The speed and breadth of the transformation is unsettling political scientists, government watchdogs and rights groups. Many concede that emergency declarations and streamlining government decision-making are necessary responses to a global health threat. But they question how readily leaders will give up the powers they’ve accrued when the coronavirus eventually subsides.
“This is a situation where it’s far too easy to make arguments for undue interference with civil rights and liberties,” said Tomas Valasek, a Slovak lawmaker.
The country that has attracted the most notice for a lurch backward from democratic reforms is Hungary, which last month handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban near-dictatorial powers. Orban was already facing the prospect of sanctions from the European Union over concerns he had packed courts with loyalists, closed down opposition media outlets and overhauled the country’s constitution to ensure he remains in power. The new measure gives him authority to legislate by decree, free from parliamentary oversight, for as long as he deems necessary to fight the coronavirus, and it imposes steep penalties for spreading “false information” — a step that critics fear will be used to further crack down on the opposition.
But even countries with robust traditions of freedom and dissent have imposed measures nearly overnight that under other circumstances would look more familiar in an authoritarian state. In Belgium, authorities have requisitioned cellphone companies’ location tracking data to make sure people aren’t straying too far from home. Police checkpoints on major streets monitor what the phone companies miss.
“It doesn’t just take the despots and the illiberals of this world, like Orban, to wreak damage,” said Valasek, who has been involved in negotiating Slovakia’s pandemic response. “We need to make sure that we don’t go a single inch further than absolutely necessary in curtailing civil liberties in the name of fighting for public health.”
Past moments of extreme anxiety have given rise to measures that long outlived the crisis they were imposed to address. After the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981, for example, Egyptians lived 31 more years under a state of emergency that granted the government sweeping security powers.
The state of emergency declared in France after terrorist attacks in November 2015 remained in place for two years — and was ended only after many of the surveillance powers it enabled were made permanent.
And in the United States, the 9/11 attacks led to emergency measures that persist to this day. The detention center in Guantánamo Bay is still open. Targeted drone killings continue. Under the Patriot Act, mass surveillance is still possible.
“September 11th is the appropriate analogy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “We had a fearful public that was willing to countenance a government that was taking steps that undermined civil rights and were difficult to reverse over a long time.
“I fear that we’re entering a parallel period.”
Pandemics present unique challenges to societies that depend on the free movement of people and information. Tracking contagion requires wide surveillance. Social distancing means parliaments cannot meet to vote. Protests can’t take over public squares. Campaigning and even elections come into question.
Many leaders have now seized 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 cellphone location data of suspected coronavirus patients to make sure they adhere to quarantine rules and to notify people with whom they may have been in contact. In South Korea, a raucous democracy, extensive contact tracing previously used mostly as a counterterrorism technique helped authorities reconstruct webs of people who might have been exposed to the coronavirus and quickly clamp down on its spread.
Lawmakers say the right balance between public safety and privacy is hard to find.
“There is a tendency for governments to say that it’s really, really important in the fight against the virus that we have all that personal data, and that privacy is not all that important,” said Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who has worked on privacy legislation. “And that’s where we need to be very careful.”
Nor does the threat from the coronavirus appear likely to wane anytime soon. Even after societies get through the first wave, they will remain vulnerable until a vaccine is developed — which many scientists believe could take at least 18 months. The longer the crisis continues, rights groups say, 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 covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, “is not only a public health crisis — it is also a political crisis.”
“Governments around the world are assembling emergency powers that they will be reluctant to relinquish, and over time emergency powers seep into the fabric of society,” he said. “You see this throughout history.”
Adding to the challenge, many legislatures have trimmed their schedules or stopped meeting altogether to avoid large gatherings and unnecessary travel. In Belgium, many decisions are being made by party leaders, not by full votes in parliament. Spanish lawmakers have postponed all non-pandemic business. The European Parliament is conducting most of its business via video link.
The result is less scrutiny over potentially epoch-shaping policy decisions, many made in a rush by leaders with a less-than-clear picture of the economic and epidemiological threats that face them.
“The moment a government takes such drastic measures, especially in fast ways, in covid-19, it is extremely difficult to take the horse back by the reins,” said Sergio Carrera, who tracks rule-of-law issues at the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies.
Daniel Ziblatt, co-author of “How Democracies Die,” says the most crucial test facing democracies during the pandemic might be elections.
“I’m concerned,” Ziblatt said. “You could imagine a situation where the number of people allowed in a polling station is reduced, increasing lines, and this will all be in the hands of state officials who could use it as a way to suppress turnout. That seems totally plausible, and that would be an example of democracy taking a hit.”
The challenge has historical precedent. With the United States in the full grip of an influenza epidemic, candidates in the 1918 midterm elections limited public appearances in favor of campaigning by news release and the U.S. mail. “Spanish influenza swept the West as the campaigns were opening and many candidates were unable to make a speech,” The Washington Post reported that November.
The election was held as scheduled, but those who voted did so at their own risk — and at immense cost.
“Every time they opened the polls, a lot more people died afterward,” said Kristin Watkins, an administrator at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado who has a doctorate in the history of infectious diseases and public health. “Democracy held up, though it was wobbly. But upon the back of democracy came the lives of thousands of people. So the question becomes, ‘Was it worth it?’ ”
Governments around the world have been struggling with that question. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda wants to proceed with elections scheduled for May 10. Critics say it’s because his opponents will be unable to campaign, improving his chances.
More than a dozen U.S. states have delayed their primaries. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) sought to delay his state’s vote on Tuesday, but Republican lawmakers filed a legal challenge and the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled he could not. The vote proceeded with people in lines standing six feet apart and poll workers handing out masks.
The danger, analysts say, is particularly acute in countries where democracy is already vulnerable.
Bolivia has been run since November by Jeanine Áñez, a former second vice president of the Senate who declared herself president after longtime leader Evo Morales fled the country. After saying that her only priority would be to establish free and fair elections to choose a successor to Morales, she has spent her months in office dismantling the socialist state he built. Now electoral officials say elections that were scheduled for May must be pushed back, extending her interim rule.
In Chile, protests that started last fall against cost-of-living pressures, unevenly distributed growth and persistent inequality led to clashes with security forces that left dozens dead and thousands injured. President Sebastián Piñera, seeking to calm the unrest, agreed to hold a referendum on whether to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era constitution. But restrictions on public gatherings have ended the weekly protests, and officials have postponed the vote to October.
“It becomes easy to say you can criminalize protests because they’re a public health threat,” said Kenneth Roberts, a political scientist who studies Latin American democracy at Cornell University. “Even when social distancing is being done in response to a public health emergency, it creates a social dynamic that is tailor-made for the autocrats who want to use this crisis as a pretext to concentrate their own powers.”
McCoy reported from Rio de Janeiro. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.