As the world faces down the health crisis created by the spread of the novel coronavirus, global media is concentrated on providing up to date information and warnings about the virus, as it should be. However, beneath the obvious health implications of COVID-19, a political crisis is developing, the effects of which will undoubtedly outlast the pandemic and pose a serious threat to democratic institutions and countries.
In both Europe and Asia, leaders have been granted emergency powers to combat the spread of the coronavirus, but these powers will also serve to solidify their authoritarian ambitions and crush dissident opinions. While health is rightfully the paramount concern at this time, this resurgence of authoritarianism should not go unchallenged.
The political danger posed by the coronavirus is seen best in Europe, where strongman leaders in Hungary and Russia have already enacted sweeping legislation. The Hungarian legislature passed a series of bills at the end of March that criminalized the spread of false information about the pandemic, suspended elections, and allowed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree until the end of the state of emergency.
There are fears amongst opponents of the Prime Minister and rights groups that these same laws could be used to silence critics of the government, which for 10 years under Orbán has undermined democratic values and flirted with authoritarianism.
While these actions have not gone unnoticed, particularly among members of the European Union, little has been done to stop them. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European commission, reacted to the Hungarian measures by remarking “It is of utmost importance that emergency measures are not at the expense of our fundamental principles and values as set out in the treaties.” Sophie in’t Veld, a liberal Dutch member of the European Parliament, went further, claiming that “Viktor Orbán has completed his project of killing democracy and the rule of law in Hungary. Clearly, the actions of the Hungarian government are incompatible with EU membership.”
In the past, Hungary and especially Orbán have ignored criticism from EU officials, in part because of a close relationship with Poland that prevents punitive measures being taken against the country. The pressure mounting on the EU from the coronavirus in terms of health, economic strain and fundamental values will undoubtedly test the bloc; it is why German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared COVID-19 the greatest challenge to the organization since its inception after WWII.
Outside of the European Union, Russia is also using the pandemic as an excuse to implement harsher measures. President Vladamir Putin has announced that he will serve as president indefinitely in the face of the crisis, and new facial recognition tech is being used in Moscow to identify individuals breaking with quarantine guidelines. Both of these measures reinforce Putin’s power in Russia and also normalize extreme measures in nearby states, notably former Soviet states like Ukraine, where a democratic transition might be further hampered by COVID-19.
Pivoting to Asia, Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte has been granted extreme powers to fight the virus and on April 2nd issued an authoritarian warning to citizens on the island of Luzon: defy lockdown orders and wind up dead.
The danger posed by coronavirus to democratic institutions lies in the difficulty with which extreme measures passed during crises are undone and more importantly, the length that they exist for. No one can argue that extreme measures are not needed to combat this global pandemic — even in strong democracies like the United States and Germany, citizens are being forced to adapt to new ways of life and new guidelines that are limiting freedom of movement and political engagement.
However, the response needs to be proportional, and emergency powers and measures must only last as long as they need to last. New rules mandating social distancing and self-quarantine are useful tools for limiting the effects of the coronavirus, but silencing criticism of the government and allowing leaders to rule by decree are not. When looking at how governments around the world respond to this global health crisis, there is a need to be critical of policies enacted under the guise of safety that do more to serve the interests of authoritarian leaders than keep people safe.
As COVID-19 continues to spread, these policies will become more widespread, challenging democratic principles and the international system as we know it.