How Democracies Can Beat the Pandemic

Published On: April 5, 2020 09:11 AM NPT By: Maciej Kisilowski and Anna Wojciuk

What Europe’s populists share is a belief that traditional liberal democracy is too weak and cumbersome to manage the challenges of the twenty-first century


VIENNA – Europe is experiencing one of its worst crises since World War II. In response to the COVID- 19 pandemic, its countries should turn to a classic democratic tool for dealing with existential challenges: national unity governments supported by broad parliamentary coalitions.

As it stands, many European countries—notably France, Greece, Italy, Ireland, Spain, the United Kingdom, Poland, and the Czech Republic – are run by governments with weak support, owing to deeper sociopolitical fractures. The new threat from COVID-19 follows a decade of unprecedented political polarization and populist revolts across the continent. In Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and (in a way) the UK, anti-establishment populists now lead governments; in Germany, France, and Italy, they are major components of the parliamentary opposition.

What Europe’s populists share is a belief that traditional liberal democracy is too weak and cumbersome to manage the challenges of the twenty-first century. Their modus operandi is to mock the role of policy experts and to rally “the people” against intellectuals and other elites.

But a genuine crisis is now giving the lie to the populist promise of simple solutions to complex
problems. As the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated, US President Donald Trump—the world’s current populist-in-chief – has been making an even bigger fool of himself than usual. After first dismissing the coronavirus as the Democrats’ “new hoax,” then promising to “reopen” the US by Easter, Trump has been desperately trying to play catch-up, resulting in disjointed, chaotic policymaking and mendacious claims that he understood the threat posed by the pandemic all along.

In Hungary and Poland, illiberal governments acted fast to introduce stringent social-distancing measures, while also rapidly consolidating power. But this aggressive posturing disguises a deep sense of insecurity. For years, both governments have been consolidating their power and catering to their nationalist bases, while ignoring the dismal state of their countries’ health-care systems. As a result, both countries place near the bottom of the Euro Health Consumer Index, with Poland ranked 32nd out of 35 health-care systems, and Hungary 33rd.

But while the populist nostrum of authoritarian strength is facing a brutal reckoning, European liberals cannot afford to continue with “business as usual.” Owing to its contagiousness and high rate of serious complications, COVID-19 is already putting unprecedented pressure on even Europe’s richest and most well-functioning countries. European governments are being forced to make life-and-death decisions that will affect hundreds of millions of people on the continent.

Judging by China, Taiwan, and Singapore’s recent experiences, these decisions will require extraordinary discipline at all levels of society in order to be effective. Most people will have to stay home for weeks or even months, but doctors and nurses will have to keep showing up to work. Businesses across many sectors will have to think creatively about how to preserve already weakened supply chains and basic operations.

Moreover, these challenges will have to be solved mainly at the national level. Multilateral governance through the European Union is important, but it is national governments that wield the security powers and possess the enforcement tools required for managing this crisis. European politicians, therefore, must adopt the tried-and-tested mechanism of democratic crisis management: a government supported by a vastly broadened political base.

Governments supported by all major political parties from across the ideological spectrum have a strong track record of dealing with serious economic crises, natural disasters, and wars. A classic example in the UK in the 1930s and 1940s, when national-unity governments were formed during the Great Depression and extended through World War II. Not until the election of 1945 did normal party politics resume. National unity cabinets have also been essential for Israel at pivotal moments in its turbulent history. And during the eurozone crisis, national unity governments were formed in Greece and Italy.

National unity governments involve an exceptional degree of power-sharing, which in turn confers the legitimacy needed to carry out increasingly difficult and costly decisions in the face of a crisis. They also can tap into a broader array of experts and experienced politicians to reach better decisions, and their cross-partisan structure ensures at least some oversight over executive power, which necessarily will become more concentrated in the context of a national emergency.

In the current political context, the obvious question arising from our proposal is whether unity governments should also involve populist parties. In Poland, the Czech Republic, and the UK, where populists are in power, the answer is simple: there is no other way to form such a government. Indeed, for the democratic opposition in those countries, demanding a unity government can be the best realistic alternative to a Hungarian-style slide towards dictatorship.

But even in countries where democratic forces govern, leaders should weigh the risks and benefits of inviting carefully vetted representatives of populist parties into a unity government. The right choice depends here on both the level of public support for a populist party and on how extreme its proclaimed views are. In making the decision, democrats should keep in mind that, if left outside the government, populists will surely try to score political points by criticizing difficult decisions and unavoidable mistakes.

As the COVID-19 crisis escalates, the normal operations of national parliaments may soon be seriously disrupted. Yet there is abundant scholarly evidence that democracies are better at protecting their societies than authoritarian strongmen are, especially over the long term. After a decade of focusing on what divides us, politicians finally have begun to emphasize that we are, quite literally, in this together. But the exhortations to national unity will go only so far. What we need now is to translate rhetoric into reality.

Maciej Kisilowski is a Professor of Law and Public Management at Central European University. Anna Wojcik is Professor of Politics at the University of Warsaw       
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

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