Democratic Backsliding


Theme 4: Democratic Backsliding

National governments and supranational organisations will continue to face pressure to intervene in social and economic affairs as the world tries to overcome the Covid-19 crisis and recover economically. This creates an environment in which the adoption of authoritarian measures is more likely as upholding democratic principles becomes less of a priority.

The political polarisation observed since 2020 over how best to address the Covid-19 public health and economic crises looks set to continue in 2022, as national governments and supranational bodies seek to implement effective policies to overcome the pandemic and support a global economic recovery. This could affect business operations as it increases the risk of authorities imposing arbitrary rules that affect economic activities. This creates uncertainty but also increases the risk of disruptive and even violent public protests against the imposition of measures perceived to be autocratic.

Governments have adopted measures that curtail democratic and economic freedoms to try to contain the pandemic. A December 2020 report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Alliance (IDEA) estimated that last year, over 50% of governments declared a national state of emergency that suspended democratic rights and civil liberties as part of their pandemic response. These measures have been controversial, resisted by many, and sparked protests in defence of freedom around the world. But some autocratic measures such as curfews, restrictions on movement, and bans on gatherings have received public support and have been backed by supranational organisations as irksome but necessary. This has allowed governments to maintain these measures and also encouraged political leaders with authoritarian tendencies to adopt further oppressive measures despite public resistance.

Concerning Democracy Developments

This trend is likely to continue in 2022, with autocratic leaders continuing to take advantage of the circumstances to justify attempts to exert greater control over people and institutions and repress political dissent. However, such moves will also continue to provoke civil society groups to mobilise and stage public protests in defence of freedoms and guarantees seen to be essential for democracy. The systematic weakening of democratic institutions by incumbent governments with questionable democratic credentials could also lead to these facing international economic sanctions.

This democratic backsliding is likely to advance faster in countries that currently have strong autocratic leaders, as well as those with weak state institutions, such as emerging economies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. But democratic tensions are not only being felt in countries with young democracies and authoritarian leaders. This is also an issue in consolidated democracies. With the pandemic still not fully under control, governments around the world have resorted to imposing new authoritarian measures such as vaccine and face mask mandates, and even new localised lockdowns. There has been a marked pushback against these impositions that has not only involved public demonstrations but also legal challenges, which have the potential to produce serious institutional tensions in some countries.

This includes disagreements between federal and regional governments over whether such measures are still necessary or justifiable. Such disagreements will produce political instability as well as uncertainty over what regulations are in place in different jurisdictions within a single country, with the US being a prime example. But there are also growing discrepancies among European Union (EU) member countries over what measures should be applied within the bloc to manage the pandemic.

The polarisation, relegation of democratic principles, and erosion of state institutions presents challenges for business operations. They increase the risk of disruptive unrest that could even undermine government stability. It also produces significant uncertainty over the regulatory framework in place and how to comply with it.

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