Her major areas of research are the European integration and the role of national parliamnets in EU affairs.