A global spread: novel strain of authoritarianism infects democracies

2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.

At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.

Warnings from Hungary

Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?

Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies

Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.

Freedom of Assembly  

 Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.  

Police powers

Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.

Surveillance powers

Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.

Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.

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