It is an irony of history that the three countries, the US, Brazil and India, led by the so-called strongmen in global politics, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi, happen to be the ones that lead the global COVID-19 count.
In the face of the pandemic challenge, all three “strongmen” have turned out to be men with feet of clay. The writing is clear on the wall that they have failed miserably in containing the tiny but deadly virus. But that doesn’t prevent them — and their clones like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Viktor Orban of Hungary — from furthering their authoritarian pursuits. Rather, it is precisely because of their abject failure in addressing the problems posed by the pandemic in any meaningful way, they and others of their ilk are intensifying the attacks on democracy to cover up their bankruptcy.
It is not just a matter of personal authoritarian traits in a few world leaders. Rather, it is appearing as a deeper global phenomenon rooted in the moral, political and socio-economic crisis of the global society.
Bad news comes in installments
Before the news of the coronavirus outbreak came the World Bank warning that the global economy was crashing into a recessionary phase. After that it was the images of a white policeman choking a coloured person to death by crushing his trachea with his knee in supposedly the strongest democracy in the world; police personnel beating to death a father-son duo inside the police station for the minor “crime” of lockdown violation in the largest democracy were not just routine human rights violations. They were pointing to a deeper moral crisis in the society and the administration. And, as history shows, a crisis situation is the breeding ground for authoritarian and fascist tendencies among the rulers.
It is true that the surge of the right-wing forces in the global political spectrum preceded the pandemic by a few years. But the pandemic has come in handy for them. They are using the pandemic to deepen their rightward shift. This is happening in country after country with only a few rare exceptions. Either forced exodus of migrant workers or border closures to prevent them from entering, enhanced surveillance of citizens through monitoring apps similar to our Aarogya Setu, restrictions on freedom of expression in the name of curbing fake news or causing alarm, witch-hunt against activists by arresting them and sending them to corona-infested jails, and polarising the society by making Muslims or migrants the super-spreaders of the virus etc., are the new normal.
Democracy faces its test right there in Europe itself, its cradle where its foundations were deepened by giants like Hobbes and Tocqueville. The first thing that comes to mind at the mention of Hungary is the 1956 Spring, the rebellion for democracy against the Soviet jackboots, or crop of Hungarian films of the 1960s that sensitively portrayed the human alienation under totalitarian conditions, though hidden under the garb of historical cinema or comedies where people were mocked at their own helplessness. In such a pioneering land of democratic aspirations, Viktor Orban today has emerged as the foremost symbol of viral authoritarianism. Like ‘Emperor’ Xi Jinping of China anointing himself as the ruler without any time limit, he got the Hungarian parliament to empower him to rule by decree in perpetuity. He then suspended the parliament, indefinitely postponed all elections and even shut down the courts for now — all in the name of combating the virus. Democracy became a bigger threat than the virus itself.
His actions had a clear Narendra Modi signature when he subverted the judiciary, carried on a witch-hunt against NGOs and other civil society outfits working on popular issues, when he narrowed down the space of dissent in Hungarian universities by squeezing state funding for them selectively and even censored their curricula, and, above all, throttled the independent media. He is not alone; many of his dictatorial clones are following the same footsteps of a Modi or a Trump in all continents.
On May 1, 2020, the Amnesty International came up with a report titled Global Crackdown on Journalists Weakens Efforts to Tackle Covid-19 and listed instances of press curbs in China, Russia, and India. Countries like Nigeria, Egypt, Venezuela, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania and several Gulf states have introduced laws to curb press freedom in the name of restricting false news about the pandemic, according to the report. Authoritarianism is getting universalised and has no borders like the virus in whose name it is ushered in. Trump uses the pandemic for greater border controls and diverts public attention by saber-rattling against China.
On Israel, even the arch conservative Washington Post carries a screaming headline saying, “With a pandemic as a cover, Netanyahu is carrying out a coup in Israel”. Exactly like Viktor Orban, Netanyahu has suspended the Israeli parliament and shuttered the courts. This, when he was about to go on trial for corruption. Shades of Indian Emergency! Arab minorities in Israel have been reduced to second-class citizens by law and the Palestinian land is grabbed subverting Palestinian Authority in a 1967 redux. In Turkey, Erdogan, following the authoritarian Chinese and Indian models, imposed a blanket curfew crippling the economy instead of going in for targeted containment as done successfully in New Zealand and Vietnam.
The far-right Bolsonaro in Brazil is even more brazen. During his visit to the US in March, he called the pandemic a fantasy, a conspiracy to make the oil and stock prices fall, echoing Trump, who too was on a similar denial mode. Such a shameless guy is silent now when Brazil occupies the second slot after the US in the corona count. After feeling the corona heat, on 17 May 2020, his followers staged a roadshow in Brasilia, calling for the closure of the Congress and the Supreme Court, calling them corrupt. Elsewhere, the armies in Indonesia and Philippines have assumed enormous emergency powers, citing the pandemic, posing a question mark over the very survival of the fledgling democracies.
The epidemic of authoritarianism is spreading to the unlikely shores of Europe itself. Hungary is not an exception. The Polish government trampled upon the rights of the federal units and arrogated all pandemic control emergency powers to itself for a year, and is trying to postpone presidential polls and even smuggle in postal ballot for the election of the new president, which can easily be manipulated by the incumbent. France is extending “health emergency” and Germany is transferring powers to the federal government and in Italy, the prime minister can decree a law for 60 days before it is approved by the parliament. In Spain, virtually, a “state of alarm” has been declared and lots of powers have been centralised with the federal government.
In such a backdrop, the Conflict and Civil Society Research Unit of the London School of Economics has come out with a publication authored by Dr. Luke Cooper and Dr. Guy Altchison, titled Covid-19, Authoritarianism and Democracy. They list four threats in the COVID-19 context viz., ‘de-globalization’ taking an increasingly parochial nationalist form, less democratic participation under a governance marked by greater autocracy and disconnect with the people, emergence of a surveillance state and erosion of human rights and increasing inequality. As an alternative they propose multilateralist participatory de-globalisation, defense and extension of democracy, winning popular support of human rights and a package of measures to fight the growing inequality. The authors delve deeper into the underlying social and economic factors like crony capitalism and state-supported financialisation. It is a very timely alert.
History shows that the rise of Nazi the Party resulted partly from the devastation caused by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. That should serve as a warning for all those who cherish democracy and liberalism.
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