Skip to main content

Repression and Resilience: Diagnosing Closing Space Mid-Pandemic

The past decade has been challenging for democracies worldwide, with experts pointing to a trend of ‘democratic backsliding’ or ‘autocratisation’ characterised by continued attacks on democratic space. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated the picture. The contagiousness and deadliness of the virus forced authorities to implement drastic measures justified by overriding public health concerns. Yet, the crisis has also forced governments to tread a thin line between admissible health measures and the blatant abuse of emergency powers, to the detriment of democratic space.

Our new paper Repression and Resilience: Diagnosing Closing Space Mid-Pandemic illustrates how democratic space was affected by the COVID-19 crisis, drawing on case studies from Burundi, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Venezuela, as well as the wider research community. The paper also further develops a conceptual framework for understanding democratic space, initially developed in a previous study.

The research points to the important role of country-specific political developments and other concurring crises in defining the impact of the global pandemic on each country’s democratic space. Across case studies and other literature, we find that the pandemic has aggravated and accelerated existing trends of democratic backsliding. Authorities have been hiding behind pandemic management to further clamp down on civic space, create an uneven level playing field and undermine the system of democratic checks and balances.

The paper first details the conceptual understanding of democratic space that underpins the research. The next chapter dives into structural trends in democratic space during the pandemic. The paper then moves on to take a closer look at the actors that defended democratic space during the pandemic. In conclusion, the paper offers some overall reflections and recommendations on what the pandemic means for practitioners, the EU and EU Member States’ policies and programming.

This research paper is the result of a close cooperation between the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy and the European Partnership for Democracy.

2020 saw a major increase in violent attacks on human rights defenders, political activists, civil society staff and media workers, at a time when freedom of assembly and speech were curtailed to curb the spread of the virus. The increased role of the military in leading the pandemic response and ensuring compliance with lockdown measures translated into an increase of excessive and arbitrary use of force by military and police officials.

Alongside that, states of emergency empowered executives to operate with limited or no oversight from parliaments, judicial bodies, and other watchdog institutions, further aggravated by the latter’s slow adaptation to remote settings. The lack of oversight came with a surge in corruption in the procurement of medical supplies, a widespread mishandling of pandemic funds, and the quick passing of legislation unrelated to the pandemic without oversight.

The pandemic has also exacerbated intersecting inequalities and systemic discrimination faced by women and marginalised communities, who saw a deterioration in their livelihoods and opportunities for political inclusion, as well as an increase in violence. Whilst the deepening of inequalities is in many cases not the result of a proactive attack on democratic space, it will have long-lasting effects on women and vulnerable groups’ representation and opportunities for participation. Further undermining participation, many elections were postponed or took place in an unfair campaigning environment, where COVID measures were used to repress opposition campaigning without affecting the ruling party. Simultaneously, the rapid digitalisation during the pandemic has been accompanied by new tactics and tools for restricting online democratic space.

Throughout the pandemic, civil society, media and some judiciaries have been critical guardians of democratic space – despite the health and socio-economic challenges experienced by many.  Civil society organisations adapted quickly, and shifted their focus to providing essential services and information for at-risk populations when authorities were not able to deliver on basic needs. While this limited civil society’s ability to also hold the executive to account, media actors played a critical accountability and public information role despite facing heightened health risks and targeted attacks. In some countries the judiciary managed to uphold constitutionalism in the face of pandemic challenges, yet in other states with a politicised or partial judiciary, judicial institutions have struggled or failed to provide such oversight. The COVID crisis also weakened the oversight of opposition parties, whose scrutiny of increased executive powers and lockdown conditions was often ineffective and fragmented.

  1. Adopt a clear framework for identifying and analysing democratic space, which brings together existing indices as an objective metric and alert system to measure closing space.
  2. Strengthen global and European cooperation and coordination on democratic space with like-minded partners, to ensure coherence and effectiveness of action.
  3. Adapt funding modalities and practices to ensure funding empowers change-makers, from core funding for civil society to existing tools such as budget support contracts and bilateral agreements.
  4. Support structural reform through local civil society to ensure an inclusive post-pandemic recovery that also defends and expands democratic space.
  5. Embed accountability and transparency in support to democratic institutions and watchdogs, so as to empower them in effectively countering attacks on democratic space and providing oversight.
  6. Support targeted action on inclusiveness in post-pandemic recovery to protect democratic space and make it representative of all voices in society.
  7. Support a democratic digital transition of infrastructure, institutions and oversight actors that allows democratic space and actors to thrive in the digital environment.
  8. Lead by example, build back better at home through innovative and participatory decision-making as well as decisive action against democratic backsliding within the Union.

For a full list of recommendations and ideas for action, see the full paper here.