Authoritarianism on the rise as the world battles the pandemic

LONDON (AP) – Here’s some of what happened as the world was distracted by the coronavirus: Hungary has banned the public performance of homosexuality. China shut down Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper. The Brazilian government has praised the dictatorship. And Belarus hijacked an airliner to arrest a journalist.

COVID-19 has absorbed the energies of the world and isolated countries from each other, which may have accelerated the rise of authoritarianism and extremism around the world, some researchers and activists believe.

“COVID is a dictator’s dream opportunity,” said Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American human rights lawyer who has been charged with treason in the ostensibly democratic nation of Southeast Asia, where the Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for more than three decades.

Human Rights Watch accuses the Cambodian government of using the pandemic as a cover to imprison political opponents without due process. Scores have been charged and are facing mass trials.

As for the government opposition, “fear of COVID, on its own and as a political weapon, has severely restricted mobility for a rally or movement to take shape,” Seng said.

The biggest global public health emergency in a century has handed power back to government authorities and restricted the lives of billions of people.

Luke Cooper, a researcher at the London School of Economics and author of the book ‘Authoritarian Contagion’, said the vast economic, health and social resources invested in the fight against the pandemic mean that ‘the state is back as a force. to manage society and provide public goods. . “

Restrictions on civil liberties or political opponents were tightened during the pandemic on several continents.

For a decade in Hungary, conservative nationalist prime minister Viktor Orban restricted media and justice freedom, criticized multiculturalism and attacked Muslim migrants as a threat to Europe’s Christian identity.

During the pandemic, Orban’s government introduced an emergency powers bill allowing it to implement resolutions without parliamentary approval – in effect, authorization to govern by decree. In June, it passed a law banning the sharing of content depicting homosexuality or gender reassignment with anyone under the age of 18. The government claims the goal is to protect children from pedophiles, but it has effectively banned discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and the media. .

The Polish conservative government has undermined the rights of women and gays. A ruling last year by a government-controlled court that imposed a near-total abortion ban sparked protests that defied the ban on mass gatherings during the virus outbreak.

In India, the world’s largest democracy, populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of trying to silence critical voices over his administration’s response to a brutal pandemic wave that ravaged the country in April and May. His government has arrested journalists and ordered Twitter to remove posts criticizing its handling of the outbreak after introducing sweeping regulations that give it more power to control online content.

Even before the pandemic, Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, was accused by opponents of crushing dissent and introducing policies to reshape a multi-faith democracy into a discriminating Hindu nation. Muslims and other minorities.

In Russia, the government of President Vladimir Putin has used the pandemic as a last excuse to arrest opposition figures. Associates of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny have been under house arrest and charged that mass protests against his arrest violated regulations on mass gatherings.

In neighboring Belarus, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko extended his quarter-century iron grip on power by winning an August 2020 election that the opposition – and many Western countries – called rigged. The huge protests that erupted were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrests.

Then, in May, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk after the crew was made aware of an alleged threat. Opposition journalist Raman Pratasevic, a passenger, was taken off the plane with his girlfriend and arrested.

Western countries have called the forced hijacking a brazen hijack and have imposed sanctions on Belarus, but these seem unlikely to prompt Lukashenko to change his ways and underscore the weakness of democracies in the face of hard-line regimes. Hungary’s actions have drawn harsh words from other leaders in the European Union, but the 27-nation bloc has no unified response to restrictive regimes like those in Hungary or Poland.

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, extremism was on the move.

“Over the past 15 years, authoritarian politics have reproduced themselves all over the world,” Cooper said. “Democracy seems very fragile. Democracy does not have a clear vision of what it is trying to do in the 21st century.

The 2008 global financial crisis, which saw governments pumping billions into failing banks, shook confidence in the Western world order. And the years of recession and government austerity that followed spurred populism in Europe and North America.

In China, the authorities saw the 2008 economic crash as proof that they themselves, and not the world’s democracies, were on the right track.

Historian Rana Mitter, director of the Chinese Center at Oxford University, said the crisis had persuaded the Chinese Communist government that “the West had no more lessons to teach them.” Since then, Beijing has increasingly deployed China’s economic might abroad while suppressing opposition within its borders.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs have been confined to re-education camps in China’s western Xinjiang region, where activists and former detainees accuse authorities of imposing forced labor, systematic monitoring of births and torture. Beijing rather qualifies the camps as vocational training centers.

Beijing has also tightened control over Hong Kong, stifling dissent in the former British colony. Protesters, editors and journalists critical of Beijing have been jailed, and the latest pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, ceased publication in June after its top editors and executives were arrested.

When the coronavirus first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan, authorities responded strongly – though far from transparent – with draconian lockdowns that brought the virus under control.

Mitter said the pandemic had cemented the view – among many ordinary Chinese, as well as the country’s leaders – that something had gone very wrong with the way the democratic world had dealt with the virus, and something thing had happened. in China.

“This is now widely used as a lesson, not only about the pandemic, but about the virtues of the Chinese system compared to the systems of liberal countries,” he said.

Over the past year, curfews and travel restrictions have also become commonplace across Europe. The French had to present a signed declaration to travel more than a kilometer (just over half a mile) from their home. And Britons have been barred by law from going on vacation abroad, while some participants in a London vigil for a murdered woman have been arrested for assembling illegally.

British lawmakers have expressed concern over the extent of the Conservative government’s emergency powers, many of which were passed without debate in Parliament.

“Since March 2020, the government has introduced a slew of new laws, most of which transform everyday life and introduce unprecedented restrictions on ordinary activities,” said Ann Taylor, an opposition Labor politician who chairs the Constitutional Committee of the House of Lords. “Yet parliamentary oversight of these important political decisions has been extremely limited. “

Western politicians and intelligence agencies have also warned of the threat of coronavirus conspiracy theories that dovetail with existing extremist narratives. Many countries have seen large anti-containment, anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests attended by a mix of far-right, far-left and assorted conspirators.

The UK government has warned of “extremists exploiting the crisis to divide and undermine the social fabric of our country”, with various hate groups blaming Muslims, Jews and 5G phone technology for the pandemic.

But there are signs of a retaliation. The pandemic has also boosted confidence in scientists and spurred demands for more responsible political leadership.

In Hungary, which has one of the world’s highest per capita coronavirus death rates, there is growing opposition to both the government’s pandemic policies and its broader authoritarian streak, and thousands of people took to the streets to support academic freedom and LGBT rights. With elections slated for 2022, a coalition of six opposition parties has united in an attempt to overthrow Orban’s Fidesz party.

Extremism and resistance can be seen in Brazil, where far-right President Jair Bolsonaro expressed nostalgia for the country’s military dictatorship and witnessed protests against the country’s courts and Congress last year. He called the virus a “little flu”, questioned the effectiveness of vaccines and opposed social and economic restrictions.

Renato Meirelles, director of the Brazilian polling company Locomotive Institute, said authoritarianism had progressed through “a strategy of false information and attacks on factual truth.” “The next step will be to question electronic voting and, as such, the outcome of the next elections,” he said.

Bolsonaro has so far been held in check by Brazilian institutions, especially the Supreme Court, which have prevented him from preventing states and cities from implementing restrictions to curb COVID-19 and ordered a investigating the government’s response to the pandemic. And the protests eventually spilled over into the streets. Twice in the past month, protesters marched in dozens of cities across the country.

“I am here to fight for the rights of those in need, for the rights of my children, for my right to live, to have vaccines for all,” said Claudia Maria, a protester in Rio de Janeiro .

In the United States, President Joe Biden has moved away from Donald Trump’s populism, but a Republican Party radicalized by supporters of the former president has every chance of regaining power.

Cooper, of the LSE, said the authoritarian tide is not expected to recede soon.

“It is a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that will last for decades,” he said.


Associated Press Writers Jim Heintz in Moscow, Justin Spike in Budapest, David Biller in Rio de Janeiro, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed.

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