Authoritarian leaders may use Covid-19 crisis to tighten their grip


The coronavirus has already overwhelmed medical services, grounded flights and halted economic growth, but one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in a political age in which soft authoritarians have turned harder, and the surveillance state becomes a way of life even in some democracies.

In Hungary, after a set of measures introduced on Monday, it is now a criminal offence to spread misinformation about coronavirus, and the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, can rule by decree for an indefinite period. In neighbouring Serbia, soldiers patrol the streets as part of the coronavirus response plan. In Moscow, authorities are reportedly mulling measures that would require everyone who wants to go outside to submit the reasons online, and then be tracked via their smartphones.

By now, most countries across the world have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle coronavirus, and even many democratic governments have faced little dissent over changes that in normal times would have been met with months or years of furious parliamentary debate. But what happens when the pandemic is over?

“Extraordinary legal situations are very easy to introduce, but it is much harder to return to business as usual afterwards,” said the Budapest-based thinktank Political Capital in response to the Hungarian measures. The sentiment could be equally applicable elsewhere.

The Hungarian government, which in the decade since Orbán took over has been accused of rolling back freedoms and democratic norms, has insisted that its measures are purely about fighting the coronavirus, and Orbán’s spokesman has dismissed criticism of them as “fake news”.

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But the country’s beleaguered opposition says it offered to agree to everything, in the spirit of national unity, but merely asked for a time-based renewal clause to be placed on the measures. None was forthcoming.

Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist who has written extensively on European political shifts, referred to the Hungarian law as “a kind of authoritarian entrepreneurship”, comparing it to people selling masks and other equipment at inflated prices. Orbán, he said, is experimenting with what might be possible in this sudden new reality. “He’s trying and testing, to see what the market will take.”

While Orbán is a leader flying high who has sought to push the boundaries even further, in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has looked to use the situation to ease himself out of a sticky spot. Despite having failed three times to form a government in the past year, he is now in talks with his rival, Benny Gantz, to agree on a deal for him to remain prime minister for at least the next two years. Additionally, Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery and fraud has also been delayed for two months because of the state of emergency.

At a time when even stepping outside could be dangerous, mass protests against government moves are a non-starter, and international criticism is not likely to be robust given other leaders are occupied with combating the crises in their own countries.

Additionally, citizens may feel more willing to give governments the benefit of the doubt in the current circumstances, preferring an entrenching of the status quo to weak or divided government.

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Krastev compared the current crisis to the financial crisis of 2008 and the migration crisis of 2015, and said that while then the responses in Europe were driven by anxiety, this time the dominant emotion is fear, which is much more direct. “This makes people ready to tolerate everything, because when the danger is everywhere, you believe only the government can help you,” he said.

The terrifying situation in which anyone, anywhere, can be a potential threat is a perfect mobilising force for authoritarians, and many have explicitly compared the current situation to a state of war, applying military terminology to civilian life, and implying that the kind of restrictions applicable in wartime, when questioning the government could be seen as unpatriotic or even traitorous, should now apply.

“Just as in wartime, a state of emergency could extend until the end of hostilities. Today, we confront not a military power but are in a war-like state to defend our people against a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in a century,” said Orbán’s spokesman Zoltán Kovács earlier this week, defending the Hungarian measures.

Opponents, predictably, were cast as indifferent to saving the lives of Hungarians, while Kovács also said it was logical to introduce jail terms for spreading false rumours. He said the new law only covers those who intentionally spread fake information that hampers the government response to coronavirus. How those judgments are made is a big question; however, given that Kovács and others in the government regularly accuse journalists reporting critically on the government of deliberately spreading lies.

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Measures reportedly being mulled in Moscow would bring Russia a step closer to the Chinese model of surveillance, but it is not just Vladimir Putin who may soon be keeping a closer eye on his citizens. Throughout Europe, policymakers are wondering how best to monitor the population, especially if in the not-too-distant future lockdowns can be carefully eased. Once surveillance measures are brought in for the coronavirus, it may be hard to argue against keeping them in place for hypothetical future threats.

Just how many of the “extraordinary” measures introduced now will stick around to shape our world over the next years and decades will partly depend on how severe and how long-lasting the medical situation turns out to be, and how various governments’ responses to the pandemic look in retrospect.

“If in the end, people have the feeling they were manipulated then maybe we will see resistance to all these measures. But at this stage I see much more acceptance than resistance,” said Krastev.



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