A democracy’s health is anchored on citizens’ confidence in public processes and the society’s shared respect for fundamental rights. The advent of the Covid 19 Pandemic not only magnified the social and political issues citizens faced prior to its emergence; it also catalyzed the further erosion of the foundations of democracy that is already under attack. In fact, according to the V-Dem Institute, we are witnessing a surge of autocratization in 92 states, which comprise 54% of the global population in 2020, the most severe in two decades.
Pervasive disregard of electoral and democratic principles
Unfortunately, some malign actors have taken this vulnerable situation to consolidate control over public affairs and undermine fundamental rights. During this perilous period, the world witnessed crackdown on popular dissent, and obvious disrespect of democratic processes. For instance in Hong Kong, Beijing-controlled has been asserting greater control over the city by clamping down on dissent through the imposition of draconian laws. This gave rise to protests which have been going on since last year. To make matters worse, the city’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, invoked emergency powers to postpone the 2020 election, supposedly held on September 6, due to a surge in Coronavirus cases — a move that was backed by Beijing, but was widely seen by citizens as a way to neutralize increasing support for the opposition and the pro-democracy movement. Furthermore, at least 12 opposition candidates were already disqualified by the election authorities.
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In Thailand, widely popular youth-led opposition Future Forward Party, was dissolved after the Constitutional Court decided that the party’s loan of 191.2 million Thai Baht from its founder Thanatorn Juangrungruangkit, a businessman critical of the military junta, was a form of donation. This move, according to the Election Commission, violates the Political Party Act which limits donations to 10 million Thai Baht per year per donor. As penalty, the party’s 16 leaders were banned by the court from participating in politics for 10 years, and the party’s other members in the Parliament were given 60 days to “find a new party.” The dissolution of the party effectively nullified the votes and left the more than 6 million people that voted for the party without representation. This has caused an outpour of condemnation from the Thais, who have just formed a civilian government in 2019, and has catalyzed a movement which calls for accountability from the government led by junta leader-turned Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, as well as reforms on the country’s all-powerful monarchy. The government has also weaponized Covid-19-related emergency powers to undermine protests.
These are crackdowns against dissent and popular representation — attacks which happen when those wielding power do not or no longer serve the interests of those that they govern. These events in Thailand and Hong Kong demonstrate the weakening and disregard of democratic institutions and practices and are manifestations of the expanding influence of the malign actors in the region. The damages to democracy created by these attacks could have been healed by promoting and advocating greater protections for all expressions of the will of the people, most aptly through the conduct of genuine and regular elections which serve as opportunities to demand accountability and enforce justice against abuses.
To postpone elections or not
However, with the advent of the Covid-19 Pandemic and the great health risks and challenges that it brings, at least 16 elections in the region were postponed within the period of February 1 to December 6, 2020. Postponement of elections are not necessarily undemocratic, especially if these are done under the parameters set by law and is reflective of the will of the people. With the health risks presented by Covid-19, postponing elections is a justified act. However, regardless of the intent, a disruption on such a crucial political process will have inevitable consequences on the health of a democracy in the long-run, especially with the fragile nature of most Asian democracies at present.
Looking at the case of Hong Kong, the postponement of the supposed September 2020 elections for a year means continuation of the abuse of power by the incumbent leaders, and that these leaders occupy positions of power without a fresh mandate from the people and impose policies which do not emanate from the people’s concerns. In other words, in a very vulnerable condition, the people of Hong Kong are governed by people who do not represent them.
On the other hand, states such as South Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar and Sri Lanka are among those that were able to hold elections despite the challenges presented by the pandemic. However, to resolve challenges posed by Covid-19 such as limited mobility, health risks to stakeholders, and logistical complications and delays, election managers were forced to accept compromises, inevitably affecting the integrity of the elections conducted.
For one, conducting campaigns and events will have to be conducted differently to ensure that physical distancing protocols are followed. Campaign in Mongolia asks candidates to conduct rallies online but gives the parties an option to hold rallies subject to physical distancing compliance. In Singapore and Malaysia, election authorities banned large rallies from happening. Initially, door-to-door campaigning was also banned in Malaysia, but were later permitted, again, subject to pandemic restrictions. As a result, opportunities for voters to interact with the various candidates were also limited, which also limits opportunities for these voters to gather information on the priorities of the candidates.
Voter participation was also affected by limitations on voter access. While South Koreans within the country were able to vote safely due to the exemplary management and safety protocols the election management implemented, only around 23.8% or 40,858% of the 171,959 registered overseas Korean voters were able to vote due to restrictions in countries where they are based — the lowest rate since overseas voting was introduced. Some Singaporean voters also faced similar challenges which prompted calls for alternative voting procedures for overseas voters such as postal and online voting.
Efforts to ensure the transparency of the polling processes also faced hurdles regarding transparency of the electoral processes. Under ideal circumstances, election monitors, both international and domestic, are free to assess all stages of the election process, which entails conducting interviews and visits to election-related venues. With the mobility and physical distancing regulations implemented to curb health risks, deployment of such monitors proved to be difficult. With international travel restrictions in place, international election observers were also forced to limit deployments.
Filling the gaps, moving forward
Elections are important as they form the foundations of our democratic institutions. These challenges are indicators that need to further democratize our political processes and recalibrate them to achieve inclusion and proper representation of citizens in governmental functions. Election issues cannot not be treated and resolved in isolation as they are manifestations of the broader impediments to democratization such as marginalization of vulnerable sectors, gender gaps, weak mechanisms to protect fundamental freedoms, and poor awareness of democratic principles. Voting rights are inalienable rights, which can only be realized by exercising other civic duties and empowering other citizens in demanding for an expanded civic space. By doing such duties, citizens are empowered to mitigate the further damages to the state of democracy and ensure the health of democratic institutions.
This article originally appeared in Asia Democracy Chronicles, an online publication spearheaded by the Asia Democracy Network (ADN) and focusing on civil liberties and the state of democracy across the Asian region during the COVID-19 pandemic. Used with permission by ADN.