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EROSION AND DEMOCRATIC RENEWAL: Is it possible to hope for better days?

In the last decade, the decline in the quality and quantity of democracies has worried academics, governments, and entities linked to the protection of human rights. It is transparent in the reach of extreme-right speeches, in the election of figures like Trump, in the United States, Viktor Orban, in Hungary, and de Bolsonaro, in Brazil, among others.

Democratic erosions – understood here as the incremental degradation of the structures and substances of liberal constitutional democracy – in various contexts were intensified during the worrying context of the Coronavirus pandemic. 2020, however, also brought institutional and popular reactions to this scenario that may indicate stagnation or regression of the authoritarian wave. 

Democratic erosion as a factual threat

The COVID-19 pandemic has alerted experts to the resurgence of the ongoing democratic erosion wave. Among the threats were the use of emergency powers to concentrate functions, human rights violations, and increasing social inequalities.

In Hungary, the parliament granted unlimited and indefinite powers to Viktor Orban of Fidesz. Even with the repeal of the measure, erosion remains in the country that, like Poland – where Andrzej Duda of PiS was re-elected – already occupies the status of a hybrid regime.

The constitutional crisis in Peru has gained a new episode. Months after dissolving Congress, President Martín Vizcarra suffered impeachment “for moral incapacity” due to accusations of corruption. His removal was followed by popular protests, harshly reprimanded by police forces. In less than a week, the presidency of the country was replaced three times, amidst political and economic chaos, with little prospect of stability.

The context of widespread human rights violations in Venezuela results in the mass displacement of thousands of its citizens. The worsening of the crisis in recent years involves Juan Guaidó’s self-proclamation as President, division within the armed forces and the reappointment of Nicolás Maduro to the Executive, in an election marked by accusations of fraud.

In Brazil, the year was marked by protests in favor of closing the National Congress and the Supreme Federal Court, attempted self-coup, militarization and state apparatus. Corruption, the spread of fake news and attacks by digital militias, historical revisionism, environmental setbacks, in human rights, and attacks on academic freedom and expression intensified. At the cost of thousands of lives, the federal government has adopted an unscientific stance on the pandemic, an approach that is expected to lead to its accountability for genocide and crimes against humanity.

In addition, erosion processes in India, Turkey, the Philippines continue unhindered.

Democracy resists 

Popular protests that began in October 2019 resulted in the approval in plebiscite of a Constituent for a new Chilean constitution. Motivated by the increase of the subway fare in Santiago, a group of secondary school students demonstrated jumping turnstiles. This demonstration spread throughout the country, and became known as the “social stampede“, with wider demands against a system of inequalities and a demand for state participation in the provision of public services.

The Chilean Revolution. Photo: Elias Arias

This system was governed by the 1980 Constitution, elaborated and promulgated during Pinochet’s dictatorship, in which the state’s actions were subsidiary to private initiative in relation to health and education, for example.

As a result of the Plebiscite, almost 80% of Chileans want to see the dictatorship’s Constitution buried once and for all. Opportunity for institutional reforms to be carried out, such as a reformulation of public security, more specifically in the Chilean police, the carabinieri. As planned, Constituents will be elected in April 2021, with no need for partisan affiliation, with the forecast of gender parity, 50% men and 50% women, as well as a quota of seats reserved for indigenous people.

In the United States, the assassination of George Floyd has leveraged protests against violence and racism imbricated in the country’s police apparatus. Months later, Trump’s anti-democratic and anti-scientific project was rejected in a historic ballot box appearance. Despite the attacks on the credibility of the plea and resistance of Trump in accepting the result, everything indicates that Biden and Kamala Harris will assume the White House in 2021 without major obstacles.

In Bolivia, the population attended the polls to demonstrate their support for democracy and in repudiation of the coup that deposed and exiled Evo Morales a year ago. Recently, the country recognized the union between people of the same sex and began to tax great fortunes. In Colombia, protests demand an end to police violence and advocate the implementation of social guarantees.

In addition to the creation of the Tax on Great Fortunes to face the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, Aporte Solidario y Extraordinario, as the authorities called it, the self-cultivation of marijuana for medicinal purposes was also approved in Argentina. The decriminalization of abortion seems to be close to being realized. The Federal Chamber approved the bill, sent by President Alberto Fernandéz, and it is still to be voted in the Senate. The social mobilization around the discussion was great, with popular demonstrations by legalization advocates and opponents.

Currently, there is a legal provision for the termination of pregnancy until the 14th week, in cases of risk to the mother’s health, and in cases of rape. This is the 9th time that a bill on abortion decriminalization is being discussed in the Argentinean Congress, with the difference that, this time, with the support of the Executive. In 2018, a bill on abortion legalization was rejected by the Senate.

In Brazil, the judiciary, legislative, civil society, media and governors were barriers to human rights setbacks and minimized the proportions of the health crisis. Unable to realize its own political party, the Alliance for Brazil, Bolsonaro did not emerge as a major electoral cable in municipal elections, in which antidemocratic figures like Crivela were repudiated by the population.

Despite Hungarian and Polish resistance, the newly created post-Pandemic recovery fund and the European Union budget condition the transfer of resources to respect the rule of law and human rights by member countries.

Conclusion

In addition to the institutional responses, Cláudio Pereira de Souza Neto highlights the decisive role of society in resisting erosion (2020, p. 18). In this regard, the latest report by the Varieties of Democracy Institute – V-DEM celebrates the increase in popular protests in defense of democracy on a global scale.

The Hungarian, Polish, and Brazilian examples show that the problem is complex and there is still a long way to go in the fight against democratic erosion. It is not yet possible to measure the human rights impacts of the health crisis of COVID-19. Besides the deepening of inequalities, a severe economic and financial crisis could reinforce discourses linked to the extreme right.

However, the popular insurgencies throughout 2020 were real barriers to the deepening of authoritarianism and bring hope for better days.

By Raquel Cristina Possolo [1] and Mariana Tormin Tanos Lopes [2].

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[1] Master of Laws student at UFMG and researcher at CJT/UFMG.

[2] Master of Laws student at UFMG and researcher at CJT/UFMG.

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