As Covid-19 brings the world to a halt, some world leaders have spotted an opportunity to tighten their grip on power.
In Hungary, a bill passed on Monday which handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree – indefinitely.
It gives him the authority to punish journalists if the government believes the reporting its not accurate and allows the government to hit citizens with heavy penalties for violating lockdown rules. It also prevents any elections or referendums from taking place while the measures are in effect.
The move led to calls for the European Union to act, with Italy’s former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, going to far as to suggest the bloc kick Hungary out if the measures were not revoked – something that’s far easier said than done.
Orban’s move is perhaps the most flagrant power grab to take place during this pandemic. However, other strongman leaders have spotted the opportunity to seize greater authority.
In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte – a man who arrests his critics and has boasted about personally killing suspected criminals during his time as mayor of Davao City – has secured emergency powers, giving him greater control of public services.
Earlier this month, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced criticism after his government approved the electronic tracking of patients, using technology that had previously only been used in the fight against terrorism.
Netanyahu, of course, isn’t the only leader using technology to track its citizens during the crisis. In Russia, authorities are using facial recognition technology to crack down on people violating quarantine and self-isolation.
And from South Korea to Western Europe, democratically-elected governments are using digital tools to track the whereabouts of patients with coronavirus and monitor how effectively citizens are obeying social distancing measures.
While such moves naturally spark immediate fears of political overreach from leaders, they also raise questions around what happens when this pandemic is over.
The concern is that as the world comes to terms with its way of life, citizens become numb to what were initially extreme and extraordinary measures.
“During crises, the window of what governments can get away with without pushback from the public tends to expand,” says Brian Klaas, assistant professor of global politics at University College London.
In nations with strong democratic traditions, governments can be better held to account by institutional checks and balances on governments – ensuring that these powers truly are extraordinary and subject to review. That’s a little harder in countries where democratic principles have been undermined, such as Hungary.
“The problem with weak systems like Hungary is that Orban has eroded democracy for a long time and he’s going to want to make this the new normal … And he might get cheered on as he does because in crises, people look for leadership,” says Klaas.
It’s not just Orban. Parag Khanna, author of The Future is Asian, explains that the “new authoritarians that take advantage of democratic majoritarianism, such as Duterte in Asia, and Orban in Europe,” have in recent years “accorded themselves the right to rule by decree.”
While recent actions of these “new authoritarians” might seem extreme, they are largely legal and, in many cases, proportionate to the challenge of this coronavirus. Which puts the leaders of stronger democracies in a difficult position.
“Democratic leaders have to avoid any statement criticizing the actions of other leaders that might downplay the significance of the pandemic,” says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham. “But their silence now risks handing authoritarians a blank check to cash at a future date.”
Worse, during a pandemic, strongman leaders can impose extraordinary measures in lockstep with nations like the United Kingdom and Italy, making them appear altogether more ordinary.
“The worrying thing during a crisis is that leaders with authoritarian instincts can claim to only be doing what some established democracies are doing,” says Cheeseman. But while robust democracies are expected to eventually roll back such measures, citizens in weak democracies might get saddled with them at the behest of the leader.
Of course, this “new normal” problem doesn’t apply only to nations with weakened democratic institutions.
Historically, even the United States has this century seen the executive hand itself extraordinary power during a crisis, the most obvious example of this being the Patriot Act, following the September 11 attacks in 2001.
“If a ‘rally round the flag’ mentality kicks in around the world, leaders could find ways to exploit it,” says Klaas. “If you accept 9/11 made people happy to give up certain liberties, consider this: The Imperial study says there will be 2.2 million deaths in the US if there’s no extreme and sustained government intervention. That’s the equivalent of 9/11 happening nearly every day for over two years.”
The example set by the US and its democratic allies really does matter. How countries like America, the UK, Germany and France emerge from this crisis will set the new bar for democratic norms.
“During crises, centralized government power is generally ratcheted up,” explains Cheeseman. “However, when the crisis is over, that power is not always handed back to the public and lower levels of levels of government.”
These go far beyond new legal instruments a leader might wield. As we have seen in Israel and Russia, new technologies can be used that curb people’s civil liberties.
Israel’s electronic tracking of coronavirus patients allows the Israeli Security Agency, or Shin Bet to keep, tabs on citizens by using national ID numbers and phone numbers. Netanyahu defended approving the legislation to allow this without parliamentary oversight, claiming that “the virus is spreading at a tremendous pace, a delay of even one hour in these tools can lead to the deaths of many Israelis.” The Knesset did later approve the use of the tracking technology, mandating it receive regular reports on how the information gathered had been used.
Moscow’s police claimed earlier this month that Russia’s facial recognition system had led to 200 people flouting lockdown rules being caught and fined, a hardline message that in a time of crisis could play well with the public.
“We want there to be even more cameras so that that there is no dark corner or side street left,” said Oleg Baranov, Moscow’s police chief, before saying that he wanted to add 9,000 cameras to the existing network of 170,000.
And as nations ramp up efforts to handle the impact of the coronavirus outbreak, large, government-funded bureaucracies will be set up, handling everything from distributing medicines and benefits to nationalizing infrastructure.
Laws on criminal detention might also be tweaked to impose lockdown measures in countries. Even in countries like the UK and France, police have been given extraordinary powers to implement social distancing rules.
The fear is that those technologies, laws and institutions will outlive any government of the day and be exploited for political gain in the years that follow this crisis.
“Even break clauses wouldn’t necessarily help when it comes to new technologies because they don’t cover infrastructure and technology changes that come into place during a crisis,” says Cheeseman. “Cameras that tracked terrorists were then used to track extinction rebellion protestors; legislation that allows governments to detain suspects for longer in a crisis often stays on the books.”
And leaders that emerge from the pandemic on the front foot might, as Khanna puts it, not “let a crisis go to waste.”
At some point, this crisis will end and citizens around the world will be free to leave their homes. However, it’s becoming abundantly clear that the world they walk into will be dramatically different from the one they left behind their front doors. And if the global population hasn’t twigged this yet, their leaders already have.
“Taking advantage of a crisis has little to do with managing it well,” says Khanna. “Strongmen leaders or elected authoritarians should never be confused with public-spirited technocrats … they are very much wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Global crises have a habit of creating distractions that leaders can exploit for their own power hunger. Right now, the world has plenty of power-hungry leaders. Couple that with a crisis the likes of which most of us have never seen, and it’s not hard to see how this coronavirus global outbreak could be bad news for democracy, and those who depend on it.