Mojca Nemgar 1*
1 Author affiliation: university Niccoló Cusano, Rome, Italy
* Correspondent author: Mojca Nemgar – firstname.lastname@example.org
Volume 2, issue 2
Received: 29. 7. 2021; Accepted: 7. 8. 2021; Published: 25. 9. 2021
Category: Research paper
The article deals with the correlations between the pandemic COVID-19 and the democratic process in Slovenia. Specifically, it focuses on the interrelation between exogenous shocks as pandemic and the effectiveness of response during the health crisis and perils for the democratic process. While in the first wave of the pandemic, the newer democracies had the upper hand in tackling the pandemic, that is not the case for the second pandemic where the numbers of infections and death per million are higher than in “older” consolidated democracies. The nature of measures used to tackle the epidemic may provide a window of opportunity for incumbents to centralise and accumulate power and increase surveillance and control over the population as well as control over the media and the information
Keywords: COVID-19, pandemic, democratic process, democratic consolidation, exogenous shocks
After WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, most of the countries around the world decided to impose the lockdown, with the extent of closure varying among countries. After the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, Italy was the first European country that was badly hit and has put the entire population under quarantine on 10th March. In the following days, other European countries followed with the measures like bans on assembly, closing schools, bars, non-essential stores, limiting or putting on halt the public transport and closing borders for non-essential travel. In the global context, pandemic represents a threat to the liberal international order since in order to contain the spread of the disease, governments started implementing political and economic policies inconsistent with it. Therefore, the measures are taken to tackle pandemics that undermine political freedoms are endangering the foundations of liberal democracy and economic freedoms that are being replaced by economic nationalism to safeguard the national economies.
However, the exogenous shocks such as the pandemic outbreak of Covid-19 could weaken and endanger democracy and democratic legitimacy. Therefore, the article focuses on causal connections between response to exogenous shock (COVID-19 pandemic), public opinion, and democratic legitimacy.
More specifically, the article focuses on Slovenia and the handling of the COVID-19 epidemic in the light of attempts at the usurpation of public power. As it seems, the epidemic in countries without a long democratic tradition has found a fertile ground for attempts of misuse of power, a pretext to limit the democratic process alongside the attacks on freedom of the press, and Slovenia is no exception.
The main research question is whether an exogenous event like a pandemic can undermine democratic legitimacy in less consolidated democracies. As a result, citizens in times of crisis could lower support for democratic values or practices and democratic institutions and prefer strong leadership due to stronger dispositions toward action.
The article is composed of three parts. The first part is devised as the theoretical section where the basic concepts regarding exogenous shocks and the influence on the democratic process, democratisation and legitimacy are presented.
In this part, I will try to provide a theoretical basis to disentangle the correlations between promptness of the government response, the public opinion support, and the democratic process.
The theoretical section will be followed a case study. First, I will focus on presenting the background of democratic consolidation in Slovenia, focusing on the 2008 economic crisis as a departing point. Secondly, the article will concentrate on more empirical parts: opinion polls, revealing the government’s support and measures taken by the government to “successfully” fight the pandemic. Finally, to narrow the focus of the article, I will concentrate on the democratic process of one of the post- communist states in CEE Europe, namely to amidst the pandemic untangling common traits and differences of measures introduced to deal with the exogenous shock, in this case, pandemic and the perils for a democratic process in newer or less consolidated democracies.
While Slovenia has since the dissolution of Yugoslavia been regarded as a perfect example of democratic consolidation among post-communist states, that is not the case for Hungary that has been 2010 experiencing democratic backsliding. The central idea is whether the response to the pandemic had further negative consequences for democratic consolidation and if it brought increased support for the parties in government that could further strengthen their position of power and erosion of democracy in these particular cases. According to the latest Nations in Transit report, Slovenia is rated as consolidated democracy with 82/100, the second-highest score after Estonia among the countries in the report (Freedom House, 2020).
To begin is necessary to connect the research hypothesis with the existing research regarding exogenous shocks and erosion of democratic principles in newer democracies.
In order to get to the bottom of the perils for a democratic process in newer democracies, I shall focus on the connection of the concept of liberal democracy and concepts of democratisation and democratic consolidation as it seems that newer democracies do not face democratic backslide when speaking about free elections but could encounter more setbacks with respecting the rule of law or independence of the media.
The process of democratisation can be described as the process of transition or transition of a state from a non-democratic to a more democratic regime (Rustow, 1970; Potter, 1997). Grugel generally defines democratisation as the process of building a democratic state (Grugel, 2002). While Pridham and Vanhanen define the democratic transition as “a state of regime change that begins at the point when the former totalitarian or authoritarian regime begins to decline, this leads to a situation where a new constitution is adopted, democratic structures become routine, and the political elite adopts the behaviour and norms of liberal democracy ” (Pridham and Vanhanen, 1994).
In order to connect the causality between exogenous shocks and democratic process in newer democracies, we need to recognise that extreme event such as pandemic represents a fertile ground for the erosion of democratic principles, as public opinion appears to be relatively willing to accept a technocratic or authoritarian turn. Hence, the COVID may provide a window of opportunity for incumbents to centralise and accumulate power and increase surveillance and control”(Amat et al., 2020).
Previous research suggests that thoughtful responses to exogenous shocks such as natural disasters or pandemics can benefit incumbents since voters perceive responses to natural disasters as informative events that reveal information about the competence of the officeholders. “The focus of research in newer democracies has been on the public opinion implications of man-made (e.g., economic decline, crime waves) rather than exogenous events like natural disasters (Carlin et al., 2013). “In newer democracies, theory and empirical research suggest that crises or exogenous shocks can undermine democratic legitimacy” (Nel and Rights 2008; Merolla and Zechmeister 2009; Kriesi 2013). Henceforth crisis puts newer democracies at risk because of possible polarisation of public opinion that could lead to violent political and social conflicts; encouragement of politicians who disregard checks and balances and “fuel public acceptance of gradual erosion of political rights and civil liberties” (Norris, 1999).
The exogenous shock could lead to a preference for more authoritarian leaders that tend to centralise power, erode checks and balances, and use executive power to increase control over overpopulation. However, if they do not encounter resistance from civil society and the citizens, the authoritarian tendencies could outlast the pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic represents a large shock for public health and the economy, allowing citizens to learn about the competencies of the governments based on their policy responses. However, the research on the political effects of exogenous shocks mostly focuses on the impact on incumbent support. “Evidence shows that often incumbents get punished by events that produce negative welfare shocks on the population, even if they are outside the incumbent’s control” (Amat et al., 2020). On the other hand, these situations also provide opportunities for voters to learn about previously hidden qualities of politicians (Ashworth et al., 2018).
Analysis conducted by Cepaluni, Dorsch and Branyizski indicates that more democratic countries experienced more per capita deaths in the first pandemic since they reacted with delay and delivered less effective responses (Cepaluni et al., 2020). Although social scientists primarily tend to agree that democratic governance and economic performance are interconnected, and democracies have better social outcomes based upon accountable policy-making processes (Przewoski and Limogi, 1993; Acemoglu et al., 2019), nonetheless part of scholarship suggests that the same features of democracy constrain the effectiveness of the democratic decision-making “(Malesky and London, 2014). Therein lies the trade-off in democracy: policy responses that interfere with personal liberties that could have contained the outbreak were not implemented in the early stages of the crisis leading to high numbers of casualties(Cepaluni at al., 2020).
Building on the ideas of Linz and Stepan (1996), Merkel proposes a multilevel model of democratic consolidation: constitutional consolidation, representative consolidation, representative consolidation, democratic consolidation of the political culture. Namely, democracy consolidated at all four levels possesses vast reserves of resistance to destabilising exogenous shocks, such as the economic or foreign-policy crises (Merkel, 2008). Although the political consequences for the democracies could not be avoided during the economic crisis, the discontent and anger were expressed and channelled through ballots resulting in the change of governments and coalitions in power (Davis and Carothers, 2013). Unfortunately, in many cases, the discontent was channelled into support of rather populist and anti-establishment parties, especially in the CEE region.
Although Slovenia, a post-communist country that was one the most economically successful countries of the transition being the fastest to reduce the development gap separating it from more economically developed EU member states, it can no longer be said with certainty that the processes of economic transition and democratic consolidation were successfully terminated. Slovenia was considered the frontrunner among the newly established democracies of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE): it was already considered “free” by the mid-1990s, according to Freedom House’s annual survey, Nations in Transit (NIT) (Kraševec and Johannsen, 2016).
In 2007 Slovenia was the first CEE EU member state to become a eurozone member but was strongly affected by the economic crisis. The GDP shrunk in 2009 by 7,8%, which placed Slovenia as fifth the most affected state in the EU. In 2011, the crisis led to the collapse of the centre-left government, followed by parliamentary elections, which ended the stability of the Slovenian political arena. Although a party, Positive Slovenia, led by Ljubljana’s mayor Zoran Janković won the elections, it could not form the government because it did not have the majority in parliament; therefore, Janez Janša SDS’s leader was appointed as a prime minister. In 2013 amidst the economic crisis and the popular protests against the government, the prime minister resigned, and Alenka Bratušek, head of the department for State Budget at Ministry of Finance, was given the mandate to lead the government to face the most critical economic moment in the history of Slovenia, that was in the middle of double-dip recession cycle and almost cut off from international financial markets because of rapidly increasing public debt.
By 2014, Slovenia stabilised its public finances through painful fiscal measures, and the new centre-left coalition adopted a strong pro-EU approach. Nevertheless, since the economic crisis, we can witness increased volatility in the parliamentary arena, with new parties that can win the necessary votes to win the elections but have difficulties forming the coalition to the governor. The coalition dissolves before the end of the mandate. The consequences of these developments are apparent in public opinion surveys and the electoral landscape’s increased volatility, especially in the instability of the party system. (Malčič and Kraševec, 2019)
Amidst the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, the new government was inaugurated, bringing a major political shift, as Janez Janša, leader of the centre-right wing SDS party, was appointed as a new Prime minister. With Janša’s strong ties to Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, his endorsement of right-wing rather populist rhetoric and attacks on media, the opposition believes that Slovenia’s democratic principles are at stake. As a part of emergency measures adopted by the government in response to the epidemic, public gatherings were prohibited, which was also effective for daily press conferences with the Crisis Headquarters (established by the government to deal with the epidemic), which would be held without journalist.
Nevertheless, there were indications that the epidemic might be used as an attempt at the usurpation of power. The government sent to parliamentary procedure several laws that can be perceived as strengthening executive power, firstly it implemented a law suspending most deadlines in administrative proceedings, including those under the Public Information Access Act, thus de facto suspending all freedom of information requests. The government also passed a law granting it complete control of the budget until September 2020 (Kukavica, 2020).
The ruling coalition amended some procedural democratic safeguards in the referendum legislation, e.g., limiting the right to a referendum. In contrast, their attempt to activate legislation giving the army police powers (article 37. a of the Defense Act) was unsuccessful.
The Intervention Measures Act was introduced to provide support measures for different spheres such as companies, CSOs, the self-employed, employees, etc. However, the law also contained two articles, 103 and 104, intended to broaden police powers and surveillance. (Civicus, 2020). Last but not least, the government started limiting press freedom, as seen in the first weeks of the epidemic when de facto press briefings with journalists were suspended, allegedly to contain the spread of Covid-19.
During the first wave of the pandemic, Slovenia managed to contain the pandemic successfully. Moreover, by introducing strict prevention measures early on, Slovenia and other countries had significantly fewer COVID-related deaths than their western European counterparts.
On the other hand, the situation got quickly out of hand in the autumn, leading to a 30-day nationwide state of emergency enactment on 19th October. On 20th October, the night curfew was introduced from 21:00 to 6:00.
Since the beginning of autumn, the government has not considered some of the key proposals of the experts’ group established by the government. On 27th September, for example, individual members of the group proposed that compulsory regular testing be introduced for all employees of the nursing homes. This proposal was ignored by the government, and in the following weeks, homes became the main hotbeds of infection and death. The National Institute of Public Health (NIJZ) issued instructions for testing employees only a month later (Cirman et al., 2020).
At the end of September, the group warned that the system in place to tackle the spread of the virus was not working properly: issuance of epidemiological quarantines was not timely, people received decisions only after the expiration of quarantine. The experts suggested closing individual municipalities first rather than the entire country or region. In addition, they proposed an increase in the daily number of molecular PCR tests to 10,000, which was never achieved in Slovenia.
On 23rd December, voluntary trial mass testing started on 13 locations across Slovenia. However, as of 5th January 2021, the testing was temporarily suspended by Ljubljana Community Health Centre. As they explained to STA, they decided to suspend the testing based on the Public Agency for Medicines and Medical Devices (JAZMP) that is investigating the problems with the swabs.
Slovenia was the first country in European Union that proclaimed that the epidemic has ended on 15th May. However, some measures remained in place, as the risk of spreading new coronavirus infection remains. With time, some of the measures were loosened against the government, and protests started pointing out the polarisation of society and frictions between the left and right facets of the political spectrum.
Still, the support for the SDS, the strongest coalition party, was slowly growing in opinion polls placing SDS at first place, namely the support for SDS was on 22.7%, while the support for the second largest political party, Social democrats, was at 14,7%, followed by LMŠ with 10,8 % (Lista Marjana Šarca), the political party founded by ex-prime-minister that resigned at the beginning of 2020 after losing the support in parliament from the political party Left (Levica).
Figure 1: Party support
In March and April, another survey was conducted asking the respondents if they trust the government to make the right decisions in the fight against the epidemic, with 58,1% positive responses in March and 75,9% in April, while 22,2% responded negatively in March as well as in April.
Figure 2: Trust in Government
In another opinion poll conducted by Ninamedia, the work of the government was positively assessed by 48,5 % of respondents, while 46,1 per cent of respondents assessed the work of the government negatively, and 5,4% responded that they do not know how to assess the work of the government.
Although Slovenia was among the first countries in the EU to see the number of infections fall practically to 0 end of May 2020, unfortunately, it did not escape the severity of the second wave of the pandemic when the numbers started rising from September at the beginning of the school year resulting in the closure of the schools on 19th October and respectively on 26th October for students under 6th grade. In the meantime, other measures followed, such as the closing of bars and restaurants, non-essential stores and limitation of movement to the municipality of residence.
The main spread of infections in the fall occurred in October because the lack of staff at the Ministry of Health leads to the disintegration of the system of issuance of quarantines, so the sick and those who were in contact with persons who tested positive did not stay at home but continued to go to work.
As of 6th January 2020, the introduced measures did not have the desired results, and the incidence rate of positive PCR tests equalled 37,4 %, and the overall number of positive tests (antigenic and PCR combined) equalled 3354. (Covid-19 Sledilnik, 2021)
It has become clear that Slovenia, with the second wave, had to face a similar offensive of the pandemic as it is western and after more than three months of restrictive measures resulting in limitations of movement, closure of schools, restaurants and bars, and non-essential stores is unable to contain the epidemic. By now, it is clear that the Slovenian government has failed in containing the epidemic to the point of the distrust of the population in the meaningfulness of the measures and restrictions introduced by the government. Furthermore, the Court of Auditors has completed a draft report on purchasing personal protective equipment during the epidemic and has sent the police a document in which suspicions of criminal conduct have been detected for 13 of the 100 contracts reviewed.
In these circumstances, in December 2020, Ninamedia conducted a survey for newspaper Dnevnik and Večer on voting preferences and government support.
Figure 3: Party support
The largest coalition party, the SDS, enjoys the largest support at 20.6%, the support. The parties SD follows it with 11.8% support and LMŠ with 11.7% support. In the fourth place, we can find the Left with 9.1% support, which also achieved its best result this year in this measurement. Unlike for SDS that has seen somewhat lower support than in surveys conducted in May, June and July while other coalition parties Nsi, Desus and especially SMC, experienced significant losses in support since the support for SMC is below 1%. Even though the respondents show the highest support for the SDS, the strongest party of the ruling coalition in opinion polls, the support still lingers at 20,6% and in case of elections, SDS is obliged to form a coalition also with the parties that come from different part of the ideological spectrum and the support is far from being unanimous. The dissatisfaction with economic development and distrust of institutions could be considered the main culprits for low voter turnout, one of the characteristics of voters’ discontent. On the other hand, the government support is falling during the second wave of the epidemic, as can be seen from the polls evaluating government performance as successful or unsuccessful.
Figure 4: Evaluation of government performance
The poll again showed low support for the government. Namely, 64.9 per cent of the respondents assessed that the government was operating unsuccessfully, while 30.9 per cent assessed the work of the government as successful. 4.2 per cent of respondents, however, answered “I do not know” when asked how they evaluate the work of the government.
As it can be concluded from the numbers of infected with Covid-19 virus and casualties, Slovenia (2,156 infected and 119 casualties) successfully handled the first wave of the pandemic. Slovenia was even the first country in the EU to proclaim the end of the pandemic on 15th May 2020. As expected, the support for parties leading the government increased due to the successful tackling of the pandemic. It is understandable and could be perceived as positive if we were not discussing governments exposing non-democratic tendencies. Because the controversial measures were terminated, I decided to look at the consequences of the COVID-19 from a different angle. I shifted the outlook from terminated legislation once the emergency ceased to the voters’ perception and their support for strong leadership. In this case, since the countries, since the first wave of the pandemic was successfully confronted t, the voters were able to acquire new information about incumbents that led to an increase in support for the ruling parties.
In contrast, the second wave of the health crisis changed the opinion polls, nevertheless leaving as most supported party SDS, the ruling party. As the great body of literature suggests, newer democracies are more inclined to non-democratic tendencies in times of crisis. The last occurrence that can be causally connected to an exogenous shock, namely economic crisis, has brought the electoral success of populist parties that were especially electorally successful in CEE. However, Western Europe was not immune to the formulation of anti-establishment populist parties and their electoral success. A large number of governments responded to COVID-19 with emergency powers that curtail civil liberties. In some countries, the governments imposed a comprehensive limitation on the freedom of movement, namely rigid lockdown and quarantine enforced by the police like in Italy. In others, the governments like in Hungary and Slovenia relayed on citizen’s cooperation.
Less established democracies could subsequently nevertheless face a myriad of challenges like the empirical evidence collected based on previous exogenous shocks suggests. In younger democracies, the political consequences of exogenous shocks could expand beyond government support, first to test a system’s capacity to protect and respond, which could lead to demand input overload. Secondly, the political consequences may depend upon “pertinent aspects of the political culture” (Carlin et al., 2013). In the case of Slovenia covered in this article is not expected that the system will be put under stress, resulting in public dissatisfaction with the government. On the other hand, the political consequences of the pandemic and policies towards resolving the crisis are inherently connected with political culture. Although in the last three decades since the end of the Cold war, essential steps toward acceptance of the democratic regimes and democratic legitimacy were made, the pockets of reluctance regarding the acceptance remain in the political culture of the post-communist states.
Moreover, here lies the most apparent fallacy of the 1989 narrative, an equation of anti-communism with liberalism. The anti-communist sentiments in the region have fed on populist and often right-wing dispositions. There seems to have been an unspoken assumption that the fall of communism would be largely sufficient to allow western values, such as liberal democracy and respect for human rights, to be successfully implemented in Central and Eastern Europe. This problematic aspect of the political culture in Central and Eastern Europe could translate to a strong leader in times of crisis.
Although the unprecedented health crisis was successfully confronted, the next challenge lies ahead and refers to how the countries in question will deal with the economic downturn as an immanent consequence of lockdown since the economic sources on disposal are rather limited. As in possible economic crisis, there is usually entrenched a high level of popular discontent. The question is if the support for existing leadership and populist parties will persist. The epidemic has already adversely affected the economic performance of all countries. The decline in economic performance could be already felt in the first quarter 2020 data and in the second quarter, the GDP in the EU dropped by 11.9%, according to data published by Eurostat.
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