The first shockwave is over. The personal contact ban in Germany has been in place for two weeks now and is being respected by the vast majority of people. Everyday life has become more stressful for some, more lonely for others, but in almost every case, it has left a new and unfamiliar sense in the air. People have slowly come to terms with our new living and working situation. After the shock and anxiety of the first few days have passed, many people are now beginning to think and debate whether what we have temporarily restricted in the fight against the Coronavirus can actually be reconciled with what we claim to be living in a liberal democratic society. In other words, given the restrictions in force, do we need to be seriously concerned about our democracy?
Hungary and Poland show all too clearly the dangers that democracy can face if the state takes advantage of a current crisis. In Hungary, the ruling Fidesz party led by Prime Minister Orban has seized the opportunity to disempower parliament indefinitely. Orban now rules by decree. In Poland, the parliament, with the votes of the ruling PiS party, has also changed the electoral law as measures taken against the Coronavirus - and this against the bitter opposition of the opposition. The opposition sharply criticises the preliminary ruling procedure and accuses the government of giving a decisive advantage to the party’s own presidential candidate.
We in Germany are far from such procedures. For example, the Epidemic Law presented by NRW Premier Laschet was taken off the agenda again on Wednesday 1 April, after the opposition factions of the SPD and Greens expressed serious doubts about the law’s effect on constitutional rights. It is welcome that the CDU and FDP factions reacted in this way. In times like these, when laws are passed by parliaments in great haste, it is all the more important not to fall into the usual parliamentary reflexes between coalition and opposition, but to take parliamentary control seriously and for the majority to listen very carefully to the arguments of the minority.
But democracy does not only take place within the walls of the parliaments. Focusing solely on decision-making through parliamentary voting will never do justice to democracy. For example, the right to demonstrate - an essential component of a liberal democracy - is currently completely undermined. Small rallies with more than two participants are not possible because of the personal contact ban, prohibiting large demonstrations. While tens of thousands of people took to the streets in 2019 in protest against upload filters and Article 13 of a controversial EU copyright directive, such a large-scale demonstration against the mobile phone tracking of people infected by the Coronavirus, which is currently under discussion as a real possibility, would be banned. Perhaps demonstrations will not be necessary at all: proposals on how such tracking could be implemented in a data protection-compliant manner were recently presented by netzpolitik.org, for example. However, the upcoming debate will be an indicator of the extent to which the suspension of the right to demonstrate will have an impact on the content of adopted laws.
What is also currently suspended is direct democracy at both local and national level. The start of a long-planned nationwide popular initiative on species protection had to be postponed by the initiative’s alliance consisting of several nature conservation associations. At the municipal level, several citizens' petitions are stuck in the starting blocks or even in the middle of collecting signatures and cannot move forward. The situation is particularly difficult when citizens' petitions are directed against council decisions. In Nettetal, Minden, and Oberhausen, there are three-month deadlines for which the signatures must be submitted. The local ministry has not yet answered a corresponding question from the mayor of Nettetal on how to proceed. Here too, it is clear that making citizens' petitions impossible in the current situation will in all probability change political action in the municipalities.
And the Coronavirus could also influence the future composition of city and local councils. In order to run in the autumn local elections, new groups must collect signatures in each constituency of their municipality by July. If this does not succeed in one constituency, the grouping in that constituency is not on the ballot. Signatures must also be collected for the back-up list and independent mayoral candidates. The timeline for this collection is becoming increasingly scarce, especially since NRW has more large cities with so many constituencies than any other federal state. The right to run for office and the opportunity to be elected has therefore become more and more difficult. The Coronavirus could thus become a kind of new blocking clause for new groups. One might consider this problem to be minor: especially in a situation where three parties, CDU, SPD and the Greens, are hoping to win the mayor's seat, it can be very decisive for the question of who will be in the run-off vote because an additional candidate leads to a different distribution of votes. And in the event of a close outcome of the city council election, small groups can tip the scales. The current situation then changes tomorrow's political majorities.
So do we have to worry about our democracy? The answer is a resounding yes and no. We are far from developments like those in Hungary or Poland. Our parliaments are capable of acting and our parliamentarians are largely aware of their special responsibility in this situation. But a vital democracy does not live solely from parliamentarianism. The Coronavirus paralyses important expressions of will that must take place before or after parliamentary debates and decisions. It lives from publicity, from demonstrations, it lives from commitment on the streets, from collecting signatures, and popular initiatives. Democracy thrives on participation - that is why it is right to be concerned and to observe even more closely than usual whether political decision-makers are living up to their responsibilities. And it is just as important to rollback the current and highly sensible measures against the crisis as quickly as reasonably possible in order to restore genuine political participation of citizens.
Article photo courtesy of Tobias Nordhausen (CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
This article was first published on the website of our partner organisation Mehr Demokratie NRW. You can find it in German here.