Even to the most untrained eye, the pandemic causing a large-scale expansion of executive powers across nations is strikingly obvious. In the past 7 months, governments all across the world have increasingly clamped down on multiple civil liberties in an attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (SARS-CoV-2).
Alarming to note, however, is the extent of powers some governments have been granting themselves under the guise of responding to a health crisis in an attempt to suppress opposition and consolidate their power.
In Hungary, new legislation was passed that allowed Viktor Orbán (the current prime minister) to rule by decree indefinitely with nearly no oversight by parliament or a set system of accountability.
Similar actions have been taken in the Philippines and Cambodia. These can be seen as nothing more than attempts by already repressive systems to further suppress any form of opposition and calls for transparency and accountability, thereby shifting from largely democratic decision-making processes to newer, more authoritarian systems.
The restrictions on public assembly, the control over the media to prevent the spread of alleged “misinformation” that apparently causes panic amongst the public faced with an unprecedented and powerful health crisis and the near-constant surveillance over citizens infected or deemed prone to infection are incredibly similar to the system in place in George Orwell’s 1984 (albeit slightly different as the focus of that book isn’t about how a government grapples with a global pandemic).
In 1975, Political scientist Juan Linz defined authoritarianism as possessing four qualities:
When these characteristics of an authoritarian regime, in theory, are juxtaposed to the actions of governments in the present day, it is not difficult to notice how the actions of governments in an attempt to control the pandemic can turn authoritarian.
Chief among the tools that have been employed to safeguard public health that has quickly become a tool to quell the opposition is the ban on public gatherings and assembly. In India, protests against the government’s disturbingly anti-Muslim CAA bill have been successfully suppressed as the bigger picture of public health became the primary focus of citizens and the government, causing them to enact strict bans on public gatherings and the enforcement of strict social distancing protocols.
If these restrictions manage to continue post the pandemic situation, it will be equivalent to spitting in the face of civil liberties.
The postponement of elections across the world in both liberal and illiberal systems, often for political ends under the guise of safeguarding public health interests, is also a disturbing trend seen that indicate a slight shift towards more authoritarian democratic systems because while the electoral process is not being completely done away with, it is being manipulated to serve the needs of incumbent executives.
Finally, as mentioned earlier in this paper, the most alarming development in the rising tide of authoritarianism across the world is the nearly unchecked powers certain governments are granting themselves.
In German jurist Carl Schmitt’s work Die Diktatur the idea of Ausnahmezustand or state of exception is created, which essentially states that any government capable of decisive actions should include a dictatorial element within their constitutions in order to effectively expand the power of the executive.
Now, while Schmitt goes on to denounce declaring a state of emergency (as most countries have done in an effort to combat the pandemic) in order to enter dictatorial setups (what he termed a “commissarial dictatorship”) in governments, the fact that most governments are utilising constitutional machinery to expand their own powers and consolidate authoritarianism is unsettling as it almost manages to fall in line with a Nazi backed process of evolving democracies into dictatorships.
Between 1960–1990 most democracies that imploded or broke down were done through violent means, either through coups, revolutions or civil wars that were directly caused by the actions of pressure groups or armed resistance.
In the recent past, however, it has been noted that an increasing number of democracies are put at risk by the actions of their own democratically elected leaders who have used democratic systems and constitutional machinery to evade or destroy traditional limits to their powers.
Levitsky and Ziblatt rightly pointed out that “when democracies die from within, as they now usually do, they do so slowly, in barely visible steps” because the tactics employed by these individuals are so secretive and steeped in bureaucracy rather than revolutionary it becomes difficult to pinpoint when the democracy exactly collapsed as opposed to the indicators visible during the violent revolution.
In an era of authoritarian populism, this is furthered by the fact that most populists are open with their intention to change how the government functions and are voted into power to do exactly that by appealing to a vote bank’s emotion based on promises that they rarely follow up on.
The populist does not hide the fact that they are trying to manipulate discontentment among the general population in order to further their own socio-political agenda.
When these conditions for the death of democracy are compared with the existing situation as a result of governments taking steps to control the spread of the pandemic, it is clear that if these steps go unchecked and the system of checks and balances is weakened by an unprecedented expansion of executive power then it will become very easy for repressive governments to utilise the tools used to control a pandemic to effectively curtail civil liberties, become authoritarian and free from a strong and vocal opposition.
In order to protect our future, individuals must be willing to learn from their past. An authoritarian government can quickly turn fascist and a fascist government’s greatest asset is unquestioned authority.
The system of checks and balances, though currently heavily restricted, must not ever take a backseat in the fight towards maintaining liberal democracies in a quickly changing world where it has become obvious that even the largest and most powerful countries that at one point maintained hegemony over global politics are unable to tackle the pandemic effectively and efficiently.
Democracies are now scrambling towards dictatorial methods to safeguard public health. The cracks in the global capitalist system are becoming more and more apparent, with nations embracing socialistic approaches towards maintaining the quality of life and public safety.
Great care must be taken by watchdogs and the opposition in every nation to ensure that incumbent governments do not misuse the ability to expand executive powers. While controlling the pandemic will involve strict social distancing and restrictions on certain civil liberties, safeguarding public health cannot be used as an excuse for police brutality and blatant misuse of a government authority.
The second a government begins to restrict free speech and the right to protest is the moment the slippery slide towards authoritarianism begins. Governments that exhibit these signs of a deteriorating democracy must be immediately held accountable.
Another issue that must be circumvented is the problem of scapegoating. At the beginning of the pandemic like situation, the coronavirus disease began to unofficially become known as the “China virus”, and this, combined with certain world leaders being unable to hold China accountable for its misdeeds without being racist, led to an increase in the number of xenophobic attacks against Chinese diaspora across the world.
In India, too, the Tablighi Jamaat incident led to Muslims being blamed for the sudden surge in the number of infections across the country. However, people pointing fingers at Muslims failed to notice the Indian governments inefficiency and unpreparedness in tackling a pandemic that began after many warnings from global health authorities.
Scapegoating enables repressive governments to justify inaction on their part and allows them to begin mass surveillance against individuals they deem to be a threat to the existence of their regimes.
Lastly, while we fight attacks towards the stability of our democracies today in the face of a pandemic, we must take time to understand all the ways our systems were already fundamentally broken much before the virus hit us and disrupted normal life.
The idea of a “New Normal” must be more than just a phrase used to indicate newly imposed social distancing and personal protection methods. Instead, the “New Normal” must be one in which the economic and social disparities exacerbated by the old normal are identified and tackled effectively to make sure they do not continue existing in a world post the pandemic.
Most people probably do not have “safeguarding democracy” at the top of their personal to-do lists right now and with good reason. But it is important to know that more often than not, the people in power will do little to protect our rights and it will eventually fall upon us to act in a way that protects our fundamental and civil rights.
If we allow the lens of democracy that governs us to break now in the face of a pandemic, there is a good chance we will never again be able to fix it.