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...
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