The new coronavirus pandemic is not only wreaking destruction on public health and the global economy but disrupting democracy and governance worldwide. It has hit at a time when democracy was already under threat in many places, and it risks exacerbating democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation. Already, some governments have used the pandemic to expand executive power and restrict individual rights. Yet such actions are just the tip of the iceberg.
The coronavirus will likely transform other pillars of democratic governance—such as electoral processes, civilian control of militaries, and civic mobilization—and potentially reset the terms of the global debate on the merits of authoritarianism versus democracy. The pandemic will almost certainly usher in broader effects on governance by overburdening countries’ basic governance functions, taxing their sociopolitical cohesion, exacerbating corruption, unsettling relations between national and local governments, and transforming the role of nonstate actors.
This article surveys this wide spectrum of effects. Of course, much remains uncertain as long as the ultimate scope and severity of the crisis are unknown. As the pandemic penetrates lower-income and fragile states, it will likely have even more profound and unpredictable effects than those visible thus far. This article focuses on the first-order political effects of the pandemic and governmental responses to it. Powerful second-order effects resulting from the unfolding global economic slowdown will pack a further governance punch.
The overall picture is foreboding. Yet the pandemic’s impact may have silver linings. Civil society groups mobilizing responses on the front lines of the pandemic may reinforce democratic vitality at the local level. In some places, effective state responses may shore up trust in government or technocratic expertise. Electoral disruptions may spur needed innovations in election administration. It is essential that supporters of democratic governance everywhere attend to this sweeping range of effects, both negative and positive, to identify entry points and interventions that can preempt long-term political damage and nurture potential gains.
Centralizing Power and Closing Democratic Space
As many observers have begun to document, the pandemic is leading to a rapid expansion of executive power around the world, with potentially dramatic implications for democratic space. Over the past month, most countries have restricted public gatherings and citizens’ freedom of movement, and more than fifty countries have declared states of emergency. The severe public health emergency of course requires extraordinary measures. But as the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has highlighted, such responses should meet basic tests of necessity, transparency, and proportionality. It is also crucial that they be time-bound and subject to periodic review.
There are already signs that some governments are using the crisis to grant themselves more expansive powers than warranted by the health crisis, with insufficient oversight mechanisms, and using their expanded authority to crack down on opposition and tighten their grip on power. Thus, the pandemic may end up hardening repression in already closed political systems, accelerating democratic backsliding in flawed democracies, and further bolstering executive power in democratic countries.
Four interrelated areas of concern stand out in this rush toward new emergency powers and restrictions.
Centralization of Power
Illiberal leaders are taking advantage of the crisis to further weaken checks and balances and erode mechanisms of accountability, thereby entrenching their positions of power. In Hungary, for example, a new law allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely, without any parliamentary oversight. In the Philippines, the parliament passed legislation granting President Rodrigo Duterte nearly limitless emergency powers. Similarly, in Cambodia, a new draft law on national emergency would give the government unlimited access to martial power while drastically curtailing citizens’ political rights.
Abridgment of Fundamental Rights
Some authorities are already using the crisis—and their emergency powers—to abridge citizens’ fundamental rights. One particularly clear trend is heightened control over free expression and the media, under the guise of fighting “misinformation” about the virus. The Chinese government has censored information about its response and detained journalists who reported on the outbreak. In Thailand, citizens and journalists who criticize the government’s handling of the crisis face lawsuits and government intimidation. The Egyptian government recently forced a Guardian reporter to leave the country after she had questioned Egypt’s official count of coronavirus cases. In Jordan, the prime minister now has the authority to suspend freedom of expression.
Expanded State Surveillance
The crisis is also accelerating governments’ use of new surveillance technologies. In Israel and South Korea, for example, governments are using smartphone location data to track down citizens who may have been exposed to the virus. In Hong Kong, new arrivals must wear electronic location-tracking wristbands; Singapore does extensive contact tracing and publishes detailed information about each known case. While enhanced surveillance is not per se antidemocratic, the risks for political abuse of these new measures are significant, particularly if they are authorized and implemented without transparency or oversight. In India, for example, the government has pressured local media to maintain positive coverage even as it implements troubling strategies such as “requiring quarantined individuals to periodically upload selfies” and using location tracking to ensure that the photo is taken at the individual’s home. The pandemic has given governments in China, Russia, and other authoritarian states greater justification to deploy even more intrusive systems, including widespread use of facial recognition and social media monitoring.
There is a risk that governments may use the current need to restrict public gatherings as a pretext to crack down on the wave of antigovernment protests that have roiled global politics over the past several years. In Algeria, for example, where major protests last year pushed the government toward some political reforms, authorities have banned all protests, marches, and demonstrations. A key issue to watch is whether these bans stay in place indefinitely. Another concern is that they will be enforced in discriminatory ways, meaning that opposition protests could be curtailed while progovernment rallies are tolerated or encouraged. Governments now also have a means to ban protests without officially saying so: shelter-in-place orders have the same effect.
Additional Risks to Democracy
The health crisis will likely disrupt or distort democracy in other ways. These unfolding effects have received less attention to date, yet they will be essential to watch in the months ahead.
The pandemic threatens to upend electoral processes around the world. The United States has already delayed several state-level presidential primary votes, and candidates have curtailed rallies and retail-style campaigning. Several European countries—including Italy, North Macedonia, Serbia, Spain, and the United Kingdom—have postponed national or local elections. Ethiopia has as well. In the coming months, elections are slated in Burundi, the Dominican Republic, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mongolia, and elsewhere. Many of these elections may also be postponed. Putting off elections means that citizens are (at least temporarily) deprived of their right to choose their leaders, at a time when leadership choices are of paramount importance. Even where elections do proceed, the chilling effect on turnout could be considerable, particularly among elderly and vulnerable populations.
Given the severity of the crisis, short-term postponements are understandable. In many countries, holding elections in the current context would create significant risks for voters as well as poll workers. Yet some governments may also use the pandemic as a pretext to postpone elections indefinitely, or until a more politically convenient moment. In the coming months, it will be essential to monitor whether governments that postpone elections set a clear timetable for rescheduling the vote, in coordination with all relevant political actors.
On the positive side, the virus could spur innovations in electoral and voting processes that ensure greater preparedness for future shocks. Possible innovations include expanded early voting and vote-by-mail options, greater reliance on remote voting technologies and online voter registration, and new investments in voter education. South Korea, for example, is taking steps to allow its citizens to vote from home or from hospitals in its upcoming parliamentary election.
However, major shifts in electoral administration will also give rise to new complications and risks, and therefore require significant preparation. Online voting could be vulnerable to hacking and incite fears of foreign influence. In countries with weak state and technological capacities, implementing certain innovations may not be feasible. Countries that have already pioneered new election technologies may have valuable lessons to share in this regard.
Unbalanced Civil-Military Relations
Crisis responses may shift the balance of power between militaries and civilian authorities. In many countries, ranging from Iran and South Africa to Israel and Peru, the military is being called upon to enforce lockdowns and aid the pandemic response in other ways. While this is almost certainly warranted in the immediate emergency period, it may open the door to increased military involvement in the economy and domestic affairs.
In other places, crisis responses may entrench already diminished civilian control over military actors. Pakistan is embroiled in a struggle between military and civilian officials over the pandemic response, leading the security sector leadership to sideline the civilian prime minister and work directly with provincial-level administrations. In Iran, military leaders appear to have assumed significant decisionmaking authority in managing the response.
In countries where military actors have a history of human rights abuses, ceding more policing functions to the military may have problematic implications. These concerns are already on display in South Africa, where soldiers and police officers were reported to have used excessive force in the first few days of the lockdown, and in Kenya, where human rights groups decried security force abuse in enforcing a curfew.
In the coming months, it will be crucial to monitor whether policing functions and other authorities are transferred back to civilian authorities or whether the pandemic ends up permanently strengthening military actors’ role in political decisionmaking, economic governance, and internal security. On the other hand, in countries where military actors already exert high levels of political influence, an ineffective response may potentially weaken their public image as guarantors of stability.
Pressures and Possibilities for Civil Society
Governments’ emergency responses to the pandemic risk aggravating the already significant trend of shrinking space for civil society in many parts of the world. Emergency restrictions on movement, assembly, information, and privacy all work against vibrant civil society organization and action.
Yet at the same time, the crisis may spur new forms of mobilization or other innovations in activism. Activists and movements in different parts of the world are figuring out how to comply with physical distancing guidelines while still making their demands heard. The crisis has already fueled new protests (for example, in Egypt), and some existing protests have moved online. In the Philippines, the hashtag #OustDuterte trended on Twitter as citizens expressed their discontent over the government’s flawed response to the virus. Of course, as civic activism moves online, further challenges may emerge, such as the dissipation of protest energy, a decline in public visibility, and the potential spread of extremist ideologies. More online activism will likely spur even more restrictions in online spaces, whether internet disruptions such as throttling, shutdowns, and blocking of social media platforms; stepped-up surveillance; or punitive laws and regulations for online activities.
But the crisis may also provide opportunities for movements to grow their constituencies by advocating on behalf of local communities. Civic groups around the world are already responding actively, and in many cases valiantly, to the crisis. Community organizations, health activists, rights watchdogs, women’s groups, and other civic groups are on the front lines of healthcare responses—helping marginalized citizens survive, activating informal support networks, raising money, and advocating for faster and more effective government action. In China, for example, students have organized social media campaigns to raise money for hospitals in Wuhan, and publicized complaints that government-backed charities funneled emergency aid to government offices rather than hospitals. In the Philippines, universities and newly formed civic groups are organizing to help vulnerable groups affected by government lockdowns. New mutual aid groups are also emerging in the United States and the United Kingdom. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Lucha movement has urged the government to step up its crisis response; in Afghanistan, citizens are coming together to volunteer their services.
This civic engagement may help blunt the negative narratives about the loyalty, authenticity, and effectiveness of civil society that illiberal leaders have been propagating in recent years. It may also draw more resources into the sector, and possibly even weaken nationalist critiques of international support for civil society.
Reshaped Debate Over Authoritarianism Versus Democracy
The varying success of different types of governments at managing the crisis may reshape the important global debate about the relative desirability of authoritarian and democratic governance. Both China and the United States are already fighting for control over global perceptions, with President Donald Trump branding the virus as “made in China” and the Chinese government investing in English-language propaganda to defend its high-tech authoritarian approach.
It is too early to say which type of political system will prove more effective at managing the crisis. Some authoritarian regimes have done relatively well so far, like Singapore and Vietnam, while others, like Iran, have done poorly. Among democracies, South Korea and Taiwan have performed admirably, while others, like Italy and the United States, have not. Carnegie scholar Rachel Kleinfeld argues that factors such as lessons learned from past health crises and a country’s levels of state capacity, legitimacy, and citizen trust have been more important than its specific regime type in determining the quality of responses thus far. Yet the idea that a firm authoritarian hand is needed for dealing with the crisis may nevertheless gain wider ground, especially if China appears to keep the virus under control and the United States does not.
Broader Governance Implications
Beyond the pandemic’s effects on democracy, a range of governance ramifications may emerge in the months ahead.
Basic Governance Viability and Regime Stability
The pandemic will exert enormous pressures on governance institutions in heavily affected countries—especially on health systems, but also on many other essential government functions, from education and food supply chains to law enforcement and border control. Even in comparatively wealthy states, like Italy, Spain, and the United States, health systems in the worst-affected areas have already cracked under the weight of the pandemic. Crisis responses will inevitably require triage well beyond the health sector, diverting government attention and resources from other vital functions and challenges. This problem will be exacerbated as more and more politicians, government leaders, and civil servants test positive for the virus, rendering governments less able to operate just when they need to be working overtime. The specter of the pandemic has also forced legislatures and government agencies to curtail operations or work remotely, resulting in inevitable losses of efficiency.
As the virus spreads more widely in weak states, these governance challenges will be even more pronounced. The acute public health emergency will be on a collision course with an abject lack of government capacity, frail institutions, limited government reach, and low citizen trust in leaders (and corresponding reluctance to heed public health directives). Social distancing will be difficult to observe in crowded settlements, especially if residents are reliant on informal work to survive. At the same time, governments in many developing countries will struggle to mobilize adequate resources to ease the effects of an economic recession. Robust international assistance efforts will be essential, but insufficient implementation capacity may hinder their effectiveness. In countries already suffering from protracted conflict or instability, the pressures of the pandemic and resultant cascade of governance failures could lead to at least partial state collapse.
Pressure on Sociopolitical Cohesion
The pandemic will strain basic sociopolitical cohesion in many states. The differential effects of the health crisis along key axes—rich vs. poor, urban vs. rural, region vs. region, and citizen vs. migrant—may sharpen existing sociopolitical divides. The pandemic may compound those strains by exacerbating political polarization where it already exists. From India and Bolivia to Poland and the United States, many democracies are already suffering from rising animosity and tensions between contending political camps. As the crisis worsens, opposing sides may disagree about the gravity of the pandemic or about appropriate government responses—a dynamic that could be intensified by people’s greater reliance on online communication while they remain mostly isolated in their homes, and by governments using the crisis to advance partisan agendas. In the United States, for example, partisanship has heavily shaped perceptions of the severity of the crisis and individuals’ trust in the government’s response. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissal of the seriousness of the crisis has inflamed an already fierce political divide.
At the same time, the “wartime” imperative to combat the pandemic could invoke feelings of shared sacrifice and collective mission that heal rather than aggravate societal and political divisions. But such a rallying effect likely requires political leaders to rise to the challenge and take a unifying approach, which goes against the populist playbook in use in many countries. Tracking leadership styles and messages will be key to understanding the longer-term effects of the pandemic on sociopolitical cohesion.
Government responses to the pandemic are likely to exacerbate graft and corruption in many countries. Crises involving urgent medical needs and scarce supplies inevitably present opportunities for smuggling, graft, price-gouging, and fraud.
Corruption undermines the effectiveness of public health responses, particularly if valuable resources are diverted from high-need areas or citizens are denied treatment if they refuse to pay bribes. Both domestic actors and international partners assisting with public health responses should anticipate these risks and avoid the tendency to adopt an “anything goes in an emergency” attitude. In the medium term, the perception and reality of heightened corruption may increase popular discontent with governments.
However, the crisis could also end up spurring new anticorruption measures. If corruption spikes rapidly when governments implement crisis measures, widespread public outrage may catalyze reforms that improve health governance and public accountability. More immediately, the prospect of high-stakes corruption may also mobilize civil society, governments, and international actors to take preventive steps, especially in places that are still less affected by the pandemic. In the United States, for example, legislators heeded calls for increased oversight in the new economic stimulus package. Civil society groups in Nigeria are urging government authorities to institute corruption safeguards as the country braces for the coronavirus. Possible additional measures may include concerted diplomatic pressure for greater oversight over aid flows or increased adoption of recommendations already developed by advocacy groups.
The virus may reshape dynamics between national and regional or local government actors. Local officials are on the front lines of the crisis response, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes competing with messages from national leaders. In Afghanistan, where the central government’s presence in the periphery is limited, some provincial governors have been shoring up its policies and bolstering its response efforts. The governor of Nangarhar Province quickly set up an emergency aid fund and publicly dispelled myths about curing the virus, while other governors have supplied basic food packages to encourage infected men to stay home from work.
Elsewhere, the virus response has exacerbated friction between local and national officials. In Hungary, where the opposition party controls several major cities, the central government unveiled a measure that would dilute mayors’ decisionmaking authority during an emergency. Local leaders quickly attacked the plan as one that would undermine the coronavirus response, and the government eventually walked it back. In Turkey, the pandemic has renewed long-standing tensions between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the opposition-party mayor of Istanbul. Contrary to Erdoğan’s directives, the mayor has advocated a lockdown of Istanbul and launched his own fundraising campaign to galvanize the response, prompting national leaders to block the effort. In the United States, the pandemic response has intensified frictions between Trump and several Democratic state governors critical of his administration’s response.
These trends could change internal power relations in various places, whether by enhancing local-level leaders’ legitimacy at the expense of national officials or worsening governance fragmentation. Where friction between national governments and opposition-party local leadership tracks ideological, regional, and rural-urban lines, it may exacerbate preexisting political polarization.
Enhanced Roles of Nonstate Actors
The virus may also reshape relationships between nonstate actors and governments, with important implications for government legitimacy and claims to sovereignty. Where governments enjoy low levels of citizen trust, cooperating with nonstate systems of governance may be essential to ensuring an effective crisis response. In Sierra Leone, for example, local chiefs were highly influential in containing the spread of Ebola. The Taliban in Afghanistan are already committing themselves to cooperating with health officials from international organizations like the World Health Organization that typically collaborate with sovereign governments. Arab governments are mobilizing official Islamic institutions and authorities to help them manage the crisis, which may help them compensate for low levels of public trust in official communications and directives—while potentially also reinforcing government control over the religious domain.
However, nonstate actors’ enhanced role in implementing crisis responses may also strengthen their legitimacy and authority in the eyes of local communities, thereby entrenching their political influence. In Rio de Janeiro, for example, drug trafficking gangs have imposed a coronavirus curfew in the city’s favelas and handed out soap to local residents, while condemning the Brazilian government’s lack of action. In Lebanon, the paramilitary organization Hezbollah has reportedly mobilized a remarkable 25,000 people, including medics, to combat the virus, in addition to organizing new testing centers and ambulances and repurposing an entire hospital for the crisis. Although the group insists that its efforts are meant to “complement the government apparatus”—Hezbollah is part of the government coalition—the response stands in notable contrast to the struggles of the official Lebanese administration. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have launched a coronavirus awareness campaign in areas of the country under their sway; whereas the Kurdish-led region of northeast Syria, which maintains autonomy from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has initiated curfews, coordinated aid delivery, and stood up isolation wards to combat the virus.
As in many situations of acute crisis, rapid and effective efforts by nonstate actors to enforce order or deliver services can foster or reinforce alternative systems of governance, particularly if the government is seen as absent, ineffective, or divisive. On the other hand, different regimes may try to use the crisis to shore up their control over nonstate entities. It will be important to monitor these: in fragile or low-income states, nonstate actors’ heightened roles in crisis response—or, alternatively, their efforts to impede effective responses—will likely reshape citizens’ perceptions of state legitimacy and their expectations of the state.
Time to Prepare
Looking ahead, all domestic and transnational actors concerned with democracy’s future must closely monitor the wide-ranging, fast-moving political effects of the pandemic, rapidly devise responses to lessen potential harm, and seize any positive opportunities the crisis may present. Coming soon is a second, perhaps even bigger wave of political disruption that will be caused by the unfolding global economic crisis. Potentially devastating increases in economic inequality, unemployment, debt, and poverty, as well as pressures on the stability of financial institutions, will put enormous strains on governance systems of all types. After the global financial crisis that erupted in 2008, few foresaw the very long tail of negative political consequences. Yet that crisis ultimately ushered in the rise and spread of illiberal populism, fragmentation of party systems, and consolidation of several authoritarian regimes—long after economic recovery was under way.
Amid a new crisis even more daunting in scale, there is a natural tendency for governments and individuals alike to be consumed by the urgency of near-term domestic fallout from the pandemic. But just as the virus’s contagion respects no borders, its political effects will inevitably sweep across boundaries and continue to echo long after the health emergency has eased. Now is the time to get ready.
Correction Note: A sentence about Cyril Ramaphosa giving a speech in fatigues has been deleted because the speech wasn't about the coronavirus, but rather about how the army should enforce the lockdown. Another sentence about excessive force was clarified to note police officers were also involved, and that the reports dated from the first few days of the lockdown.