Covid-19: A Grave Threat to Democracy?

On the 30th of March, democracy ended in Hungary.

Recent liberal commentary concerning the emergence of populism throughout the western world commonly veers into hyperbole, if not outright catastrophising - a tendency which has been keenly ridiculed by political opponents. Nevertheless, the statement I opened this piece with is nothing of the sort. Last month, Hungary’s parliament voted to extend its state of emergency – declared under the pretext of facilitating a swifter state response to the coronavirus pandemic – indefinitely, allowing Viktor Orban, the country’s Prime Minister, to rule by decree until further notice. Needless to say, this unprecedented measure didn’t arise amidst a moment of national unity, and neither was there any meaningful consultation with the opposition; after all, Orban’s Fidesz party enjoys a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority, rendering any such formalities superfluous.

In lieu of the above situation, pundits of various swipes have pondered whether we ourselves would be immune to such a political breakdown. Practically every single democracy (and non-democracy) has seen an immense expansion of executive power in both the social and economic realms. Here in the UK – as is the case in France and various other countries – the police have been granted the ability to fine those who fail to provide a good reason for being outside of their homes. Imagine for a moment if such measures were implemented under conventional circumstances; they would rightfully be perceived as positively totalitarian. Some have gone even further with Italy, one of the countries worst affected by the outbreak, banning internal travel throughout the country altogether.

One might assume that the executives would eventually hand back the power they’ve dramatically accumulated in such short order, but can we be assured of this? The measures might be draconian, but as of yet they haven’t fazed the public; democratic incumbencies across the board have seen their approval ratings surge in the pandemic’s wake. Faced with a supportive electorate, what incentive is there to relinquish these

privileges? After all, while the accumulation of power has proved necessary for the effective enforcement of a widespread lockdown, there are certainly other policy areas where heavily restricted (if not wholly absent) scrutiny may prove congenial to any government’s ambitions.

In Hungary, the regime has wasted little time implementing initiatives which under standard democratic procedure would have garnered at least cursory scrutiny. To give just one example, mere days after the power-grab, information regarding an expansive, Chinese-backed rail infrastructure project was classified, on the basis that its publication might “threaten Hungary’s ability to pursue its foreign policy and trade interests without undue influence”.

Nevertheless, as is often the case, context is crucial in speculating vis-à-vis the potential future implications of the outbreak. In particular, I would posit that the question of whether countries succumb to undiluted authoritarianism will be determined by their prevailing socio-political norms. Sure, in various cases the early stages of the crisis have served to catalyse undemocratic trends, but this has largely occurred in states where such trends were already underway. Again, take Hungary; while the unprecedented extent of the government’s coup should not be understated, Orban has been eroding political freedoms and institutional independence within the country for years. If anything, the recent measures constitute the opportunistic completion of a grand project.

On the other hand, in countries such as the UK and Germany where democratic norms are further entrenched, it is difficult to imagine the authoritarian measures adopted by their governments persisting in the longer term if the pandemic only lasted another few months. Similarly, countries such as Taiwan, which are not only bucking the authoritarian trend but additionally on a democratising trajectory, will most likely see very little (if any) detriment to their democratic political systems.

Regardless, the optimistic outcome I have laid out is contingent upon the virus being dealt with at a sufficient pace such that a return to ordinary life remains distinctly imaginable for the general public. What if the pandemic dragged on for several months, and the state of emergency (along with its corresponding authoritarian measures) remained in place for a protracted period without any reprieve in sight? The consequent social strains would undoubtedly have averse attitudinal implications for our political leaders and wider society alike. Under such a scenario, it isn’t so difficult to imagine conventional democratic norms collapsing beneath the weight of collective fear and exasperation.

It is thus crucial that democracies the world over get a handle on the pandemic sooner rather than later; otherwise, we could see many more states follow the morbid precedent set by Hungary.

Photo: Randy Colas// Unsplash

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