INTERNATIONAL

‘Democracy under threat during pandemic’

In open letter, 500 prominent persons warn some leaders are ‘tightening grip on power’

Over 500 political and civil society leaders, Nobel laureates and rights groups, on Thursday warned that some governments were using the coronavirus pandemic to “tighten their grip on power,” undermining democracy and civil liberties.

In an open letter signed by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, actor Richard Gere and Nobel Peace Prize laureates Shirin Ebadi, Lech Walesa and Jose Ramos-Horta, among others, the authors called the ongoing pandemic a “formidable global challenge to democracy.”

High stakes

“Democracy is under threat, and people who care about it must summon the will, the discipline, and the solidarity to defend it,” the authors wrote. “At stake are the freedom, health, and dignity of people everywhere.”

The letter — the aim of which is to raise “awareness and mobilise citizens” — was initiated by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

“Just as the pandemic is already having massive economic and social consequences, it is very likely already having very profound political consequences,” Kevin Casas-Zamora, the organisation’s secretary general, told AFP.

Stressing that it was still early days and the full impact on democracy would have to be evaluated later, Mr. Casas-Zamora noted there were already worrying signs.

Mr. Casas-Zamora pointed to “cases like Hungary where basically the emergency powers invoked by the government had no expiration date.”

Those powers were lifted however by a unanimous vote in Parliament on June 16 that took effect the following day.

Mr. Casas-Zamora pointed also to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s expansion of emergency powers and El Salvador’s use of detention centres as other causes for concern.

Noting that emergency powers were a “legitimate part of the arsenal” of democratic governments to deal with exceptional circumstances, Mr. Casas-Zamora said the exercise of those powers had to be “proportional to the emergency.”

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