Pandemic erodes democracy

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - October 29, 2020 - 12:00am

The pandemic is causing tremendous physical suffering for many millions of people in the world. It has also had dire economic consequences for economies globally as governments have been forced to lock down and millions of people have lost their jobs.

There is a third aspect that has also suffered without too much attention as of now. Freedom House, a think tank in Washington, says there are 80 countries where the quality of democracy and respect for human rights have deteriorated since the pandemic began. According to the Economist magazine, there are many dictatorships that have gotten worse and, unfortunately, many democracies that have seen human rights and the rule of law sacrificed.

At the beginning of the pandemic, many governments assumed emergency powers with very little resistance from the public. However, it is now clear that many governments have also used these emergency measures to harass dissidents. The United States used to be the global leader in condemning human rights violations. But the Trump administration has paid little attention. In fact, it has been accused of continuing to maintain good relations with dictatorships all over the world. The Economist magazine recently cited a number of human rights violations and violations of the rule of law in several countries.

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy candidates were expected to do well in the September elections. Citing the dangers of COVID-19, the pro-mainland leaders postponed the elections until next year. In Russia, according to the Economist, Putin turned the pandemic crisis to his advantage. “He held a constitutional pseudo-referendum to allow himself to stay in office until 2036. Citing public health, he extended the vote a week and allowed people to vote at home, in courtyards, in playgrounds, on tree stumps.”

The voting was impossible to observe or verify. Putin declared a resounding victory and the parliament voted to change the voting procedure permanently. In Nicaragua, a law was passed that requires NGOs who receive foreign funding to register as “foreign agents.”

One case study is Brazil, whose president Jair Bolsonaro remains popular despite more than 5 million COVID-19 cases and 150,000 deaths in his country. Observers believe there are two reasons for this phenomenon. Bolsonaro has handed out emergency aid to over 67 million hard-up Brazilians and his macho posturing has also appealed to many people in this time of crisis.

Many governments have also used the pandemic as a reason to control the mass media. Reporters Without Borders, an international watch dog, counted 38 countries using the coronavirus to harass media. According to Freedom House, that number has now increased to 91 countries.

Most countries affected by COVID-19 have been forced to extend financial assistance to their general population. This is especially true of governments that have resorted to “hand-outs” to help keep their population cooperative. But their treasuries are beginning to feel the financial strain. These governments have resorted to massive borrowings.

There will come a time when these debts will either have to be settled or these same governments will now go begging to international financial institutions. These scenarios could make curbs on freedom not plausible.

Even now, people are again taking to the streets to protest against inept and corrupt governments. Some of these countries are Belarus in Europe, Nigeria in Africa, Indonesia and Thailand in Asia.

Thailand is one country that is now going through serious internal struggles. Since 1932, this country has endured 12 coups and 20 constitutions. This country has long been ruled by an alliance of the royal family, the military and the elites. Their power has relatively remained unchallenged, except for the election of a populist prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. He was ousted by the army in 2006. Even after he was ousted his red shirted followers battled the yellow shirted followers of the royal family and the military. Even today, in an honest and fair election, without an Army friendly constitution, Thaksin is said to be still highly popular. It is especially so in the rural areas outside Bangkok.

The new Thai ruler King Vajirolongkorn has proven to be unpopular, especially with the youth. He lives most of the time in Germany where he rented an entire hotel for his retinue of companions, mostly females.

The Thai royal family is the richest monarchy in the world. The Crown Property Bureau manages royal investments worth around $40 billion. Its assets are considered to be the king’s personal property. For this year, the government has allocated around $1.1 billion as the budget for the monarchy. In contrast, Queen Elizabeth received $87 million from her government last year. He has already made several moves that would transform Thailand’s constitutional monarchy into one with real powers. Students have been openly marching in the streets of Bangkok, demanding that the monarchy be reformed. In a country where criticisms of the monarchy were made illegal, this open defiance of the Thai monarchy could lead to a major upheaval.

China’s 12 million Uyghurs are a Muslim minority using a Turkish based language rather than Mandarin. Reports have indicated that they are the victims of an organized persecution to erase their identity. This is a crime against humanity.

This erosion of human rights and democratic principles should be addressed without waiting for the pandemic to end.

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