How coronavirus is boosting global authoritarianism

Hungary is the latest country to slide away from democracy as Viktor Orban is handed sweeping emergency powers

Viktor Orban, Hungary
(Image credit: AFP via Getty Images)

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban has won a parliamentary vote allowing his government to rule by decree indefinitely in what critics claim is a further step towards a dictatorship.

Ministers voted by 137 to 53 on Monday to pass a bill that extends a national state of emergency declared in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Orban’s sweeping new powers include a permanent provision for anyone deemed to be spreading “fake news” to be imprisoned for up to five years, while those found to be breaching coronavirus lockdown measures face up to eight years in jail.

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“The leader of the opposition Jobbik party, Peter Jakab, said that the law placed the whole of Hungarian democracy in quarantine,” reports the BBC.

But Orban, a controversial figure championed by the far-right, is far from the only world leader to take advantage of the global health crisis and consolidate power into the hands of the few. As The Times says: “Leaders in even proudly liberal western democracies have amassed powers that could scarcely have been imagined a few weeks ago.”

What has happened in other countries?

In a matter of weeks, up to a third of the world has been placed under lockdown measures. As Foreign Policy reports: “Soldiers manoeuvre military vehicles through city centres, police cars broadcast calls for citizens to disperse from public spaces, public announcements are made via drones – and all of it has become normal.”

But not all government measures have been implemented purely for the benefit of the public.

The Guardian reports that Azerbaijan’s president, Ilham Aliyev, has “stepped up the harassment of opposition groups”, while Israel’s beleaguered PM Benjamin Netanyahu used an “emergency decree to delay the start of his trial on corruption charges, marginalised parliament and moved to enact unprecedented surveillance measures”.

Furthermore, US President Donald Trump has begun to consider himself a “wartime president”, the paper adds.

The Times notes that journalists have been expelled or imprisoned for writing about the coronavirus outbreak in countries such as Egypt and Turkey.

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And the reaction?

Foreign Policy says that the “soaring death rate and rapid spread of the disease” suggest that this “dramatic response is the correct approach”.

And as the Times adds, polls suggest that, for the time being, we “nearly all support their authoritarianism”.

“In this strange and febrile period, it is far from straightforward to pin down what truly counts as ‘proportionate and necessary’ action and what is an abuse of power,” says the newspaper.

But The Independent reports that some observers are less accepting of this new wave of power consolidation. “On Monday, a group of United Nations-affiliated experts issued a stark warning that emergency measures over coronavirus should not be used by governments for political ends.

“While we recognise the severity of the current health crisis and acknowledge that the use of emergency powers is allowed by international law in response to significant threats, we urgently remind states that any emergency responses to the coronavirus must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” the experts said. “Emergency declarations based on the Covid-19 outbreak should not be used as a basis to target particular groups, minorities, or individuals.

“It should not function as a cover for repressive action under the guise of protecting health nor should it be used to silence the work of human rights defenders.”

What does it all mean?

The Independent paints a grim picture of the future if coronavirus-fuelled authoritarianism is allowed to continue once the pandemic comes to an end.

“In the United States, a White House staffed by xenophobes is using the coronavirus to strengthen border controls it has long wanted to embrace,” the paper says. “In Israel and Singapore, governments are invoking the crisis over Covid-19 to track movements of people on cell phones.

“In Iran, a government obsessed with control has used the epidemic to deploy security forces around the country to clear the streets.”

But Barry Eichengreen in The Guardian is more optimistic. “Authoritarian leaders don’t like bad news, which they tend to suppress, sometimes at cost to themselves.

“One hears about rumblings of a backlash against [Chinese president] Xi [Jinping] and his minions for having clamped down on news of the virus, thereby putting China at risk. Trump may similarly end up paying a price for having suppressed warnings from his own Department of Health and Human Services. If ever there was a circumstance suited to rehabilitate experts and encourage respect for politicians who defer to them, this is it.”

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