Throughout the world, most media outlets and pundits are so consumed by the public health and economic consequences of COVID-19 that they consistently fail to highlight the looming political and institutional risks ahead. Could in fact the biggest casualty of COVID-19 be democracy itself?
Unfortunately, the pandemic is not just here to test the robustness of our healthcare systems and economies but also the very foundations of our democracies and our perceptions of them. A recent report by the United Nations (COVID-19 and Human Rights: We are all in this together) in fact warns that “The pandemic could provide a pretext to undermine democratic institutions, quash legitimate dissent or disfavored people or groups, with far-reaching consequences that we will live with, far beyond the immediate crisis.”
When analyzing the broader impact of the pandemic one therefore needs to take a holistic approach, looking at the interplay between public health, the economy and its impact upon the livelihoods of people, as it is the combination of all these variables that will define the course of our democratic systems both in the short and the long term.
As we should all be very well aware of by now, economic collapse and protracted recession combined with a pervasive sense of fear and insecurity felt within society – in this case instigated by COVID-19 - can be the breeding ground for acute intrasocietal polarization, extreme alt-right ideas, disinformation, demagogy and political instability often leading to authoritarian approaches.
The above constitute a real threat to the stability of our democracies and as such all necessary steps need to be taken to safeguard our democracies and rights whilst also protecting public health.
In this sense it is imperative to galvanize a feeling of trust in our democratic institutions and elected parliaments. There is no better way to achieve this than to promote further transparency and accountability both at government and parliamentary level through access to information, transparency in public procurements, transparency in political parties and MPs’ finances.
Democratic governments are currently attempting to balance between extraordinary measures which will ensure the protection of their citizens whilst not curtailing their basic freedoms and democratic rights. The Greek government has seemingly fared relatively well in terms of keeping this fine balance. The protective measures and the lockdown that ensued have undoubtedly proven to be effective, as the country has to this day, to a significant extent managed to successfully contain the pandemic. There are however a number of justified concerns as to the Greek government’s track record on transparency, openness and access to information during this period.
Assessing the proportionality of the protective measures
In analysing the proportionality of the measures taken by the Greek government in its effort to tackle the pandemic one needs to firstly draw a distinct line between the first stage of implementation i.e. the “lockdown” and the current stage which involves the gradual easing of the restrictions and the return to a contained “normality”. It is essential to make such a distinction as the circumstances upon which the two stages of measures were implemented differed significantly in terms of urgency, preparedness of the state mechanism and acceptance by the wider population.
The Greek government without any doubt reacted swiftly (with the exception of the delayed closure of churches) in implementing the “first stage” measures which broadly speaking had a positive impact upon the containment of the pandemic. Most importantly it is worth noting that despite their authoritarian nature they enjoyed considerable legitimacy in the eyes of both the vast majority of Greek citizens and the political parties of the opposition. Undoubtedly the overarching sense of fear and insecurity that the pandemic instilled in in most of us was reason enough for the acceptance and justification of such draconian measures despite the entailed sacrifice in basic democratic rights. This collective reaction should not surprise us, history after all teaches us that people are often led to accept if not embrace in a quasi-instinctual fashion the curtailment of fundamental rights in times of crisis and deep concern for their wellbeing.
From a strictly constitutional/legal perspective the measures taken by the Greek government were, taking into account the facts and data now available to us, both constitutionally legitimate and in line with the proportionality principle. According to the Greek constitution in fact, the protection of human life constitutes an overarching duty of the polity. This of course is upon the condition that the measures are temporary and continually revised vis a vis their necessity in protecting public health.
With regards to the second stage, we see that despite the fact that the majority of the restrictive measures have been lifted, a considerable number of citizens are finding it hard to follow the current measures. This is due to a combination of factors such as the protracted period of lockdown and its effect upon the psychology of people, the successful management of the pandemic during its first outbreak- which mitigated the fear factor - and the failure of the government to communicate effectively the nature and scope of this second stage, which in turn has caused confusion. A case in point is what we have been witnessing lately in public squares across Athens, where congregating citizens – especially youngsters – have fallen victims to unjustifiable police violence for failing to conform to a rather peculiar “strict recommendation” – not a law – advising citizens to stay indoors between midnight and six a.m.
The question of transparency and accountability
By strictly focusing our discussion on the proportionality of the protective measures imposed by the government one runs the risk of missing the full picture. We can all agree in fact, at least most of us, that the imposed measures in question constituted a grim necessity for the protection of public health. Our analysis therefore should not be focusing so much on the measures per se but rather on the extraordinary conditions that these have created for government to act with limited oversight, transparency and accountability, and the extent to which the government has taken advantage of these conditions in advancing its own agenda largely freed from the restrictions that checks and balances are meant to offer in democracies. After all it is widely accepted that such crises and the shock factor that accompanies them, often present opportunities for governments to act illicitly, especially in cases such as Greece where media freedom and independence rank among the lowest in Europe and corruption constitutes a chronic disease.
Arguably on the transparency and accountability front, the Greek government unfortunately did not fare as well as it did with the containment of the pandemic.
The easing of the public procurement procedures in an effort to meet the urgent needs of the state caused by the pandemic seems to have been perceived as an opportunity to channel public funds to favor businesses of party friends and supporters. A stark example of such practices is the notorious case of the e-learning platforms intended for free-lance professionals, who instead of receiving financial state aid, received vouchers that would allow them to take online training courses. The government allocated for this purpose a total of 36 million euros to 7 service providers whose selection procedure and the assessment of their learning material (a total of 100.000 pages) was completed in less than a day! Additionally the company details of the beneficiaries were undisclosed in the documents published on the government’s transparency portal Diavgia, probably due to the fact that their owners, according to uncontested findings, maintain friendly relations with members of the government and the New Democracy party. Another instance of dodgy public contracting practices involves the award of a contract to disinfect the prisons across the country to a company which a few days prior to the call was active only in the field of public relations.
Public procurements are unfortunately not the only area where one can detect a severe lack of transparency on behalf of the government. In fact another noteworthy case is the one where 20 million euros were disbursed to media outlets for the purpose of broadcasting covid-19 related public messages without disclosing the final beneficiaries and how the sum was distributed.
There are of course more examples that could be added to the list but the point to be made here is that, especially in extraordinary times, ensuring transparency and accountability in decision making processes and public contracting is of the outmost importance. No crisis or state of emergency should constitute an excuse to undermine transparency and accountability, as they both constitute fundamental guarantors of a healthy and stable democracy.
The legislative process in the time of COVID-19
It is widely agreed among the international community of parliamentary monitoring organisations that during this extraordinary period parliaments should remain as functional as possible as their oversight role over government becomes of crucial importance. At the same time however it is recommended that the legislative process – to the extent that this is feasible – should be limited to the bare necessary as the conditions imposed by the pandemic are likely to affect the quality and soundness of the legislative process.
The Greek government recently announced that it plans to pass through parliament 26 bills by the end of July. This has raised a series of concerns which have been voiced by Vouliwatch in a recent communication addressed to the Prime Minister and the President of the Hellenic Parliament.
Vouliwatch believes that due to the content of the bills in question consent will be hard to reach among political parties. Without fail, contentious bills are challenged by the opposition parties by making use of all tools available to them in the parliament’s regulatory framework. These can include for example a request for a roll call vote or even an exception of unconstitutionality. The extent to which the aforementioned processes will be feasible - considering the tight legislative schedule and the extraordinary conditions imposed by the pandemic - is unclear, thus raising a question on whether or not opposition parties will be able to exert their right to effectively challenge a bill.
Additionally, 26 bills in the space of 3 months practically translates into two plenary votes per week at a time where COVID-19 related restrictions are in place and the number of MPs allowed both in the committees and plenary has been significantly decreased. The issue of time is of huge importance in this case as from it a number of serious concerns arise. Will the MPs have time to adequately prepare themselves and go over every single article of a given bill while at the same time tabling amendments? Will there be adequate time for them to catch up with all the last minute ministerial amendments which are often irrelevant to the content of the bill and therefore require further scrutiny? Won’t the time available for public consultations be severely reduced thus limiting the input of citizens and civil society organisations? In the end, won’t the quality of the legislative process as whole – which remains problematic as it is - suffer significantly?
Finally there is a question of a constitutional nature to be addressed. According to the Greek constitution (article 67) “Parliament cannot resolve without an absolute majority of the members present, which in no case may be less than one-fourth of the total number of the Members of Parliament.” Given that due to the pandemic’s restrictions only up to 25 MPs are allowed to be present at once in the plenary can the voting process be considered as being constitutionally sound?
Parliamentary democracy in Greece has already been significantly undermined during the protracted austerity period imposed by the adjustment programs sponsored by the country’s lenders. The vast majority of the legislative process over the past decade in fact concerned the ratification of structural reform policies dictated by the bail out agreements. Further undermining the parliamentary process by using the pandemic as a pretext to bend the rules so that the government can expedite for whatever reason its agenda will most likely result in the further delegitimisation and weakening of the role of the Hellenic Parliament. Parliaments are at the center of democracies and as such safeguarding their function as the supreme oversight and legislative bodies should be of paramount importance for any democratically elected government.
Has COVID-19 infected democracy?
One can only speculate on the long term impact of COVID-19 on democracy. Factors such as the duration of the pandemic and the recovery pace of the economy will undoubtedly play a significant part. Presently democracy is under voluntary quarantine, the challenge ahead is to ensure that this does not turn into the new normal. In this respect it is of paramount importance for civil society, the press and citizens to stay extra vigilant and perform their oversight role over governments expanding their executive power at the cost of transparency and accountability. This is by no means an unattainable task. In fact to an extent we have already been witnessing it in Greece where some of the scandals and irregularities mentioned above have been spotted by concerned citizens and brought to light through the use of social media forcing the government to retract. Surely this constitutes a positive sign for the future of our democracies; after all democracy works best when appropriated by the people.
This article is part of the DOSSIER "FOCUS: COVID-19 - Political Debates on the Pandemic with a European Focus"