Dr. Carlos Fernández García unpacks the International Day of Democracy, with a backdrop of COVID-19 and trends such as rising populism.
As the world celebrates democracy today, older and newer democracies are facing social and political challenges triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. These tensions have compounded with existing trends of rising populism, polarization, and different degrees of social unrest, which were rooted in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent fluctuation in prices of key export commodities, which impacted many developing countries.
The United Nations Secretary-General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, has stated that the pandemic has deepened pervasive gender inequalities, unequal access to essential health care, education, and internet, which has resulted in a profound human toll borne by the most deprived. The UN has also drawn attention to the need to phase out emergency powers and laws as the worst of the pandemic subsides, allowing for fundamental freedoms and human rights to be restored.
In this context, Namibia must be commended for having ended the state of emergency in September 2020, managing the pandemic through the “Public Health Covid-19 General Regulations: Public and Environmental Health Act, 2015”.
In relation to the impact of the pandemic on the most vulnerable and its potential effects on the Namibian democracy, it is worth noting the effort made by the Government of Namibia in 2020 when it launched the Economic Stimulus and Relief Package, estimated at 4% of GDP, and aimed at supporting employment and livelihoods among those most at risk. Most recently, the Namibian Government launched the Harambee Prosperity Plan 2 which focuses on a sustainable recovery across socio-economic sectors.
Globally, democracy´s performance has been under scrutiny since the mid-70s. The report to the Trilateral Commission on the governability of the democracies in Western Europe, North America, and Japan dates to 1975. In that report, Crozier, Huntington, and Watanuki argued that the growing social demands versus the decreasing government resources and inadequate institutional arrangements, were posing the main challenge for addressing the social discontent. Twenty-five years later, Pharr and Putnam submitted a new report to the Trilateral Commission where they acknowledged the persisting social malaise with democracy and the persisting difficulty in channeling political action, which implied a questioning of the performance of the system by large parts of society. Nevertheless, scholars did not agree on the existence of a legitimacy crisis for democracy.
In parallel, the world has witnessed how new democracies faced up to their own challenges. Since the third wave of democratization started in the 70s, most of the new democracies have shown resilience to overcome volatile political party systems and challenges associated with this historical period to form mass party organizations in societies increasingly characterized by mass media, internet, and social media. Facing similar challenges, resilient new democracies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia evolved by building shifting partisanships along societal cleavage lines, patron-client schemes, or programmatic distinction, depending on their national context and reorganizing the political landscape over time. As the phenomenon is still under study by scholars, it seems that one of the main factors contributing to the resilience of the system has been the participation of voters, despite the difficulty experienced by many political parties in building solid constituencies.
Namibia as a young democracy has also shown a high degree of resilience with elections characterized by high voter turnout, which has always been above 60% and, in most elections, above 70%. The Constitution, adopted by unanimous consensus, has played a pivotal role in the founding and stability of the Namibian State and its democracy. In particular, the respect for the diversity across the political aisle is a key feature of Namibian politics.
How the social and economic tensions caused by COVID-19 will affect the elections in future, how it may show shifting preferences of voters, how it may impact the strengthening and evolution of the Namibian democracy, will depend on the ability of political leaders to engage in dialogue for state compacts and agreements that can contribute to protect the most vulnerable and recover the economy in a way that leaves no one behind in the advancement of the Sustainable Development Goals. M. Ignatieff, politician and scholar, reminds us that in politics, electoral contenders need to think of opponents as adversaries and never as enemies, because this last practice leads to degradation of the politics, polarization, and exclusion.