In today’s world, COVID-19 has been used as a trump card for the consolidation of power in different territories. A public health emergency combined with a power game has the potential to change the politics around the world. In international relations, power game refers to the ideological, strategic, or military competition between or among the states, leaders, or groups for acquiring power. The current global political-economic landscape portrays that this virus has been affecting not only sub-regions but also creating chaos within regions, and Europe is showing the biggest sign of political disarray. This has led the European countries to declare a state emergency to confront the impact of Covid-19. Like all other crises, people are looking up to the government which is, unfortunately, resulting in the consolidation of power and even autocracy in some cases. Here, this article discusses how some of the European leaders abuse a state of emergency and government apparatus for grabbing absolute power during the COVID-19 pandemic situation.
Concentration of Power:
“Issue-based politics” is not an exceptional case in world politics and world leaders have been using different issues, crises as stairways to consolidate absolute power. Initially, Italian intellectual Niccolo Machiavelli gave his learned opinion on the extraordinary power of a ruler, in his famous book named ‘The Prince’, the ruler can exercise his ultimate authority to protect his own power, position, and political institutions of his state. However, the ultimate power was constitutionally instituted by John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to grapple with adventitious situations. Germany, Great Britain, France, the United States, eastern Europe, Africa, Latin America, South Asian countries constitutionally use their emergency power in different periods. Adolf Hitler in 1933, India in 1962 (Indo-China war); in 1971 (Indo-Pakistan war); in 1975 (under unexpected circumstances during Indira Gandhi’s Prime Ministership), Bangladesh in 1975 (Seikh Mujibur Rahman regime); in 1987 (Hussain Muhammad Ershad period); in 2007 (caretaker government under Dr. Iajuddian Ahmed’s presidency), both in Russia and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s used constitutional power to execute a state emergency [S, Gordon; Britannica]. Like this scenario, in the present pandemic situation, some European rulers have been incriminated to capitalize the public health crisis to exercise absolute power. Viktor Orban in Hungary, Erdogan in Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Andrzej Duda in Poland, and some other leaders have passed rules, laws, decrees in their own way to consolidate their power. The coronavirus pandemic has multiple impacts on democratic practice and functions of government. Frances Z. Brown is of the view that the COVID-19 crisis is leading the head of the states to exercise tyrannical power which convulses the basic principles of democratic government. Today, it can be unequivocally said that most of the national leaders are using this outbreak situation to leave their citizens in the darkness and oppress their oppositions for retaining power. [Brown, Brechenmacher, Carothers; 2020]
Totalitarian leaders are manipulating the COVID-19 crisis for making the organs of democratic government dysfunctional and eroding the mechanisms of accountability. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has passed a new law in the Hungarian parliament on March 30, which marks an example in front of other nationalist leaders using the coronavirus pandemic to extend their power [Gall, L; 2020]. Human Rights Watch commented that the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has gripped this pandemic outbreak to devitalize the fundamental principles of democracy [Gall, L; 2020]. This new law would be a way to paralyze the Hungarian parliamentary system and rule of law. Constitutionally, the Hungarian parliament can issue a state emergency for a certain period of time to cope with critical situations. Nevertheless, in this crisis, the parliament stated that the state of emergency will be ended by mid-June, which means there is no sunset clause and the Prime Minister can exercise unlimited power for an unlimited time being [Erlanger, S; 2020]. Steven Erlanger has mentioned, Orban has been using his ultimate power in the matter of the corona aid fund which is funded by the European Union and he also manipulates the relationship between the Hungarian central and local government to raise the aid fund [Erlanger, S; 2020]. European Union and many other organizations raise funds to help the virus-ravaged countries whereas, Orban enjoys more money than other devastated countries. This evidence clearly shows the deficiency of transparency and accountability of the Hungarian government and the violation of democratic rule. Nike Thorpe has reported, it would be a ray of hope if the power of Orban’s government is checked by the democratic institutions: parliament sessions, the judiciary, and election mechanisms [Thope, N; 2020]. But this will remain a dream because Orban’s Fidesz party has an absolute majority in the parliament and these parliamentarians may not go against the decisions of Viktor Orban. Additionally, the judiciary continues to remain under control and the next election in 2020 is uncertain due to this pandemic. All these comments prove that Viktor Orban’s power would be almost unassailable. Conversely, Prime Minister and parliament have shown an argument, for which reasons parliament passes the new law. In the report of Financial Post, the premier said the move is necessary to fight the speed of coronavirus. The government has rejected the criticisms of oppositions and human rights organizations and said this new law is well-timed and planned to confront the virus-ravaged conditions. The Hungarian parliament also stated that the new law would be dismissed when the critical situation will come under control. [Marton, Than; 2020]
Derogation of right to Freedom of Expression:
At present, administrative branches of many countries are seizing the crisis and their additional powers to curtail citizens’ basic rights. Some authorities have been imposing control over the freedom of expression, access to information, and social media platforms to hide the real scenario. Orla Guerin has expressed that COVID-19 has brought an opportunity to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to establish control over the information system and take measures against the media platforms, which platforms are vocal against his authoritarian activities. In the meantime, many people are arrested for their “proactive post” on social media [Guerin, O; 2020]. Ali Cerkezoglu, a doctor of the Turkish Medical Association says, “Hiding the facts and creating a monopoly of information, unfortunately, became the way this country is being ruled.” In this way, the Turkish government misuses its power to control society, the opposition, and the social media platform. In contrast, Turkeys government has been showing causes for taking measures on social media. A clause subjecting the foreign social media companies with high internet traffic has been withdrawn by Turkeys ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), mainly focused on economic measures to combat the impact of the coronavirus pandemic [Camlibel, Canseluki; 2020].
Covid19 is also stimulating the government’s use of monitoring technologies and these technologies are enhancing the risks of political abuse. The pandemic has given the Russian government greater justification to deploy even more invasive systems. John Nadeau says that Kremlin has taken measures to tackle the whole condition. Basically, the Russian government has emphasized more on the digital pass system to control the citizens’ free movement and spying on the mutual communication process of people. This digital pass system has included imprisonment for spreading fake news and infecting others. President Putin also announced the possibility of deploying the military to supervise the situation. The digital pass is also the source of controlling the civilians by the military. [Nadeau, J; 2020] When the government of any state announced these types of surveilling measurements, citizens of that state cannot participate in any protest and movement against the government’s authoritative activities. It is the infringement of democratic norms and values, but the authoritarian rulers use this measurement as a power game. On the other side, the Russian government explains the logic behind these measures. These amendments are preventive and warning to keep the citizens stay safe and reducing the death toll of the pandemic.
Another European country Poland has been facing the COVID-19 outbreak and the populist leaders have exploited this pandemic to exercise absolute power. Joanna Fomina says that capitalizing on the COVID-19 issue, Polish president Andrej Duda has been trying to come back to power. He has used social media for election campaigns whereas, opposition presidential candidates cannot access this opportunity for conducting public meetings [Formina, J;2020]. Ascertaining level playing field for all candidates is one of the preconditions to hold a free, fair, and credible election. Election Commission and the incumbent government have the duty to ensure equal opportunity for all candidates. Polish present president wants to misuse COVID-19 to raise his poll numbers and safeguarding his existing power.
COVID-19 helps people to understand the real scenario of leadership and government system in this present world order. Democratic system and pluralism are under assault. Along with the European leaders, most of the nationalist leaders have exploited this pandemic for grabbing absolute authority and these leaders are toiling to stamp out the last illustrations of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence all over the world. In the European region, many countries have constrained public gatherings and citizen’s freedom of movement, imposing censorship on social media. The leaders have also damaged other democratic values – such as election mechanisms, civil rights, and the voice of civil society. Socio-political cohesion, corruption, the excessive role of the non-state actors are visible in these countries. Here, the overall information refers to the shutdown of all economic, political, cultural activities which brings a great threat to democratic practice and values. These are the real pictures not only in Europe but also the whole world. To promote and uphold democratic culture, political parties, parliament, the judiciary must function properly during this pandemic. The government must ensure a suitable environment to execute rule of law, freedom of expression and stop unnecessary authorization over public activities. All these make a democratic atmosphere to promote liberal values by reducing the level of power game during this crucial time indeed.
1. See for details, Gordon Silverstein, ‘Emergency Powers’, Britannica.
2. Frances Z. Brown, Saskia Brechenmacher, & Thomas Carothers, ‘How Will the Coronavirus Reshape Democracy and Governance Globally?’ (Carnegie Endorsement For International Peace) accessed 6 April 2020.
3. Lydia Gall, ‘Hungary’s Orban Uses Pandemic to Seize Unlimited Power’, (HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH) accessed 23 March 2020.
4. Steven Erlanger, ‘Poland and Hungary Use Coronavirus to Punish Opposition’, (The New York Times), accessed 22 April 2020.
5. Nick Thorpe, ‘Hungary : suicide of parliament grants Orban extraordinary powers’, (BBC News) accessed 18 April 2020.
6. Reuters Marton Dunai & Krisztina Than, ‘Hungary’s PM wins emergency power to fight coronavirus’, (FINANCIAL POST), accessed 30 March 2020.
7. See for details, Orla Guerin, ‘Turkey : Moment of opportunity for Erdogan’, (BBC News) accessed 18 April 2020.
8. Cansu Camlibel & Pollster Canselcuki, ‘Turkey ruling AKP withdraws clause on social media supervision from draft law’, (duvarR. english) accessed 14 April 2020.
9. Josh Nadeau, ‘Putin is using pandemic to consolidate power’, (BUSINESS STANDARD) accessed 26 May 2020.
10. Joanna Fomina, ‘How Populist Have Exploited the Coronavirus’, (Carnegie Endowment For International Peace), 28 April 2020.
Author: Taniazaman Sarna. She is a MSS student of Political Science, University of Dhaka. Corresponding e-mail: [email protected]