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Addressing the Effect of Covid-19 on Democracy In South and Southeast Asia (Part IV)

The Way Forward: Steps Necessary to Preserve Democratic Norms, Institutions

Defenders of democracy should work to ensure that elections are not delayed or canceled and that elections planned in 2021 in Malaysia should be held and held safely.


By Joshua Kurlantzick


Even in developed countries, public health experts predict that the pandemic will not be effectively contained and life will not return to some kind of normality until late 2021. In South and Southeast Asia, where mass vaccination could be a logistical challenge, a return to normality could take even longer. In the intervening years, illiberal leaders could take further measures to entrench their power and neutralize all opposition, moving their countries closer to outright authoritarian rule—an outcome already achieved in some former regional hybrid regimes such as Cambodia.

It is essential, then, that defenders of democratic norms and institutions act quickly to prevent leaders from using the pandemic to entrench their power and undermine democracy and to ensure that governments can protect public health and freedoms at the same time. For leading democratic powers including the United States, taking these measures is in their own self-interest as well. Indeed, illiberal leaders such as Duterte, the Rajapaksas, and even Jokowi, with their improvisational and mercurial styles of governing, often prove unstable partners. In his four years in office, for instance, the Philippine president has veered between condemning the United States while wooing China and warming to Washington while castigating some of Beijing’s actions.

To preserve democratic norms and institutions in South and Southeast Asia, even in a pandemic, the following steps should be taken.

•          Work to ensure that COVID-19-related restrictions on assembly and speech are statutorily limited. Although it is reasonable for leaders to assume some emergency powers to enforce quarantines and lockdowns, legislators and courts in South and Southeast Asia should ensure that emergency powers come with clear time limitations and nonpartisan oversight, which would help inform policymakers when it comes time to potentially renew the emergency powers. Policymakers and activists should also use public campaigns to insist that apps or other online measures used for contact tracing are ended after the virus is contained and do not allow governments to monitor populations for other reasons. Imposing time restrictions and aggressively scrutinizing potential extension of emergency powers are popular positions and support democracy.

•          Hold elections during the pandemic and make them both fair and safe. Pro-democracy activists in the region should work to ensure that elections are not delayed or canceled and that elections planned for 2021 in Malaysia can be held, and held safely. If the governments do plan to delay, they should do so only after extensive consultation with opposition parties and civil society, to secure broad support for a delay and ensure that the delay seems nonpartisan and not designed to favor any one party or politician. To hold elections safely during the pandemic, these countries should seek consultation on best voting practices from experts in Singapore, South Korea, and other states in the region that have successfully held elections during the pandemic; offer a wide range of ways to vote, including reserved time slots for in-person voting on Election Day, extended early voting, and mail-in and other types of remote voting in countries that have capable postal services; and invite international election observers to monitor elections.

•          Limit and counter illiberal leaders’ use of disinformation. Supporters of democratic norms should take measures to prevent leaders from spreading disinformation and destroying checks on factual discourse, such as the remaining independent media outlets and watchdog organizations. These are critical to combating disinformation and promoting transparency on government decisions, especially in a time of crisis. Efforts to protect these organizations could include public fundraising for media outlets that are losing advertising because of government pressure on businesses; legal actions to protect media outlets and watchdog organizations; and organizing pressure from retired leaders, prominent civil society leaders, and foreign leaders to keep media out- lets and watchdog organizations open, among other measures.

•          Demonstrate and promote ways of protesting that are COVID-19-safe. Particularly in countries such as Thailand, which has largely contained the pandemic, leaders now have less of an excuse to maintain restrictions on freedom of speech and outdoor assembly. Supporters of democratic norms and institutions should show that they can hold parliament sessions, rallies, and other public events without spreading COVID-19. In Thailand, for instance, demonstrators that have gathered for months in favor of democratic reforms have repeatedly highlighted the measures they are taking to protect public health while rallying. Thailand’s caseloads have remained minimal despite the swelling protests. In other countries, anyone organizing public gatherings should do the same, taking best practices from Thailand and other places. Supporters of democracy also should advocate forcefully for ending limits on online speech, which poses no obvious threat to public health.

•          Promote compromise and reduce polarization. Polarization pre- dates COVID-19, but it has helped illiberal leaders stoke tensions and divide societies, making it harder for democratic norms to flourish and for politicians to build broad coalitions that could undermine illiberal tendencies. South and Southeast Asian politicians and civil society leaders, supported by funders from developed countries, should invest in efforts, such as those led by interfaith groups and mediation organizations, to foster dialogue among political parties, ethnic groups, and religious groups. Initial attempts to promote compromise in Indonesia, often led by interfaith groups, have enjoyed some success in building trust among religious leaders, who have then tried to reduce polarization during election seasons.

•          Highlight the links between illiberal politics and poor governance, including mishandling of COVID-19 and failed economic policies. Supporters of democracy are tempted to combat illiberal leaders by highlighting their violations of norms and abuses of power. But the history of illiberalism in Latin America and other regions suggests that illiberal populists in particular, such as the Kirchners in Argentina, ultimately face political downfall because of their inability to actually govern and not because of public disapproval of their norm-breaking. While taking measures to protect democratic institutions, opponents of illiberal leaders in South and Southeast Asia should focus their campaigns on bread-and-butter economic issues, COVID-19, and poor governance in general, arguing that limits on political freedoms have not produced better public health responses to the pandemic or helped cushion the economic pain.

•          Develop public campaigns to emphasize the importance of expertise in public health and other areas. As a corollary to highlighting the links between illiberal politics and poor governance, regional politicians and civil society activists committed to democracy should emphasize that illiberal leaders are failing to control the pandemic because they are ignoring expertise, not because that expertise is misguided. If expertise is blamed for failed responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders who are even more norm-breaking and autocratic could come to power. Indeed, failed responses to the pandemic could further fuel antiestablishment movements, both regionally and globally, accompanied by greater distrust of expertise on public health and other matters. Worldwide, in the past decade, rising antiestablishment sentiment has sometimes been channeled into support for politicians, such as France’s Emmanuel Macron or the United States’ Bernie Sanders, who have not attacked democratic practices and institutions. But often it has empowered politicians who disdain expertise, promote conspiracy theories, and have little interest in upholding democracy.

Powers from outside the region, too, can help preserve freedoms in South and Southeast Asia. The United States, Australia, Canada, Japan, and the European Union have regional strategies that rely on fostering freedom. By bolstering democrats, even during a pandemic, the United States can demonstrate a commitment to this approach and also distinguish itself from China, which is expanding its power in the region. Although China has distributed extensive COVID-19-related aid, it has also alienated some South and Southeast Asian populations by buttressing illiberal leaders, such as Cambodia’s Hun Sen, and by seeming to take advantage of the distraction of the pandemic to push its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

To help prevent regional leaders from further undermining democratic norms and institutions, the United States and other leading democracies should do the following:

•          Support efforts in South and Southeast Asia to reduce polarization and foster political dialogue and compromise. Reducing polarization and fostering dialogue will help reduce the tendency for politicians and voters to view every election as so decisive that they cannot afford to lose. Democracy cannot thrive without peaceful transition of power, and environments more conducive to compromise and dialogue are less likely to produce illiberal leaders such as Duterte or the Rajapaksas, who polarize countries when they are in power. To support efforts at reducing polarization, leading democracies should avoid cutting democracy and rights promotion budgets and actually raise their budgets for emergency funding for rights and democracy groups in the region. Although reducing budgets seems like a sensible and necessary response to the economic harm of the COVID-19 pandemic, democracy and rights promotion budgets constitute such tiny fractions of national budgets for the United States, Australia, and the European Union that eliminating these monies will have no practical effect on addressing the pandemic or overall budget woes. The United States, for instance, gives about $2.6 billion per year in democracy promotion funding, allocated in a range of ways. The annual U.S. federal budget for 2021 is projected to be $4.829 trillion. (To be concluded)


Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment of a scholarly paper by Joshua Kurlantzick, a regular contributor to PinterPolitik WRN. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.


Joshua Kurlantzick

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