April 9, 2020

IntelBrief: Authoritarianism Receives a Boost from the Coronavirus Pandemic

Hungarian police officers on patrol to control the observance of lockdown measures introduced due to the pandemic of coronavirus COVID-19 speak with bikers at Lake Deseda in Kaposvar, Hungary, Sunday, April 5, 2020. (Gyorgy Varga/MTI via AP)
  • Authoritarian leaders have used the coronavirus as an opportunity to further consolidate power and crush dissent.
  • Countries including Turkey, Hungary, Israel, and the Philippines have all seen political leaders using the coronavirus as a way to promote their own governments while discrediting opposition figures and parties.
  • While the struggles of countries like Italy and the United States are impossible to ignore, there are examples of democracies—Germany, South Korea—that have responded effectively to the coronavirus.
  • Surveillance technologies that some countries are introducing as a means of countering the spread of coronavirus will likely remain in place permanently, even long after the pandemic begins to ebb.



Authoritarian leaders have used the coronavirus as an opportunity to further consolidate power and crush dissent. Leaders in Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, China, and Russia have all taken advantage of the coronavirus to solidify political power during a time of uncertainty, when most of the public is simply trying to survive. Several countries have passed new laws against the spread of so-called ‘fake news’ or disinformation surrounding coronavirus, making these governments and regimes the ultimate arbiters of the press and media. The dangerous erosion of the media and other institutions vital to a functioning civil society is one of the most far-reaching consequences of how countries are responding to the pandemic.

At the end of March, Hungary passed emergency legislation, ostensibly to deal with the coronavirus, that essentially moved the country toward authoritarianism. The parliament voted by 137 to 53 to give Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree, while also canceling all elections. These emergency powers also sideline Hungary’s parliament indefinitely. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became the face of Israel’s response and declared a state of emergency. This included suspending all court activity, including Netanyahu’s own corruption trial. His main political opponent, Benny Gantz, has decided to step back because he believes the coronavirus response requires unity. In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the crisis to arrest political opponents. There are legitimate fears that widespread arrests could follow, with Erdogan targeting members of academia, journalism, and civil society, much as he did following the failed 2016 coup against his regime. And in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered police and the military to shoot and kill anyone breaking official lockdown orders. 

Strongmen are extolling the virtues of the authoritarian model as a means to suggest that autocratic leaders are capable of responding to crises like pandemics. The implication is that democratic countries and Western nations have failed because their systems of government are fundamentally broken. And while the struggles of countries like Italy and the United States are impossible to ignore, there are numerous examples of democracies that have responded effectively to the coronavirus—Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan, to name a few. This premise also conveniently fails to mention that it was the authoritarian model of governance of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that led its local leaders and political bosses to hide the true extent of the coronavirus to begin with.

Some countries, including China and Russia, are relying on surveillance technology to help contain the further spread of the disease. Few expect that once the coronavirus has ebbed and life returns to normal, that these surveillance tools will also go away. On the contrary, the technologies that countries are introducing to monitor their citizens and anyone else living and traveling within their borders are likely to remain a facet of everyday life. The coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly have life-altering ramifications for how countries and societies operate. Many of the most widely accepted facets of globalization and the cross-border exchange of people, goods, and services will be scrutinized and potentially reconfigured, with entire sectors or industries transformed. And as they have done throughout history, authoritarian and autocratic regimes will seize the opportunity presented by a crisis to extend the rule of strongmen, clamp down on media, and hobble institutions of civil society. 


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