By THO Contributor, Ozge Taylan
Pandemic has exposed flaws and highlighted inequalities in our global and domestic neoliberal system, but particularly triggered the debates about whether it has encouraged the authoritarian leaders. I argue that the Covid-19 provides a convenient pretext for them to further tilt the balance of power in their favor.
The “The Global State of Democracy 2019” report published by IDEA is quite interesting. It is stated that “authoritarianism is rising in all regions, practical solutions and action in defense of democracy is even more urgent.” One of the main reasons of this trend is the shrinking civic space, declines in civil liberties, clampdowns on civil society, and restrictions on freedom of expression. The freedom of speech and media and transparency issues have become more apparent. The Report further argues that there are many countries in which the leaders have intentionally limited the civic space and weakened constitutional checks on executive authority, resulting in democratic backsliding and a deteriorating rule of law.
Democracy is not self-perpetual, civil society is one of the prerequisites for democracy and civil society organizations (CSOs) are one of the most strongest actors as an intermediary level between the individual and the state. At the democracy scheme of IDEA, civil society participation takes place under the participatory engagement in the 5 main branches:
Civil society is an essential stakeholder in democratic systems. Civil society organizations (CSOs) serve the functioning of democracy, democracy also serves the functioning of society in a well-functioned manner. The two are like parts of a whole. Democratic standards can be achieved with a civil society that is empowered by the participation of individuals who are creative, questioning, think free, have sensitivities about the country and the world they live in, and believe in pluralism. The stronger civil society strengthens democracy, and a strong democracy paves the way for a participatory civil society. That’s why it is very important to empower the civil society that play key roles as service providers and advocates and to arrange the legal frameworks and the environment in which civil society operates.
Covid-19 is not the first pandemic we have encountered; pandemic of racism, pandemic of misogynism and pandemic of poverty have been ravaging our society around for a long time. Unfortunately, with the Covid-19, inequalities in society have deepened and the marginalized groups and individuals or vulnerable communities have experienced increased discrimination. For instance, whereas the privileged segment of the societies could work at home, the larger majority have had to work by endangering their health. Furthermore, violence against women and domestic abuse has increased. On the other hand, CSOs have become even more oppressed in authoritarian countries. Authoritarian regimes or leaders have formed CSOs under their control. Due to the severely shrinking of space for the media, civil society, and the opposition, we are not able to hear new views and to get new perspectives on the growing and real difficulties. Because of the practices of authoritarian regimes, many countries have now “organized civil society” and the voice of CSOs are muted.
Two points clearly illustrate how CSOs and civic space is essential to Covid-19 recovery: First, the article, published by Harvard University experts, emphasizes the role of CSOs in promoting public health. CSOs can effectively support public health by educating people about the need for social distancing and better hygiene. For the task of distributing Covid-19 vaccines to people all around the world will be a daunting task and this could not be done without CSOs’ participation. Furthermore, in raising money for emergency relief, collecting medical supplies and protective gear for overwhelmed hospitals, delivering aid to those who lack other forms of social protection, donating medical equipment and food, restoring communication among the actors, and preventing disinformation and false narratives about the Covid-19, they are playing crucial roles. Second, the countries’ socio-economic development has been challenged by the current health crisis. CSOs in countries and at global level fulfill their mission like raising funds and take the lead in socio-economic recovery only if they have a space. According to the V-Dem Report, media censorship and the repression of civil society have intensified in a record 37 countries – eleven more than the 26 states currently affected by severe authoritarian practices.  Andrew O’Donohue, THO Fellow, in his recent op-ed piece, discusses how the civil society participation and pluralistic social order -particularly media- and economic in/security of the countries are intertwined.
In defense of democracy, CSOs play a key role in supporting social protection systems and bringing up the problems that become more apparent and more severe with the Pandemic and the representation of those who experience these problems. Declining conditions for democracy confronts the systemic change that has been coming from all corners of the globe, the social, economic and political transformation. We now need a new social contract in which all segments of society must be included.