The Pacific Council recently hosted a teleconference with Dr. Nic Cheeseman of the University of Birmingham and Shanthi Kalathil of the National Endowment for Democracy, and moderated by Dr. Katja Newman of KSN Consulting. They discussed how democracies fare in uncertain times.
Here are key takeaways from the discussion:
- “The strength of democracies is that when governments go wrong, the population, media, and civil society can counter this with solutions,” Cheeseman said. However, he added that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm for democracy. “Leaders in countries like Zimbabwe and Hungary have been empowered to extend their powers during the pandemic. There are empowered dictators in Uganda and Russia and clueless authoritarians in places like in Brazil who are unwilling to take the virus seriously.”
- Kalathil said now is an ideal window of opportunity for authoritarian states to leverage disinformation and create narratives. “In this new ‘infodemic,’ the Kremlin has fed conspiracy theories to create distrust in EU institutions,” she said. “There has also been a concerted effort by China to brand authoritarian effectiveness and push the narrative that democracies are chaotic and not responding well or can’t deliver in times of crisis. There’s no civil society oversight or agency in authoritarian regimes to force accountability, so authoritarian leaders can really take advantage of technology-powered public health surveillance now."
- Cheeseman pointed out that there’s a looming international problem of not being able to host elections. “Few countries have the capacity to hold elections electronically, and even those that do still face risks,” he said. “We’ve seen strategies of leaders delaying elections that they think they’re going to lose, and any COVID-19 restrictions will hit opposition parties harder. COVID-19 can give authoritarian regimes a strong argument against democracies that accuse their elections of being ‘fake’ or ‘rigged’ due to voting accessibility.”
- Kalathil agreed and said opportunities for foreign meddling in elections are heightened in this environment. “South Korea is a strong example of voting success during COVID-19,” she said. She added that recent arrests in Hong Kong of pro-democracy advocates speak to trends of authoritarian leaders seizing the opportunities they see and cracking down on independent media. “It’s hard to secure international attention on human rights issues when COVID-19 is the priority.”
- Cheeseman said the example of Hong Kong shows that once a government gets away with something, they can be emboldened to do more. “If leaders see silence or no pushback against their policies, they’ll keep going,” he said. “Smaller, episodic democratic backsliding that isn’t checked escalates into cumulative, full democratic backsliding like we saw in Venezuela.”
- Cheeseman also argued that canceling and delaying elections is a major concern. “The UK has already done this with their national election, so there is a strong international precedent and a strong motive for delay in the United States,” he said. “This brings up the question of fairness: do we want an election where people over 65 are going to stay at home? Where not all groups have fair access? A second wave of COVID-19 would pose massive challenges that will be very difficult to resolve in a democracy.”
- “By their nature, authoritarian regimes are better at manipulating data environments internally and externally,” Kalathil said. “In the short term, economic problems will allow authoritarians to double down on existing techniques and address discontent. The issue of narratives is more important than we realize. Authoritarian states have set the tone for this crisis so there needs to be a vigorous pushback.”
Listen to the full conversation below:
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Pacific Council.