Coronavirus has spread rapidly around the globe, changing our lives and societies drastically almost over night. It is significantly impacting everything around us and even the most mundane aspects of our daily life. Including something that is already very fragile and unstable, democracy.
On July 30th, President Trump proposed delaying the 2020 presidential elections over concerns about mail-in voting. He claims that mail-in voting would create fraudulent and inaccurate results. Although Trump cannot himself change the election date (it is up to congress), the tweet sparked concern over the country’s democracy and whether or not it would be compromised due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The world has already grappled with Covid-19 for a couple months now. Has it already impacted democracy around the world? Unfortunately, the answer is yes.
Back in March, the virus killed its first democracy, Hungary. The country has already been heading into the direction of autocracy for several years but it was oddly enough the coronavirus that definitively put an end to it’s democracy.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban was granted sweeping emergency power in order to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The bill enables Orban to suspend existing laws and to rule by decree for an indefinite amount of time. While these emergency powers are in place no elections can be held. Additionally, with the introduction of this bill, anyone deemed by the government as spreading “distorted truths” concerning the coronavirus pandemic can be jailed. Additionally, the law punishes those who defy mandatory quarantines for up to 8 years in prison.
When the bill was passed Hungary had 450 cases. Previously, Orban had already politicized the coronavirus by saying it was a threat that foreign migrants may carry. This gave Orban justification for even tighter border control. When speaking to lawmakers about the bill, Orban chillingly stated “Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary.”
Several political scientists argue that Hungary has stopped being democratic long ago. The country is described as “competitive authoritarian” and “electoral autocracy”. Despite this, the influence of coronavirus on the political fate of a country is extremely worrying. Hungary was already heading into this direction and the pandemic gave Orban the opportunity to exploit it. This pandemic was in a way, the missing piece of a puzzle. Yet, for other countries this pandemic could serve as the first piece of a similar puzzle. And that is alarming. According to How Democracies Die, modern day democracies die slowly. Thus, we shouldn’t discard the possibility of this crisis serving as the first step towards the decay of a democracy. While Hungary’s democracy may have been the first victim of this pandemic, it might not be its last.
Hungary was already “immunocompromised”. Yet, as we’ve begun to learn this virus does not discriminate and can even affect those perceived as healthy. Could this pandemic also destroy healthy democracies?
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has received much criticism for taking advantage of the pandemic for his own political gain. Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli commentator wrote for the Washington Post that Netanyahu and his party “have shut down parliament, enacted extreme ‘security’ measures without legislative oversight and shelved the courts just as Netanyahu was about to go on trial for corruption.”Additionally he stated “I don’t use the word ‘coup’ lightly. But any weaker description of Netanyahu’s assault on Israeli democracy is a refusal to absorb and report the truth.”
In Bolivia the interim government has postponed elections and has yet to announce a new date. For a country trying to welcome democracy once again, this is an extremely worrying sign that perhaps the road to democracy will be much longer. In contrast, Chile, which has been struck by a wave of massive protests in past months, has also postponed its much anticipated referendum. Yet, the main difference is that the Chilean government has already scheduled a new date for the referendum to take place.
In Brazil the pandemic has caused a rift between the country’s president Jair Bolsonaro and state governors. Several governors throughout the country have imposed their own regulations to deal with the pandemic, taking a completely opposite approach to the president. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo has said “The president despises us and attacks us. He has put us in an impossible position by creating a narrative that impedes the protection of people and life. The governors – from the left, center and right – have decided to follow the correct path and maintain the WHO protocols.” In a video shared by Bolsonaro he insults the governors by calling them “scoundrels” and then says “Nobody should forget I am the president.” When Bolsonaro was asked if he would use the coronavirus crisis to mount a coup he replied saying “If I was I wouldn’t say so.”
Across the globe in Hong Kong elections have been officially delayed citing the coronavirus pandemic as the reason for this change. However, the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong doubts that is the true reason, especially considering the national security law imposed by China. Twelve pro-democracy candidates have already been barred from participating in the elections and four activists were arrested over pro-democracy posts online.
The Covid-19 pandemic has deeply transformed the world as we know it. But perhaps there is one aspect of this crisis we are not focusing much on: its impact on democracies across the world. Will Covid-19 propel democracies to deteriorate or even fall apart? Only time will tell.