Written by Evelyn Mantoiu, Communication and Research Assistant at EPD.
Every week at EPD we monitor key events that impact democracy around the world through our democracy digest newsletter #BeyondBallots. As one could expect, 2020 has been a year full of surprises and political developments. This short overview is based on events featured in Beyond Ballots and their significance for democracy and the work we have been doing on democracy support.
January: Climate change and the Australian Bushfires
The Australian Bushfires were an ecological catastrophe with an estimated 3 billion animals having been affected by the disaster. The fires had been fed by record-breaking temperatures and drought across southern and eastern Australia and it showed to many the devastating effect of climate change. It highlighted how important it is that we meet words with actions when it comes to climate change. To this end, environmental protection laws and climate change action will only be legitimate and socially just in the long run if they are the result of democratic decision-making processes. Accountability and the rule of law are key for environmental democracy.
February: El Salvador Constitutional Crisis
This month marked the beginning of El Salvador’s constitutional crisis, when President Nayib Bukele challenged the legislative assembly over a possible loan from the US government, in order to fund his security plan. The incident drew international attention for the unusual display of power from the armed forces who entered the legislative assembly and stood there watching as the session took place. At the same time, supporters of the President demonstrated outside the building. Shortly after, the legislative called for a Supreme Court investigation into the proportionality of the measures and the arbitrary use of force by police officers when enforcing the measures. In May, the country’s attorney-general promised a Supreme Court challenge to President Nayib Bukele’s extension of a state of emergency decree, which was heavily criticised by analysts as an attempt to amass more power by the President. The tension between the different state institutions arose again over the reopening plan in August. Not long after, the President backed the army in blocking the investigations of the 1981 El Mozote massacre, giving way for a new series of disagreements and a power struggle between El Salvador’s state institutions.
March: Europe goes into lockdown
The event that has marked the course of 2020 has been without a doubt the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, Europe was hit by the first wave of cases and subsequently went into lockdown, following in the footsteps of countries in Asia. Despite the fact that some countries had already started to suffer from the virus, the month of March is when it really hit home – altering the way we work, how we connect with one another and in some instances it has even sparked questions about the very fabric of our economic and political systems. A discursive battle began over who was better at dealing with the pandemic: democracies or autocracies? It also set a series of different scenarios for democracies in light of the pandemic, which EPD explored in our research paper Imagined Continuities. From this point onwards, the events of 2020 take place in a unique context – amongst fears of rising infection rates and social distancing practices.
April: Polls Closed
With the outbreak of the pandemic, countries responded through a series of extraordinary measures. As a result, executive bodies around the world amassed greater powers in order to gain better control of the pandemic. It wasn’t long until we were able to record the first signs of abuse of power by central governments in both established and emerging democracies. Sweeping legislation curbing freedom of press and access to information was passed in Hungary under the guise of fighting health disinformation. Countries facing elections had to make choices between going ahead with elections despite safety concerns, or postponing elections due to a lack of preparedness. Many countries have opted for the latter, with 40 countries and territories deciding to postpone national elections and referendums. Concerns have been raised on the quality of elections that went ahead as international election observation missions were put on hold. In this context, EPD and its members called for a series of democratic principles to consider during the pandemic.
May: LGBTQ Rights
In May 2020, Costa Rica become the first country in Central America to legalise same-sex marriage, and sixth country to do so in Latin America. This came following a Supreme Court decision which ruled that banning same-sex marriage was illegal in 2018. Following the election of President Carlos Alvarado, he has made a commitment to updating LGBTQ rights legislation within the first year of his mandate. Amongst the first legislation to be passed was the right to change one’s sex on the civil register from the age of 18, followed by the push for legalising same sex marriage which came into force in 2020. With this, Costa Rica joins 28 UN member states who have legalised same-sex marriage, and another 32 UN members that recognise some form of same-sex civil partnership. In the same year, the Thai cabinet approved the draft Civil Partnership Bill, which would allow for same sex partnerships to be legally registered if the bill passes through parliament. At the same time, the LGBTQ community has been heavily affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with many facing discrimination and abuse, as research from the Human Rights Foundation and ILGA-Europe shows.
June brought about an important conversation about racial injustice and discimination globally, with the largest #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations taking place in the US. Such was the magnitude of the protests that some analysts have named #BlackLivesMatter as the largest movement in US history. Beyond US borders, the movement sparked a conversation about race and social justice in Europe, particularly in the UK, France and Belgium, where it reopened the debate about the countries’ need to confront their colonial past and its legacies. The protests were an inspiration for the massive protests against police brutality in Nigeria a few months later. The #EndSars movement successfully led to the disbandment of a particularly violent police grouping known as SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad), at the cost of 51 civilians and 18 security personnel killed in the turmoil. Following a series of instances in which Facebook had refused to take down content instigating violence against the protestors from President Trump, civil society organisations increased their demands for the company to change its policy. In June 2020, the #StopHateForProfit campaign called for an advertising pause campaign to curb advertising revenue. The following month, giants like Coca-Cola and Unilever joined the boycott.
July: Demonstrations in Hong Kong
With the ongoing protests in Hong Kong over the summer, 2020 marked a decisive turning point for the future of the pro-democracy movement. On the last day of June, a new national security law was adopted in Hong Kong. In the following month, protests erupted across the city. The new law criminalises any act of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. Unsurprisingly, those who had been at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement have now found themselves under investigation. In the following months, activists, media moguls and journalists reporting on police brutality have faced charges and been detained, with the latest act of protest coming from pro-democracy lawmakers who resigned en masse following the ousting of four of their colleagues. While the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is facing an uphill battle, their tactics have inspired movements elsewhere in Asia.
August: Belarus Elections
President Alexander Lukashenko has often been referred to as Europe’s last dictator, having been in power since 1994. In 2020, what was supposed to be an unassuming election turned into a full-on political competition, as numerous opposition candidates were detained or barred from running. With popular support at a record low for Lukashenko, his latest attempt at prolonging his rule was met with mass street demonstrations in August 2020, with opposition leaders arguing that the election had been rigged in his favour, over opposition candidate Svetlana Tikanovsakaya. Amongst challenges such as police brutality, followed by mass arrests, a clampdown on journalists and media workers, internet shutdowns and restrictions, the protests are still ongoing. Now in political exile, Tikanovsakaya aims to gather support for her cause and draws attention to the plight of protesters in Belarus.
September: Celebrating Multilateralism
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, where more than 30,000 activists, and representatives from 189 nations unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This has been significant for women’s movements worldwide as it puts forward a vision of equal rights, freedom and opportunities for women everywhere. In this same challenging year for multilateralism, we also celebrated the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. The UN has definitely made gains in terms of bolstering multilateral actions, particularly on climate change and migration, as well as putting forward a vision for a sustainable and inclusive future in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals. It is true, the results are often slow, and at times imperfect, but it remains the forum of world governance and strategic multi-lateral thinking.
October: Thailand and the #MilkTeaAlliance
The face of protest is changing, both due to COVID-19 measures and the rise of digitalisation. The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Thailand saw some of the biggest crowds in October. Demonstrators demanded constitutional reform to allow for changes to the country’s monarchy, known for being one of the toughest lèse-majesté rules, and a change in leadership with calls for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Social media savvy activists quickly dominated communication channels amplifying the messages of those on the ground. #MilkTeaAlliance began to trend online, as pro-democracy activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong joined their counterparts in Thailand. In response, a series of activists have been arrested and the Thai government has made numerous attempts to diffuse the situation. So far none of the measures have deterred protestors as the movement still continues.
November: America makes its choice
Nothing drew as many eyes as the United States presidential election in the month of November. With the world holding its breath, Vice President Biden came out as the winner of the 2020 Election. History was made with the election of Senator Kamala Harris as the first female Vice-President and first woman of colour to be elected Vice-President as well as new records in voter registration and turnout, equaling those last seen in the 1900s. The elections will also be remembered for the slow uptake of the Trump Administration in recognising the results. Much like authoritarian leaders struggling to give up power, President Trump started a disinformation campaign claiming electoral fraud and was met by resistance from the institutions of American democracy. Signifying a departure from isolationism, Biden has made plans to convene a summit of democracies in his first year in office, in order to bring the world’s largest democracies together to form a plan of action on global issues.
December: What next for European democracy?
December marked the launch of landmark legislation on democracy in Europe with the European Democracy Action Plan (EDAP) and the upcoming Digital Services Act (DSA) and Digital Markets Act (DMA). The EDAP was led by the Vice Commissioner for Transparency and Values, Věra Jourová, and set out an ambitious plan for strengthening democracy in the EU. EPD has been actively involved in shaping the document from the perspective of civil society organisations, leading a coalition of 48 institutions to share inputs on the content of the final document. Read more about EPD’s thoughts on the EDAP in this article here. Additionally, you can also watch the Vice President present the European Action Plan for Democracy in a recent joint event with Carnegie Europe and Open Governance Network for Europe here. The Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act will also be essential for safeguarding democracy by setting the wheels in motion for greater transparency and accountability for dominant market players. This year also marked the 10th year anniversary of the Arab Spring, which gave rise to the biggest protests in the region and raised hopes for a democratic future. However, things look a lot less hopeful than they did in the 2010s, with many of the countries that were part of the Arab Spring Revolution facing a decade of instability and political unrest.
Overall, 2020 has been an eventful year to democracy. Once again, this is not an exhaustive list of all the key events that have happened in 2020, but mere snapshots of what we have taken note of at EPD. In the following year, we will continue to monitor key events that impact democracy. By subscribing to our weekly democracy digest #BeyondBallots you can get an overview of the most important events to your inbox.