Last updated July 7, 2020
“Coronavirus kills its first democracy,” the Washington Post declared in March, after the Hungarian parliament voted in March to give prime minister Viktor Orban the authority to rule by decree in the name of fighting COVID-19. The legislation also called for up to five years of jail time for individuals the government views as spreading “falsehoods” or “distorted truths” about efforts to protect the public from the pandemic.
The International Crisis Group warned the crisis creates “ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19, either to solidify power at home or pursue their interests abroad.” While dramatic efforts by governments— issuing shelter at home orders, the closing of non-essential businesses, and travel restrictions— have rapidly altered lives around the world, but in countries like France, the UK, and Italy, these powers are temporary and related to response to the public health crisis.
Update: On June 14, the Hungarian parliament voted unanimously to end the country’s “state of danger.” Prime Minister Orban suggested earlier concerns were unjust, while human rights groups have suggested that the new bill actually codified the new authorities of the government to restrict the freedom of assembly without parliamentary oversight during unspecified crises.
The coronavirus is likely to have an impact on many aspects of democracy — from elections to citizen protest to the global debate about authoritarianism versus democracy.
In Ethiopia, national elections scheduled for August were postponed by the National Electoral Board of Ethiopia, and parliament later voted to extend the term of Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Abiy Ahmed and the national assembly “until international health institutions have deemed the threat from coronavirus to be over.” These elections would have represented a referendum on Prime Minister Ahmed’s reform agenda, and their delay has led opposition parties to raise concerns about the government’s legitimacy and prospects for peace in the absence of elections.
Yet more than 66% of voters participated in South Korea’s national elections on April 15, the highest turnout in over 25 years. Polling stations were equipped with hand sanitizer and disposable gloves, voters wore masks, stood six feet apart and had their temperatures checked at the entrance, with separate voting stations for those showing symptoms, leading the New York Times to call the country “a model for how an open society can weather the storm of a pandemic.”
The question may be, what impact will COVID-19 and social distancing have on the dramatic wave of citizen protest in recent years? Last year, citizens around the world took to the streets protesting corruption, inequality, and injustice in countries like Chile, Hong Kong, and Algeria, and nearly two billion voters in 50 countries around the world went to the polls to elect their leaders.
After months of empty streets due to lockdown, there are signs of renewed citizen protest and dissatisfaction. In Hong Kong, protestors wearing masks returned to the streets after the Chinese Communist Party’s proposed new national security law. In Lebanon, after the government announced its plan to reopen the country, protestors emerged to attack banks and shut down highways.
Some have warned that China’s efforts to provide emergency medical supplies to countries dealing with COVID-19 could reinforce a global argument that authoritarian regimes are more effective than democracies at dealing with the pandemic – even if there is no pattern of democratic vs. authoritarian regimes responding more effectively. Many democracies like Taiwan, South Korea, Germany, and New Zealand have mounted effective responses to the spread of the disease.
Global challenges for democracy predate the current crisis. Freedom House’s annual report, Freedom in the World, noted that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. A closer look reveals a mixed picture:
Commentators on both sides of the political spectrum condemned the vote by the Hungarian Parliament. Dalibor Rohac at the American Enterprise Institute denounced the move as an “authoritarian power grab,” and Senator Bernie Sanders warned, “Throughout history, authoritarian leaders have used moments of crisis to seize unchecked power. Hungary’s Orban is the latest example. Now more than ever we must stand up for democracy and rule of law.”
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn called for Hungary to be kicked out of the EU, saying “We cannot accept that there exists a dictatorial government within the EU.” In April, the European parliament approved a statement calling Hungary’s measures “incompatible with European values.” Fred Kaplan also called for kicking Hungary out of NATO, saying if our “alliances are going to have any meaning, dictatorships can have no place in them.”
Written by John Glenn