The speed and scale of the transformation is troubling political scientists, government watchdogs and advocacy groups. Many recognize that emergency declarations and the streamlining of government decision-making are necessary responses to a global health threat. But they question the ease with which leaders will give up the powers they have acquired when the coronavirus eventually disappears.
“This is a situation where it is far too easy to argue for undue interference in civil rights and freedoms,” said Tomas Valasek, a Slovak legislator.
The country that has attracted the most attention for a decline in democratic reform is Hungary, which last month granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban quasi-dictatorial powers. Orban was already faced with the prospect of sanctions from the European Union because of concerns he had filled with loyalist courts, closed the opposition media and revised the country’s constitution to ensure it stay in power. The new measure gives him the power to legislate by decree, without parliamentary oversight, as long as he deems it necessary to fight the coronavirus, and it imposes severe sanctions for the dissemination of “false information” – a step that critics fear will be used to deepen down on the opposition.
But even countries with strong traditions of freedom and dissent have imposed measures almost overnight that, in other circumstances, would seem more familiar in an authoritarian state. Authorities in Belgium have requisitioned location data from mobile phone companies to make sure people don’t get too far from home. Police checkpoints on the main streets monitor what the phone companies are missing.
“It is not enough for the despots and illiberals of this world, like Orban, to do damage,” said Valasek, who was involved in negotiating the pandemic response in Slovakia. “We have to make sure that we don’t go an inch further than what is absolutely necessary to restrict civil liberties in the name of the fight for public health. “
Past moments of extreme anxiety have resulted in measures that have long survived the crisis they have faced. After the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, for example, the Egyptians lived for another 31 years under a state of emergency which granted the government broad security powers.
The state of emergency declared in France after the terrorist attacks in November 2015 remained in place for two years – and did not end until many of the supervisory powers it authorized were made permanent.
In the United States, the September 11 attacks have led to emergency measures that persist to this day. The Guantánamo Bay Detention Center is still open. Targeted drone killings continue. Under the Patriot Act, mass surveillance is still possible.
“September 11 is the appropriate analogy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “We had a frightened public that was willing to endorse a government that took measures that violated civil rights and were difficult to reverse for a long time.
“I fear that we are entering a parallel period. “
Pandemics pose unique challenges to societies that depend on the free flow of people and information. Monitoring contagion requires extensive surveillance. Social distancing means that parliaments cannot meet to vote. Protests cannot invade public places. Campaigns and even elections are at stake.
Many leaders have now acquired broad powers to place their citizens under surveillance. In Israel, the cabinet bypassed parliament to approve an emergency measure that allows the government to use the location data of cell phones of suspected coronavirus patients to ensure that they comply with quarantine rules and to inform the people with whom they may have been in contact. In South Korea, a noisy democracy, the extensive contact tracing previously used primarily as a counterterrorism technique has helped authorities reconstruct webs of people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus and quickly curb its spread.
Lawmakers find it difficult to find the right balance between public safety and privacy.
“Governments tend to say that it is really, really important in the fight against the virus that we have all this personal data and that privacy is not so important,” said Sophie in ‘t Veld, Dutch member of the European Parliament which has worked on privacy legislation. “And this is where we have to be very careful. “
The coronavirus threat doesn’t seem to be diminishing anytime soon either. Even after companies cross the first wave, they will remain vulnerable until a vaccine is developed – which many scientists say could take at least 18 months. The longer the crisis continues, say advocacy groups, the greater the risk that temporary powers will become permanent.
Douglas Rutzen, president of the Washington-based International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, said that covid-19, the disease caused by coronavirus, “is not just a public health crisis – it is also a political crisis ”.
“Governments around the world are gathering emergency powers that they will be reluctant to cede, and over time, emergency powers will infiltrate the social fabric,” he said. “You see it through history. “
Adding to the challenge, many legislatures have cut their hours or stopped meeting to avoid large gatherings and unnecessary travel. In Belgium, many decisions are made by party leaders and not by votes in Parliament. Spanish lawmakers have postponed all non-pandemic cases. The European Parliament conducts most of its work by video link.
The result is a less careful examination of the political decisions likely to shape the era, much hastily taken by leaders with an unclear picture of the economic and epidemiological threats they face.
“When a government takes such drastic measures, especially quickly, in Covid-19, it is extremely difficult to take the horse by the reins,” said Sergio Carrera, who follows questions of the rule of law in Brussels. Center for European Political Studies.
Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of “How Democracies Die”, says that the most crucial test that democracies face during the pandemic could be the elections.
“I’m worried,” said Ziblatt. “You could imagine a situation where the number of people authorized in a polling station is reduced, increasing the number of lines, and all this will be in the hands of state officials who could use it as a means of removing participation . It seems totally plausible, and it would be a successful example of democracy. “
The challenge has historic precedent. With the United States facing an influenza epidemic, candidates for the mid-term elections of 1918 limited public appearances in favor of a press release and US mail campaign. “The Spanish flu swept the West at the start of the campaign and many candidates were unable to speak,” reported the Washington Post in November.
The election went as planned, but those who voted did so at their own risk.
“Every time they opened the polls, many more people died afterwards,” said Kristin Watkins, administrator at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado, who has a doctorate in the history of infectious disease and health. public. “Democracy has resisted, even if it was wobbly. But on the back of democracy came the lives of thousands of people. So the question becomes, “Was it worth it?” “
Governments around the world are struggling with this issue. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda wants to hold the elections scheduled for May 10. Critics say it is because his opponents will not be able to campaign, thereby improving his chances.
More than a dozen American states have delayed their primaries. Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers (D) tried to delay his state’s vote on Tuesday, but Republican lawmakers filed a lawsuit and the Wisconsin Supreme Court decided he couldn’t. The vote took place with voters lined up six feet apart and poll workers distributing masks.
The danger, analysts say, is particularly acute in countries where democracy is already vulnerable.
Bolivia has been led since November by Jeanine Áñez, a former second vice-president of the Senate who declared herself president after longtime leader Evo Moralesfle ruled the country. After declaring that her only priority would be to organize free and fair elections to choose a successor to Morales, she spent her months in power dismantling the socialist state he built. Election officials are now declaring that the elections scheduled for May must be postponed, extending his interim regime.
“It becomes easy to say that you can criminalize the protests because they pose a threat to public health,” said Kenneth Roberts, political scientist who studies democracy in Latin America at Cornell University. “Even when social distancing is done in response to a public health emergency, it creates a social dynamic that is suitable for autocrats who want to use this crisis as an excuse to concentrate their own powers.”
McCoy reported from Rio de Janeiro. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.