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Reports about excessive use of emergency powers in Hungary, increased discrimination against the Roma people, and limitations on media freedoms have created widespread concern that the European responses to the coronavirus will shut down democracy itself. Now that the fog is lifting, initial worries about the pandemic’s negative effects on the health of democracy in Europe have largely not come true. New data show that most European democracies implemented emergency responses to the coronavirus without undermining liberal-democratic standards. The countries where these standards have been somewhat violated—Bulgaria, Hungary, and Poland—were already exhibiting declines in democracy before the pandemic.

What does it mean to respect democratic standards during an emergency? As UN experts highlighted at the beginning of the crisis, government responses must be “proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.” Thus, emergency measures may alter democratic institutions, rights, and proceedings only within certain boundaries. For example, while responses to the coronavirus may ensure physical distance by restricting freedom of movement and assembly, they may not infringe on certain fundamental rights like the right to life or freedom from torture.

Building on these standards, these authors developed eight criteria that signal violations of democratic standards in emergency procedures:

  1. expansion of executive power without a sunset clause and oversight;
  2. discriminatory measures;
  3. violation of rights from which no derogation is permitted under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
  4. restrictions on media freedom;
  5. limitations on electoral freedom and fairness;
  6. disproportionate limitations on the role of the legislature;
  7. disproportionate limitations on judicial oversight; and
  8. arbitrary and abusive enforcement.

Using these criteria, we created a pandemic democratic violations index to assess the extent to which state responses to the coronavirus undermine democratic standards. The index uses a scale from 0 to 1, on which lower scores indicate fewer recorded violations of democratic standards in emergency measures (see figure 1).

Figure 1: Pandemic Democratic Violations Index for Europe, Mid-May 2020

Countries in Europe where violations have been the most severe are those where democracy was already eroding before the coronavirus crisis. The country that scores highest on the index is Hungary, with 0.375. The Hungarian parliament has given Prime Minister Viktor Orbán extensive powers to rule by decree without a specified end date. In addition, emergency measures include prison sentences for publishing fake news about the pandemic.

Next on the watch list is Poland, with a score of 0.125 due to the absence of an end date for its emergency measures and reports of some restrictions on media freedom. In Bulgaria, which scores 0.083, lockdowns have disproportionately affected neighborhoods of Roma people. Romania scores 0.083 on the index because of reports about occasional media restrictions and police abuse in enforcing curfew measures.

There have also been minor violations in other European countries that were not experiencing a significant democratic decline before the onset of the crisis. Malta scores 0.083 because its emergency measures do not specify an end date. In Cyprus, which also scores 0.083, the fight against the coronavirus has involved placing severe restrictions on the movement of refugees and asylum seekers. Greece scores 0.042 because of reports of violence by security forces against asylum seekers, human rights activists, and journalists. Other European countries have not registered confirmed violations of the abovementioned standards.

In many cases, governments have abandoned problematic policies in response to public pressure. For instance, in Spain, the media successfully pressured the government to hold live press conferences allowing diverse media outlets to take part and ask questions freely. In Poland, a problematic presidential election due to be held on May 10 was canceled amid fears of an uneven playing field.

In other cases, it is less clear whether contested practices really violate liberal-democratic standards. For example, the government of Romania shut down several websites, accusing them of spreading false information about the coronavirus. While such actions may limit freedom of speech and information, these websites may have contributed to disinformation and conspiracy theories, for instance by linking the coronavirus to 5G technology or falsely announcing that supermarkets were closing. Likewise, the measures in Cyprus to restrict the movement of refugees and asylum seekers reinforce the need for a deeper debate about where legitimate measures end and democratic violations begin.

In sum, three months after the beginning of the pandemic, European responses show that robust liberal democracies can effectively deal with crises like the coronavirus without jeopardizing democratic standards.

Moving forward, two factors are important for the continued well-being of democracy in Europe. First, governments must remove the emergency measures and restore all democratic freedoms as soon as possible once the crisis has abated. Second, governments must deal with societal processes that the pandemic has set in motion and that could undermine democratic stability in the long term.

Economic recessions are likely to augment social inequalities, which may raise support for illiberal populists. There is already evidence of a rise in toxic polarization across European societies between those who support restrictive measures against the coronavirus and those who do not believe in the danger of the virus. The first group is upset about the reluctance of the second to follow physical distancing orders, while those in the second group see any government regulation on the topic as an unjust infringement of their personal freedom. This potentially explosive cocktail risks undermining a key foundation of democracy: trust and public belief in the legitimacy of government actions.

Anna Lührmann is the deputy director of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute and an assistant professor at the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

Amanda B. Edgell is a research fellow at the V-Dem Institute.

Sandra Grahn is an associate researcher at the V-Dem Institute.

Jean Lachapelle is a research fellow at the V-Dem Institute.

Seraphine F. Maerz is an assistant professor at the V-Dem Institute.