Authoritarian Regimes & COVID19

By Shilpita Das.

It may be early to say if the post COVID19 crisis will see a shift of countries to autocracy. The majority of countries have imposed lockdowns to contain the spread of infection, and snooping has become the new norm in democratic countries and non-democratic ones. It is understandable that to respond to the medical emergency, states are advocating social distancing, lockdowns and border closures. While some countries like the UK, Sweden, or South Korea have imposed less restrictive lockdown measures, other countries like Hungary, India, Germany, France, and Australia opted for stringent draconian lockdown measures. WHO advice is to test as much as possible and isolate those who have tested positive or potential suspects of having the infection. South Korea combatted the crisis only by mass and rigorous testing and tracking the citizens with potential infections. 

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Source: Ingram Pinn (Financial Times)

But will such restrictive authoritarian regimes become more prevalent after the crisis as well and will these regimes be more dangerous under the blanket of COVID19? 

Personal Data Collection  

Countries’ attempts to monitor the rise in infection have indeed resulted in a large amount of private information being collected. In the current justifications for implementing a quarantine, the Russian government has also picked up the pace of its surveillance operations. This includes progress in facial recognition technology linked to a recording devices network to stop people violating quarantine. China is using biometrics to track the movement of people. Australia has seen rising demands for more desperate measures.

Smartphone navigation may be important for the legitimate reason of mapping the progression of the disease, but this could potentially lead to misuse of civil rights in the hands of the wrong people.

Digital technology can facilitate unparalleled monitoring and data collection, using everything from security cameras to smartphone content. Smartphone navigation may be important for the legitimate reason of mapping the progression of the disease, but this could potentially lead to misuse of civil rights in the hands of the wrong people. There are also continued systems which are tracking social networking sites for posting fake news about the virus. Several countries have passed concerning emergency legislation- including Hungary- without any clear guidelines that people will be imprisoned or fined, if found guilty of spreading deceptive or perplexing information.  

Election Mechanism 

The Polish political elites argue that restricting civil liberties and amending the electoral law to permit the presidential election to proceed through a postal ballot is unconstitutional, and this delay is unfavorable for the opponent Andrzej Duda, who is the favorite to win. COVID19 probably turned out to be a boon for the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who took full advantage during the immediate wake of the catastrophe, taking early precautionary steps like other nations (shutdown, border restrictions, complete lockdown, proscribing immigration). The new amendment states that Netanyahu will continue as Prime Minister for the next 18 months, and his opponent Benny Gantz will switch in that role for the next 18 months after that. Amidst that, Netanyahu’s formal indictment has been deferred due to COVID19 crisis.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Pexels.com

The Hungarian Parliament granted permission to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely. His right Fidesz party can govern uncontested under the new emergency legislative changes, sidestepping both the Parliament and current laws, otherwise the current regulations governing emergency states would have scheduled presidential elections from May until 90 days after the stop of the nation of emergency. There has been a refined effort to push through a complicated sequence of constitutional amendments that would restructure the Russian authorities with the goal of maintaining President Putin as the central political figure in the country. Taking the advantage of the crisis, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he will remain president indefinitely. 

Human Rights Violations 

We need to speak out for those whose voices are hardest to hear. Many detainees in detention centers are applying for asylum in their own countries under increasingly autocratic conditions. Typically, asylum seekers share tiny rooms with random people, making social distancing close to impossible. In India, migrant workers are in a pitiful condition due to the sudden lockdown, leaving them in distress. More than 250 migrant workers have been reported dead, not because of the virus itself, but because of the hardships and lack of income since the lockdown. In theory, a legal resident could bring a civil case to challenge it in court, however the everyday tribunals are shut down, and citizens can not directly make a plea to the Constitutional Court.

These emerging tools could be easily used by authoritarian leaders beyond the pandemic in the coming years to legitimize themselves in positions of increasing authority.

During this global crisis, both Hungarian government and Polish parliaments are arguing about legalized recognition for transgender people, and the latter for controversial abortion and sexual reproductivity bills. Protests or rallies are either not permitted or will conceivably risk peoples’ health, and leaders’ and international public opinion are obscured by COVID-19 — making it entirely feasible for authoritarian regimes to intervene in ways that would otherwise be openly criticized. 

Conclusion

These emerging tools could be easily used by authoritarian leaders beyond the pandemic in the coming years to legitimize themselves in positions of increasing authority. An example from history shows how Adolf Hitler used a crisis sparked by the burning of the Reichstag to create a presidential dictatorship, restraining people’s structural and fundamental rights in Germany. In the present day, there seems to be a lack of response at the national level, or from the global community on these issues. Authoritarian regimes pose a threat to their own jurisdictions and human rights. During this universal threat, authoritarian regimes are endeavoring to advance the narrative of centralised power. People are inclined to forgo some of their freedoms for the protections that a potent state structure can offer. Though right now citizens are mostly supporting authoritarian regimes as such measures give protection against the virus, the question is how long citizens will continue to accept such draconian measures. 


Before starting the Master’s in Governance, Development and Public Policy at IDS, Shilpita graduated with a degree in Agricultural Science and then an MBA from India. She gained 7 years of experience working in public policy, media and politics. She is now working with a thinktank in London that is establishing the role of artificial intelligence in public policy through basic service provision and power of politics. She has varied research interests including comparative politics and contemporary economic approaches.


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