Dictators going viral: Authoritarianism and COVID-19

By Jeff Fischer and Jeffrey Carlson

August 24, 2020   |   0 comments

Authoritarianism is on the rise around the world, with COVID-19 is providing opportunities for regimes to impose new restrictions, increase surveillance and consolidate power.

The War on Terror has been cited as an example of a crisis triggering authoritarian governmental responses for the purposes of public security, leading to a rollback of civil rights in many countries. During such crises, the public may be more open than usual to governments’ consolidation of authority, especially if it is seen as a factor in resolving the crisis.

By March 2019, “[t]he decline of democratic regime attributes [had] emerged as a conspicuous global challenge” according to a   The use of the term “third wave” is intended ironically in that it was coined by political scientist Samuel Huntington to describe the global expansion of democracy over three “waves,” the third of which is benchmarked to have begun in 1974.

Fast forward a year later and the trend continues with the emergence of COVID-19. While the societal and economic costs of the pandemic impact dictatorships, the enhanced ability to control populations is an upside for these regimes. As a report from the London School of Economics (LSE) Conflict and Civil Society Research unit observes, COVID-19 “…provides considerable opportunities for the further embedding of authoritarianism and new attacks on democracy.” 

Larry Diamond of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution . And, as Human Rights Watch observes, the structural changes emerging from this pandemic could lead to long-term damage to democratic rule in both democracies and semi-or-non-democratic states.

Authoritarianism and the consolidation of power

The tactics that authoritarian regimes employ to consolidate power vary, but freedom of the press is often a first place to look.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte awarded themselves indefinite emergency powers to rule by decree and suppress journalistic reporting on the pandemic.

Jordan, Yemen, Oman, Iran and Morocco have banned newspapers. Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi expelled a Guardian journalist and warned a New York Times reporter about virus reporting in his efforts to protect Egypt’s hard-hit tourism industry.

COVID-19 has been cited as the reason for the postponement of elections. According to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, as of July 15, there were election postponements in 62 countries and eight territories with a total of 108 electoral events delayed in total.

The pandemic has also been leveraged as a reason to prohibit public demonstrations. Governments have halted political demonstrations using this tactic in Algeria, Russia (even single person protests) and India.

Some governments have also stepped up surveillance of journalists, public figures and oppressed ethnic groups. In China, authorities have increased digital surveillance of the Uyghurs and Turkic Muslims. In Israel, data is collected on people’s movements through mobile telephone metadata. And in Russia and China, public surveillance cameras have facial recognition technologies. The use of these technologies is being expanded during the pandemic in the name of contact tracing. 

To summarize, the LSE’s report identifies four threats emerging from these trends. First, “deglobalization” takes on a nationalist theme creating barriers for people’s movements and sometimes leading to the persecution of minorities. Second, there is less participation in democracy and more centralization. Identity politics becomes more prevalent. Third, a surveillance state is created or enhanced with the accompanying erosion of human rights. Fourth, social and economic inequalities go unchallenged as a result of the hegemony of the state.

Non-governmental authoritarian groups take advantage of the pandemic

Non-state groups have also used COVID-19 to consolidate power. In Colombia, armed groups ranging from leftist guerrilla groups to rightwing paramilitaries and drug cartels are using the pandemic to consolidate control of populations in their strongholds. 

For them, the motive is not public health, but solidifying their authority in the absence of a Colombian government or security presence in certain areas. The armed groups impose curfews, restrict movements, ban social and recreational activities, and enforce their rules through violence. 

Similar tactics have been reported to be employed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Commando Vermelho in Brazil and MS-13 in El Salvador.

What does the future hold?

During the last 30 years, However, in the same time period, we have also seen the rise of legacy regimes in places such as Azerbaijan, Egypt and Syria. If the pandemic inflicts sufficient damage to a country’s economy, it could trigger an uprising and change. However, should these regimes be allowed to use the pandemic to become further entrenched, democracy may be dismantled.

But, the risks are too high to leave such political transitions to economic chance and the suffering that ordinary people will experience as a result of any economic crisis.  In response to the third wave of authoritarianism, a “fourth wave” of democracy should be fostered through a renewed commitment to democracy redevelopment programming. 

This fourth wave would possess characteristics driven by the post-pandemic world. Such democratic redevelopment can include approaches like online educational programs for electoral administrative staff, webcams for virtual electoral observation, social media monitoring for disinformation and an expansion of gender and racial diversity in candidacies and public officials, among other initiatives.

This fourth wave should also have a generational focus on young people, who, in many places, have not really experienced the full benefits of democratic governance. However, through the encouragement of their participation, democratic values can be fostered in a new generation so that the cycle of ‘autocratization’ can be broken.

Jeff Fischer is the Senior Electoral Advisor for the Communities in Transition division at Creative. Jeffrey Carlson directs the Electoral Education & Integrity Practice Area. 

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