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When Covid-19 reinforces authoritarianism

A military tank in front of a house in the Philippines, 16 July 2020 | Keystone/AP Photo/Aaron Favila

As soldiers begin entering homes to track down infected people and as journalists are jailed without trial because of “undermining national solidarity”, it seems that individual liberties around the world have taken quite a beating in the last few months. As the pandemic spread, states have often taken the lead single-handedly. More people have also voiced out their fears that the power states have gained due to the crisis will not be returned to the people anytime soon, especially in countries that have been flirting with ideas of authoritarian tendencies.

Why is it concerning? The trend towards authoritarianism and populism is far from brand new. At the beginning of March, human rights activists and NGOs quickly pointed out new forms of abuse, at a time when the international community, busy with national health issues, was very difficult to rally. Though we are only starting to see the bigger picture, the authoritarian rise could be a formidable and long-lasting side effect of the pandemic crisis.

“Authoritarian excesses”. Certain political phenomena can be confused for the term: excessive militarism, populism, repression of the political opposition, among others. However, these aspects altogether do not make a country an authoritarian regime. In fact, most of the countries often turn out, technically speaking, to be democracies.

That said, it is difficult to assess the extent of authoritarian excesses linked to Covid-19, as the crisis is not yet over and several countries withhold key information. Some trends, however, have become more visible.

Nicholas Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham:

“For leaders who were looking for a way to establish their authority, this pandemic is a real gift. It hasn’t changed their underlying ambitions, it has only created an opportunity to achieve them.”

Some alarming examples from all over the world, among many others:

  • In Hungary, for the last ten years or so, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been playing his cards cunningly to gain more power, and thanks to Covid-19, he can finally play big. This was especially the case when, on 30 March, he was given full authority to rule the country, without any term limits. Purveyors of «fake news» about the coronavirus — including criticisms of government policy in handling the crisis — is punishable by one to five years in prison. At the end of May, however, Viktor Orban announced that he would withdraw the law that gave him full power by apologizing to the opposition, who called his apology a “true masquerade.” Apart from this law, many other worrying aspects are still around, such as the gradual phasing out of the media opposition and the handing over of a hundred or so companies to the army to deal with the economic crisis.

Stefano Bottoni, a historian who specialises in Eastern European countries at the University of Florence:

“Even though Viktor Orban did not take some draconian responses against Covid-19, he made it clear that there was no alternative to his decisions, whether at home or at the European Commision. The pandemic helped him reach a brand new level of control, in terms of security, economy, politics, as well as psychologically — aided by the fear and the insecurity generated by the pandemic.”

Le Premier ministre Viktor Orban à son discours annuel de ‘l’État de la Hongrie’ à Budapest, le 16 février 2020. Écrit en hongrois «Pour nous, la Hongrie vient en priorité» l Kesytone/ Zsolt Szigetvary

  • In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has openly threatened to reinstate martial rule. In fact, many of the actions he has taken during the pandemic seem that it’s almost already the case: the army can directly go to people’s houses to identify infected people, and neighbors are asked to report those who are not respecting the lockdown. Moreover, his way of referring to and punishing those who refuse to comply is especially stigmatizing, “I will not hesitate to ask the army to shoot.” His harsh words remind one of his bloody war against drugs, which once again targets dissident voices and the poorest population.

Nicholas Cheeseman:

“Several countries in Africa and Latin America have also put in place legislation to say that the government could not be contradicted, in their view, in order to fight Covid-19 more effectively. But it is feared that these legislations will remain even after the crisis to silence the opposition.”

  • Freedom of expression on lockdown in Turkey. The country did not place compulsory quarantine for healthy people, as the powerful president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wanted to prioritize the economy. Yet this stance has also triggered new authoritarian abuses as dissident voices were tracked down online and, at times, jailed, particularly health workers and journalists.

  • In Algeria, arrests for “undermining national unity” have multiplied. The lockdown announced on 25 February has silenced the months-long Hirak protests against ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his elected successor Abdelmadjid Tebbounen. Some leaders of the opposition movement have asked to pause the movement during the pandemic. However, many personalities among the opposition — mostly journalists — have been arrested. Some of them are still in jail and are still waiting for a fair trial. At the beginning of May, the protest restarted partially, notably in Kabylie, as the president presented his reform of the constitution, which paradoxically provides for more press freedom and stricter separation of power.

Anne-Laure Mahé, a specialist in authoritarian regimes in East Africa at IRSEM:

“The crisis offers legitimacy to arrest opponents. In some African countries, it provides an opportunity for the regime to strengthen its power at a time when others are trying to shift the balance to another system.”

Algerian protester wears the Algerian flag and carries placard in front of the policemen during a demonstration for the departure of the Algerian regime in Algiers, Algeria, 24 May 2019. (Keystone/STR)

Many NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, as well as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, have said that they feared that globally, the virus will be used as a pretext to growing repression.

  • In Zimbabwe, the curfew that was reinstated on 22 July is believed to be a way to undermine the anti-government manifestations that were planned for the 31st of July.

  • In Serbia, the government of Aleksandar Vucic was accused to manipulate the figures of the pandemic to lift the lockdown in time for the elections and ensure his party’s victory. The announcement triggered protests in Belgrade, that were severely repressed.

Nicholas Cheeseman:

“There are nearly 25 elections in the next six months. I think in the short-term there is a risk that countries with authoritarian tendencies could use the virus to prevent any kind of protests by using curfews and lockdown measures.”

  • In India, still described as the largest democracy in the world, President Narendra Modi took drastic measures to contain more than one billion people. The pandemic has stoked a country already agitated by tensions between the Hindu and Muslim communities. This was caused by a law passed last December that is said to institutionalize the social exclusion of Indian Muslims. If these two events are not directly linked, the current lockdown leaves no space for debate.

Nicholas Cheeseman:

“In times of pandemic, people are more likely to accept certain measures because they are afraid — there is little internal resistance. But there is also little resistance internationally because world leaders have their eyes on other issues.”

  • In Hong Kong, an unfriendly tweet towards the Chinese government can now have more drastic consequences under the national security law imposed by Beijing beginning 30 June. At first glance, this law has nothing to do directly with the pandemic, as elections were on the horizon and protests have been gaining momentum. Though it can be debated, many elements seem to confirm that the crisis has indeed accelerated the process. The last time Hong Kong attempted such a show of power was in 2003, in the midst of the SARS epidemic. This time around, however, the international community — particularly the traditional allies of an autonomous Hong Kong such as the UK who ceded the city back in 1997 — have all been preoccupied with their own domestic health issues.

Pierre Grosser, a historian specializing in East Asia at Sciences Po Paris:

“Anti-Chinese protests and sentiments have especially grown stronger in Hong Kong and Taiwan, both of which are very critical of how Beijing has handled the pandemic. It is, I think, rather through this political mechanism that Covid-19 may have pushed China to assert its authority over the city."

Police officers detain protesters during a rally against a new national security law on the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, 01 July 2020. (Keytsone/Miguel Kandela)

The democratic opposition has also accused the government of using the pandemic to postpone the elections for another year. Should the elections originally scheduled for September 2020 have pushed through, the democrats would have almost been guaranteed to win.

The Pandemic, Big Brother’s best ally? From Istanbul to Hong Kong, many arrests had been possible thanks to online personal data easily accessible to government intelligence units. The collection of data to track infected people through contact tracing apps have alarmed many people, even in Switzerland. A few, non-comprehensive examples:

  • Amnesty International pointed out the apps of Bahrain, Kuwait and Norway are especially intrusive, as they were able to identify in real-time the location of its citizens. Norway has since taken a step back.

  • In Seoul, South Korea, people can now use an app to report fellow citizens who don’t wear their masks in the subway.

  • In Israel, the Shin Bet, the internal intelligence service, has sent an SMS to thousands of citizens to ask them to stay at home using personal information they were not supposed to have and obtained thanks to anti-terrorist technology.

Nicholas Cheeseman:

“Crises always trigger technological innovation. It's when they fall into the hands of a government that doesn't care about the consent of its people that it becomes problematic.”

The coronavirus could hurt some populist leaders. From constant media criticism to questioning scientific data, the speeches of populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and even Boris Johnson, share some common traits with the authoritarian leaders already mentioned. But in those countries where the coronavirus has done a lot of damage, the position of these leaders could, on the contrary, affect their credibility at home and in the world.

  • In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro firmly opposed to any form of lockdown, even against the very advice of his own health minister. The president who openly questions the role of the Supreme Court and the Congress lost his credibility in the eyes of the international community. Yet despite the disastrous situation in Brazil, the popularity of the president at home appears to have increased.

  • In the US, where Donald Trump has taken a similar stance towards the virus, it seems that it was especially the Black Lives Matter movement — though not completely isolated from the whole coronavirus situation — that has triggered a strong and controversial response from Washington, as seen when the president had deployed the federal police in Portland and Chicago.

Police officers detain protesters during a rally against a new national security law on the 23rd anniversary of the establishment of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in Hong Kong, China, 01 July 2020. Keytsone/Miguel Kandela

Against Covid-19, is it better to be authoritarian? Even in countries referred to as liberal democracies, centralized power has gained ground. In many European centuries including Switzerland, France, and Italy, the army was mobilized and a state of emergency was imposed in almost every country.

Anne-Laure Mahé:

“A crisis situation requires the state to take the lead. The risk lies in the discourse of being in a "permanent crisis", as is already the case with the economic crisis and, to some extent, terrorism. Even then, we don't yet know how long the pandemic will last.”

Some people would be tempted to see a strong and authoritarian state as the most effective way to fight the pandemic. But in reality, it’s far from being the case. Among others, Amnesty International Switzerland has highlighted that the countries that performed the best in containing the epidemic were almost all democracies.

In these democracies, imperfect though they may be, and even where authoritarian excesses have been observed, dissident voices have been able to express themselves. Thanks to the media and the figures that were known, opposition groups were able to criticize their government’s management of Covid-19. Although China's rigour was welcomed at the beginning of the epidemic, the first reflex of the Chinese Communist Party was nevertheless to silence whistleblower doctors from Wuhan, which has posed a problem in terms of response times.

Nicholas Cheeseman:

“The pandemic can also reveal the weaknesses of a regime, which will then want to silence the opposition, critics, especially journalists.”

And perhaps the worst is yet to come. The economic crisis could exacerbate the failings of some authoritarian regimes, making them even more prone to silencing criticism. Cheeseman said many countries will end up in debt and will have to cut public services, which will create frustration on the part of the population. "Some regimes will need to rely on even more repression," he said.