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Written by Aoife Curtis, Communications and Events Assistant at EPD.

Set against the backdrop of continued pandemic restrictions and socio-economic stress, a prognosis of 12 months of healthy democratic governance in 2021 was not likely. But it was not all doom and gloom. Looking back, it was a year of protests, coups, and democratic rejuvenation. Every week at EPD we have been tracking the most important events in our democracy digest newsletter #BeyondBallots. Here we have taken a look at the past year and provided an overview of some of the key moments for democratic governance in 2021.


January: United States Capitol attack

The first month of 2021 began explosively when a mob of supporters of outgoing US President Donald Trump stormed the United States Capitol building in Washington D.C., in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 elections. The “stop the steal” rally was incited by a narrative of electoral fraud spread by the defeated candidate in an attempt to subvert the win of Joe Biden. The spread of disinformation surrounding elections and their legitimacy is a tactic increasingly utilised by ‘illiberal’ leaders from the United States to Peru and Moldova, in order to erode public trust in elections.


February: Coup in Myanmar

Early February in Myanmar began with a coup as the country’s armed forces, known as the Tatmadaw, seized power. Declaring the November 2020 elections as fraudulent, they arrested elected government leaders, politicians, and many pro-democracy activists and journalists. The coup was met with criticism from the international community who lamented the assault on the country’s democratic transition. Within Myanmar, widespread civil disobedience and grassroots pro-democracy movements emerged as many street and online protests took place, demanding a return to civilian government. The military forces responded to the anti-coup protests with violent repression, imposing a climate of terror and killling and torturing hundreds of people. Women and youth have been particularly influential in the resistance movements orchestrating protests such as the htamien campaign, which used women’s traditional sarongs as flags and to cover roads to deter police and soldiers.


March: International Women’s Day

In March, just weeks after International Women’s day, Turkish President Erdogan issued a decree withdrawing his country from the Istanbul Convention, the legally binding Council of Europe treaty which tackles violence against women. This widely-condemned move was one of many regressive acts by governments globally against women in 2021. In particular, a women’s right to bodily autonomy came under threat in Poland and the United States with harsh anti-abortion measures being reinstated in both countries. Looking at 2021 as a whole, women across the world stood up for their human rights and demanded equal treatment, with large-scale protests taking place in countries such as Turkey, Poland, Afghanistan, France, Mexico, and Zambia. EPD and its members also brought together some truly inspiring women leaders to celebrate women’s political power on International Women’s Day, and published a study assessing the EU’s advancement of women’s political leadership in its external aid.


April: Protests, protests, protests

A series of ongoing protests began in Colombia in April as thousands of people took to the streets against increased taxes, corruption, and healthcare reform. This was part of a larger trend in 2021 which was defined by an increasing number of mass protests. From Covid measures to corruption, people took to the streets across the globe in large numbers in countries such as Australia, Russia, Cuba, France, Mongolia, Peru, Sri Lanka, and Uganda to fight for political change. In many cases, this eruption of protest continued even in the face of violent repression from security forces and increased limitations on civic space. The fact that 2021 has seen an increase in the frequency and intensity of mass protests – despite institutional democracy facing a severe crisis –  offers a ray of hope for democracy supporters and shows the durability and universal appeal of democratic values.


May: The Conference on the Future of Europe begins

In May, the European Union’s Conference on the Future of Europe began with an inaugural event in Strasbourg, with many important European leaders, students, and citizens in attendance. Following this event, five Citizens’ Panels have taken place with diverse groups of 200 randomly selected European citizens who met to discuss and draft recommendations for the future of Europe. They have looked at a wide range of issues such as democracy, rule of law, digital rights, environment and foreign policy. While the new methods of direct citizen participation in policy-making are an innovative precedent, questions have been raised about its impact and bad organisational planning has led some to wonder whether this mismanagement is intentional. The next months will be crucial for the EU’s democratic legitimacy, with the conference recommendations and closure expected in early summer 2022.


June: Ortega’s crackdown on opposition

In June, a wave of arrests of presidential hopefuls were ordered in Nicaragua as President Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, began a crackdown on political opponents and critics ahead of the November elections. These repressive actions continued throughout the year with many attacks on political plurality. For example, in August, the electoral council barred the main opposition party from the presidential race and the only remaining printed newspaper critical of the regime was raided by police. In November, Ortega was re-elected due to his systematic crackdown of any opposition, which took on a new level of repression in 2021.


July: The Pegasus project: Global democracy under cyber attack

In July, international investigations by the Pegasus project revealed how governments have been spying on journalists, opposition politicians, activists, human rights defenders and others using the spyware technology of the Israeli firm NSO Group. Marketed as a tool for surveillance of “serious crimes and terriorism,” information leaked by Forbidden Stories showed how this spyware had been used by governments against many non-criminal targets. This leak gave insight into the shady digital practices that are used to silence journalists and political opponents in 2021, stifling free speech and dissent, and infringing the right to privacy and freedom of expression.


August: Afghanistan- A failure for democracy?

After over 20 years of democracy and institutional building, the fall of Kabul and the consolidation of power by the Taliban in Afghanistan seemed for many to be a failure for democracy. In August 2021, the United States government pulled its last troops out of the country, and the Taliban seized full control. This led to chaos at Kabul airport as many pro-democracy activists, dissenters, and citizens were forced to flee fearing their lives under Islamic fundamentalist and authoritarian rule. Those who remained, however, did not accept the take over without resistance as protests occurred across the country, many led by women demanding equal rights and a place in the new government. Afghanistan now faces a deep humanitarian crisis and worsening economic conditions, with the international community left to face the failures of its military and institution-building intervention. In our discussion with the Brussels democracy support community for Democracy Week 2021 we reflected on the lessons learned and the next steps that can be taken to support pro-democracy advocates in Afghanistan and beyond.


September: Hong Kong arrests

In September, authorities in Hong Kong arrested four of the leaders of the group that organised the city’s annual Tiananmen Square commemorations. The police have banned the vigil for the past two years, citing public health risks due to the pandemic. However, many critics have condemned the ban as being part of the continued crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong that has been taking place since the anti-government protests in 2019. As we recounted in our paper on closing space, disproportionate restrictions on fundamental rights justified by health measures has been a classic repression technique used by autocratic governments throughout the pandemic and persisting in 2021 as a way to quell legitimate protest and opposition. Beginning with over 50 arrests by Chinese authorities in January, these arrests are just a few of many that have taken place this year under the controversial Hong Kong security law that came into effect last year.


October: The EU rule of law saga continues

The rule of law within the EU and the relationship between the Union and Hungary and Poland steadily deteriorated in 2021. From political battles over linking rule of law to Covid recovery funds, to EU countries banding together to condemn Hungary’s treatment of LGBT persons, this year saw many crucial moments for the on-going rule of law saga. In particular, Poland’s controversial judicial reforms have placed it in consistent opposition with the European Court of Justice. In October, there was a stark escalation in tensions when the Polish Constitutional Court held that key provisions of the Treaty on the European Union were incompatible with the Polish Constitution – an attempt to degrade the principle of the primacy of EU law, one of the core tenets of the European legal order. Later the same month, the Luxembourg Court held that the Polish government must pay 1 million euros a day for its failure to abolish a disciplinary chamber for judges, the highest daily fine in EU history. At the same time, civil society continues to play a key role in pushing the EU for more ambitious action on the rule of law. Along with over 70 other civil society organisations, EPD released a joint statement on how the Commission can improve the credibility, inclusiveness and impact of the rule of law report, and ensure that it is a meaningful part of the defense of this core EU value.


November: Democracy under threat in Sudan

At the end of October, the military in Sudan conducted a coup with the army dissolving the country’s transitional government and detaining dozens of politicians, including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. The following month saw an outbreak of protests and strikes across the country with thousands of pro-democracy supporters taking to the streets to demand the return of civilian rule. The protesters were met with harsh treatment from security forces who fired tear gas and responded with deadly violence. Sudan has been on a more pro-democratic path since long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir was ousted following massive popular protests in 2019, but this coup has put Sudan’s young democracy under serious strain. At the end of November, Hamdok was reinstated by the security forces, in a deal which was criticised by the country’s pro-democracy movement who opposed the military’s involvement in politics.


December: Summit for Democracy: A renewed commitment to democracy?

Greatly anticipated by the global community and civil society organisations, the two day Summit for Democracy was framed by the Biden administration as a chance to renew democracy in the face of rising authoritarianism, the “defining challenge” of the current era. Particularly noteworthy were the states that did not receive an invite to the event, such as Hungary, China, Turkey and Russia. For the countries who did attend, it was a chance to make concrete commitments for democratic progress. As we wrote in our Menu for Commitments on the Summit, there is a deep need that these commitments are clear, tangible, and positive in order to avoid pure rhetoric without action. The Summit officially kicked off a ‘year of action’ – the effectiveness of which remains to be seen.


The year 2021 has truly been an eventful 12 months for global democracy and this overview is only a small snapshot of the key events that we have followed, analysed and acted upon at EPD. As we enter 2022, we will continue to monitor the key events that impact democracy. By subscribing to our weekly democracy digest #BeyondBallots, you can keep up to date and receive an overview of the most important events in your inbox every week.

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