Authoritarianism in the Time of the Coronavirus

The pandemic offers dictators—and democracies alike—an opportunity for abuse.

A military patrol walks past the empty Louvre Pyramid in Paris on March 28. The country has introduced fines for people caught violating its nationwide lockdown measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19.
A military patrol walks past the empty Louvre Pyramid in Paris on March 28. The country has introduced fines for people caught violating its nationwide lockdown measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Over a few short weeks, a third of the world has been placed under lockdown. Soldiers maneuver military vehicles through city centers, police cars broadcast calls for citizens to disperse from public spaces, public announcements are made via drones—and all of it has become normal. The soaring death rate and rapid spread of the disease—overwhelming some of the best public health systems in the world—suggest that this dramatic response is the correct approach. While it may succeed in mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, however, the world now faces another danger: that when the virus recedes, many countries will be far less democratic than they were before March 2020. In times of crisis, checks and balances are often ignored in the name of executive power. The danger is that the temporary can become permanent.

Initially, populist and autocratic leaders were ill-prepared for the pandemic. A disdain for science and expertise, combined with nepotism and neglect of state institutions, including health care, made governments such as those of U.S. President Donald Trump, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro more vulnerable.

Before the health crisis became impossible to deny, government propaganda outlets or supportive media in these countries systematically downplayed the dangers posed by the coronavirus. In the United States, for example, Fox News blamed Democrats for playing up the threat. In Serbia and Turkey, pro-regime media gave voice to pundits and so-called experts who claimed that their populations were genetically protected from infection. In the long term, the pandemic might undermine autocratic leaders—as the usual tactic of blaming scapegoats fails and citizens come to appreciate the value of expertise and functioning institutions. But if strongmen are threatened with a loss of legitimacy, they’re likely to double down on their authoritarian practices and take advantage of the state of emergency to consolidate power.

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Long before the virus hit, the world was already experiencing a decline of democracy. Since 2006, more countries have seen their democracies degrade than those that have improved. Last year, according to Freedom House, 64 countries became less democratic, and only 37 became more so.

Now, as countries around the world institute extraordinary measures to fight the pandemic, both dictatorships and democracies are curtailing civil liberties on a massive scale.

A number of European leaders, including Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, have praised Beijing’s rapid and highly repressive response to the virus (after the country corrected its initial bungling approach). The decline in new infections in China itself and the delivery of Chinese aid to countries such as Austria, Greece, Italy, and Spain have improved China’s reputation in Europe.

Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has been severely restricted almost everywhere. But free movement is far from the only right being infringed on. In a number of countries, elections are beginning to be delayed. Voting for the Democratic primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Serbia and North Macedonia, national elections scheduled for April have been postponed. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. In the current environment, holding elections is certainly difficult and even dangerous. It appears that the first round of French municipal elections held on March 15 might have accelerated the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, postponing elections for months might deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow autocrats to use the delay to strengthen their power and hold elections when it suits them. Where elections are still slated to move forward, they pose other dangers to democracy. Though the majority of Poles want presidential elections planned for May to be postponed, the country’s government insists they will go ahead. Such elections would unfairly favor incumbent President Andrzej Duda, an ally of the ruling Law and Justice party; emergencies often help sitting leaders and make it difficult for the opposition to run a campaign. Altogether, postponing elections is the better choice, but such decisions should follow a clear cross-party agreement and timetable.

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“We are at war,” French President Emmanuel Macron recently declared, echoing language other leaders have used as well. Such dramatic rhetoric can help rally a strong effort to fight the pandemic and highlight the sacrifices citizens have to make. Such appeals can be dangerous, however. The virus is not an army, and evoking war can transform a health crisis into a security one, justifying repressive measures.

Measures like closing businesses, enforcing social distancing, and keeping people off the street, including curfews and bans on gatherings, are needed to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus. But there is a serious risk that these efforts are leading to a new wave of authoritarianism. In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev used the Nowruz spring holiday address to describe the opposition as a dangerous fifth column and threatened that “during the existence of the disease, the rules of completely new relationships will apply. … It is possible that a state of emergency may be declared at some point. In this case, the isolation of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity.”

Numerous countries have already passed emergency laws or declared states of emergency—a tactic autocrats can use to consolidate power. In Hungary, the government of Viktor Orban on March 30 passed a law “on protecting against the coronavirus” that allows the government to rule by decree and suspend existing laws. Furthermore, parliamentary oversight is suspended for the duration of the crisis, with only the prime minister permitted to determine when it will be lifted. The new law introduces draconian fines for spreading fake news and breaking quarantine and curfews, with penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment. The law triggered an unusually clear letter by the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the Continent’s key human rights watchdog, to the Hungarian government, stating that “[a]n indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed and that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights are strictly proportionate to the threat which they are supposed to counter.” In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has used the emergency to postpone his corruption trial, block parliament from sitting, and grant extraordinary domestic surveillance powers to the internal intelligence agency.

The extraordinary powers given through emergency laws and other emergency measures can lead to abuse among democratic leaders as well. Liberal democracies have also taken unprecedent measures to monitor citizens, such as tracking their movement through cell-phone data, including in Italy, Germany, and Austria. In Montenegro, the government even published the names and addresses of citizens who are supposed to be in quarantine to ensure compliance.

Confronting the coronavirus crisis will take extreme measures, but any infringement on civil liberties must be temporary and proportional. Crucially, emergency measures need to have a clearly defined time frame to avoid leading into a permanent state of emergency.

Furthermore, legislative bodies need to remain active. The Austrian parliament, for example, passed a number of laws in an accelerated procedure, and the European Parliament supported special EU funds to help countries affected by the pandemic—with most parliament members participating and voting remotely.

Fake news, meanwhile, is best confronted through government transparency—rather than with penalties. In fact, penalties for spreading false news are particularly popular in countries such as Hungary, Serbia, and Turkey, where pro-government media have been disseminating misleading and false information about the health risk of the disease. Part of the success of countries like Taiwan and Singapore in confronting the coronavirus is due to their clear and open communication about the pandemic.

The dangers are clear. The pandemic may well lead to a serious decline in democracy around the world. It is crucial that liberal democracies show self-restraint and vigilance. Governments such as Canada and South Korea have thus far demonstrated how to respond effectively to the pandemic while ensuring that a critical, vibrant debate remains alive. Others must follow suit.

Florian Bieber is a professor of Southeast European history and politics and Jean Monnet chair for the Europeanization of Southeastern Europe at the University of Graz, Austria. He is the author of Debating Nationalism: The Global Spread of Nations. Twitter: @fbieber