Commentary: COVID and Canada’s chance to defend and renew democracy worldwide

Commentary: COVID and Canada’s chance to defend and renew democracy worldwide

COVID and Canada’s chance to defend and renew democracy worldwide

By Tom Cormier and Kevin Casas-Zamora. Published on Ipolitics on Nov 4, 2020.

When Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne met with exiled Belorussian leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in Vilnius, Lithuania, recently, he assured her that “Canada will always be with you,” after elections he and many European leaders have labelled fraudulent.

Tikhanovskaya told him that this bold leadership was crucial in her efforts to keep fighting for democracy, and underscores the important role Canada can play in strengthening democratic voices and institutions around the world.

In too many countries, governments have adopted emergency measures that restrict human rights, enhance state surveillance, circumvent parliaments, and manipulate or stall elections under the guise of battling the global pandemic. In Belarus, Thailand, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon and elsewhere, this has become a catalyst for citizens to demand more democracy from entrenched and autocratic leaders.

Most legislatures in the developing world lack the capacity to oversee COVID-related executive actions, and many legislators struggle to serve as an effective bridge to represent citizen interests.

Women and marginalized groups, who represent the majority on the front lines of pandemic response and are most at risk, are insufficiently represented in formal political decision-making, compounding the problem.

There is both risk and opportunity in Canada’s support of multilateral institutions and individual countries to respond and recover. The risk is that enhanced assistance dollars could contribute to corruption further undermining democracy, especially if parliaments lack the capacity and political will to oversee increases in public spending, and if news media and citizens are silenced by government restrictions.

Support for resilient, democratic institutions, and actors such as women’s groups, human-rights activists, journalists and legislators, is an opportunity to safeguard against this.

The Parliamentary Centre and International IDEA, along with leading international democracy support groups, have challenged Canada and its democratic partners to build a global protective network for democracy, and to put democracy support at the centre of pandemic responses.

Reports such as “Global Democracy & COVID-19: Upgrading International Support” and “A Call to Defend Democracyadvocate for deeper co-operation and coordination among democratic nations to safeguard democratic norms and practices, in order to track restrictive measures and to support promising civic participation and parliamentary-engagement initiatives. It has attracted the support of over 500 prominent individuals from 119 countries, including 13 Nobel Laureates and 62 former heads of state or government.

After more than three decades of a sustained international effort to back the emergence of inclusive democracy, we are in serious danger of backsliding. How political leaders and countries respond during this time will determine the extent to which democracy in many parts of the world is renewed or veers backward.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index shows that the number of “full democracies” has fallen steadily over the past 14 years. The 2020 annual “Freedom in the World Index” put out by Freedom House urged concerted action to reverse this decline.

In its annual report, Varieties of Democracies echoes the same concerns about democratic backsliding, even though it recognizes that our democratic systems have demonstrated enormous resiliency in the face of complex challenges. International IDEA’s annual report entitled “The Global State of Democracy 2019: Addressing the ills, reviving the promise” also acknowledges a widespread democratic erosion, while highlighting the positive fact that “democratic transitions occur in political regimes that seemed staunchly undemocratic, and popular democratic aspirations continue to be expressed and defended around the world.”

Despite this, Canada’s support for democracy has declined steadily in recent years. According to a 2019 report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs committee, only two per cent of Canadian foreign aid was invested in strengthening democratic institutions in 2017-18.

The pandemic has heightened the need to defend democracy, not as a subsidiary component of international development assistance, but as the backbone of long-term international development strategy.

When asked what Canada has to offer the world, the list is lengthy. A peaceful, welcoming, multicultural, tolerant, and inclusive society is usually top of mind.

While Canada has done better than most jurisdictions to build democratic institutions that increasingly mirror society’s diversity, there’s still more to do to promote gender equality, reconcile with Indigenous peoples, and have difficult discussions about the cause of systemic racism. We have much to share, but also a lot to learn in supporting democracy internationally.

The voices of: nurses in Burkina Faso on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19; business owners in Armenia and Azerbaijan, whose livelihoods are threatened by the eruption of violent conflict; and citizens in Belarus and Thailand, who want fair elections and democratic reform, are the ones their political leaders need to hear.

They serve as an important reminder of why democracy matters today, more than ever before, and that, as much as the current pandemic has brought challenges, it also presents unprecedented opportunity for Canadian and global leadership to defend and renew democracy, and to support those working to build it.

Tom Cormier is president and CEO of the Parliamentary CentreKevin Casas-Zamora is Secretary-General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance