The Covid-19 pandemic sweeping the globe will likely have a deep impact on many developing countries, hitting their economies even harder than those of advanced countries. Its toll, however, is likely to extend far beyond the economy. Developing countries, like those in Latin America and the Caribbean, apart from weaker economies, also have more fragile democracies. The crisis could unsettle democratic practices from voting to protests and civil rights, and, ultimately affect trust in democratic institutions themselves.
Consider the issue of voting. Given the dangers of contagion to voters and poll workers, several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have called to delay elections scheduled this year at the national, state, and local levels. Bolivia’s interim government, for example, has postponed its general elections — including the presidential contest- indefinitely, and Chile’s congress has pushed back its constitutional referendum, a key concession in the face of recent protests. Such delays can and should be accompanied by a clear timetable for rescheduling the vote agreed upon by all relevant political actors. But the crisis will undoubtedly affect more than the timing of elections. It could also affect the nature and outcomes of elections by changing who votes, where they vote, and how they vote.
Voting and Civil Rights During the Covid-19 Pandemic
Governments might, as an alternative to in-person voting, resort to remote voting technologies, such as vote-by-mail, and online voter registration. In countries with weak digital infrastructure, however, online voting may be vulnerable to hacking. Foreign influence and election irregularities may then call into question the legitimacy of election results. Even in cases where elections do go ahead as scheduled, turnout may be considerably lower, particularly among elderly and vulnerable populations. The poor and less educated normally vote in proportionally smaller numbers. Amidst the pandemic, they face greater daily challenges and are even less informed, as a recent IDB/Cornell survey found.
Then there is the issue of political engagement. As governments impose unusual restrictions on free movement and social gatherings to fight Covid-19, the delicate balance of power between government and civil society has temporarily been upset. After a pre-crisis rise in street protests, civil society organizers are now being forced to move their political expression from the streets to the internet. At the same time, governments have assumed enhanced new powers to address the crisis. For this reason, United Nations human rights experts have publicly reminded all governments of their legal obligations to refrain from applying emergency measures in a discriminatory manner against minorities or opposition groups, as a means to suppress democratic free speech. These experts say that emergency measures must be justified by public health reasons, be transparent, subject to independent oversight, and have clear sunset provisions. An area of particular concern is digital surveillance. Data from user-location apps, facial-recognition software, and drones have already been used in some countries for contact tracing and social distancing enforcement. This is certainly helpful as a virus containment strategy. But these tools directly threaten privacy rights, and governments may be reluctant to restore these rights when the crisis is over.
Positive and Negative Possibilities for Democracy
Each country, of course, will shape its own response to the present crisis. Some common scenarios, however, appear likely. On the negative side, the severity of the health crisis may overwhelm government response capacity. The resulting human toll would then erode citizen trust in the democratic system. Moreover, if the health crisis leaves in its wake a deep economic recession, with mass unemployment and austerity measures, trust in existing institutions may take a further blow. The 2008 financial crisis resulted in rising public discontent and populist politics, the effects of which are still felt more than a decade later. On the positive side, the current crisis may help restore the value of competence and honesty in democratic politics. Fighting a pandemic is different from fighting political adversaries. It is less about ideology and partisanship and more about ability and leadership. Voters have a rare opportunity to discover leaders at the national and local levels who can restore their faith that good government is possible.
Even before this crisis, dissatisfaction with democracy was on the rise in the region. Lackluster economies and lingering inequalities over the last decade tested citizens’ faith in their governments and institutions. As the Covid-19 pandemic puts even greater strain on already fragile economies and societies, citizen frustration with democracy may rise even more. Or, conversely, it may provide an opportunity to rally around competent policymakers. In the midst of enormous challenges, elected leaders in the region must do their best to contain the health crisis and provide economic relief while maintaining a strong commitment to protect their countries’ democratic institutions: fair elections, checks and balances, impartial courts, and independent media. Citizens must continue to stay informed and make their voices heard in elections and through civil society engagement. The long-run prosperity of the region will depend not only on healthy economies but, in equal measure, on healthy democracies.