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Coronavirus Pandemic Is Enabling Authoritarianism Around The World

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The coronavirus pandemic is not only causing destruction on public health and the global economy, but also distracting democracy and governance worldwide. It has hit at a time when democracy was already under threat in many parts of the works. Some governments have used the pandemic to expand executive power and restrict individual rights, and such actions are just the tip of the iceberg.

The coronavirus will likely transform other pillars of democratic governance, such as electoral processes, civilian control of militaries, and civic mobilization, and potentially reset the terms of the global debate on the merits of authoritarianism versus democracy. The pandemic will almost certainly usher in broader effects on governance by overburdening countries’ basic governance functions, taxing their sociopolitical cohesion, aggravating corruption, unsettling relations between national and local governments, and transforming the role of nonstate actors.

The overall picture is menacing. Yet the pandemic’s impact may have silver linings. Civil society groups mobilizing responses on the front lines of the pandemic may reinforce democratic vitality at the local level. In some places, effective state responses may shore up trust in government or technocratic expertise. Electoral disruptions may spur needed innovations in election administration. It is essential that supporters of democratic governance everywhere attend to this sweeping range of effects, both negative and positive, to identify entry points and interventions that can anticipatelong-term political damage and nurture potential gains.

Many observers have begun to document; the pandemic is leading to a rapid expansion of executive power around the world; with potentially dramatic implications for democratic space. Over the past months, most countries have restricted public gatherings and citizens’ freedom of movement, and more than fifty countries have declared states of emergency. The severe public health emergency of course requires extraordinary measures. But there are already signs that some governments are using the crisis to grant themselves more expansive powers than warranted by the health crisis, with insufficient oversight mechanisms, and using their expanded authority to crack down on opposition and tighten their grip on power. Thus, the pandemic may end up hardening repression in already closed political systems, accelerating democratic backsliding in flawed democracies, and further strengthening executive power in democratic countries.

Illiberal leaders are taking advantage of the crisis to further weaken checks and balances and erode mechanisms of accountability, thereby entrenching their positions of power like Hungary and Philippines. Some authorities are already using the crisis and their emergency powers to curtail citizens’ fundamental rights. One particularly clear trend is heightened control over free expression and the media, under the guise of fighting dis-information about the virus.

The crisis is also accelerating governments’ use of new surveillance technologies. In Israel and South Korea and Pakistan for example, governments are using smartphone location data to track down citizens who may have been exposed to the virus. There is a risk that governments may use the current need to restrict public gatherings as a pretext to crack down on the wave of anti-government protests. The corona crisis will likely disrupt or distort democracy in other ways. These unfolding effects have received less attention to date, yet they will be essential to watch in the months ahead.

The pandemic threatens to overturn electoral processes around the world. The United States already delayed several state-level presidential primary votes, and candidates have curtailed rallies and retail-style campaigning. On the positive side, the virus could spur innovations in electoral and voting processes that ensure greater preparedness for future shocks. Possible innovations include expanded early voting and vote-by-mail options, greater reliance on remote voting technologies and online voter registration, and new investments in voter education. However, major shifts in electoral administration will also give rise to new complications and risks, and therefore require significant preparation. Online voting could be vulnerable to hacking and incite fears of foreign influence.

Crisis responses may shift the balance of power between militaries and civilian authorities. In many countries, ranging from Iran and South Africa to Israel and Peru, the military is being called upon to enforce lockdowns and aid the pandemic response in other ways. While this is almost certainly warranted in the immediate emergency period, it may open the door to increased military involvement in the economy and domestic affairs. In other places, crisis responses may entrench already diminished civilian control over military actors. Pakistan is entangled in a struggle between military and civilian officials over the pandemic response, leading the security sector leadership to sideline the civilian prime minister and work directly with provincial-level administrations.

Governments’ emergency responses to the pandemic risk aggravating the already significant trend of shrinking space for civil society in many parts of the world. Yet at the same time, the crisis may spur new forms of mobilization in activism. Activists and movements in different parts of the world are figuring out how to comply with physical distancing guidelines while still making their demands heard. But the crisis may also provide opportunities for movements to grow their constituencies by advocating on behalf of local communities. Civic groups around the world are already responding actively, and in many cases courageously, to the crisis. This civic engagement may help blunt the negative narratives about the loyalty, authenticity, and effectiveness of civil society that illiberal leaders have been propagating in recent years.

The varying success of different types of governments at managing the crisis may reshape the important global debate about the relative desirability of authoritarian and democratic governance. Both China and the United States are already fighting for control over global perceptions.

It is too early to say which type of political system will prove more effective at managing the crisis. Some authoritarian regimes have done relatively well so far, like Singapore and Vietnam, while others, like Iran, have done poorly. Among democracies, South Korea and Taiwan have performed admirably, while others, like Italy and the United States, have not.

Beyond the pandemic’s effects on democracy, a range of governance implications may emerge in the months ahead.

The pandemic will exert enormous pressures on governance institutions in heavily affected countries, especially on health systems, but also on many other essential government functions, from education and food supply chains to law enforcement and border control. As the virus spreads more widely in weak states, these governance challenges will be even more pronounced. At the same time, governments in many developing countries will struggle to mobilize adequate resources to ease the effects of an economic recession.

Government responses to the pandemic are likely to exacerbate corruption in many countries. Crises involving urgent medical needs and scarce supplies inevitably present opportunities for smuggling, graft, price-gouging, and fraud. However, the crisis could also end up spurring new anticorruption measures. The virus may reshape dynamics between national and regional or local government actors. Local officials are on the front lines of the crisis response, sometimes reinforcing and sometimes competing with messages from national leaders.

Looking ahead, all domestic and transnational actors concerned with democracy’s future must closely monitor the wide-ranging, fast-moving political effects of the pandemic, rapidly devise responses to lessen potential harm, and seize any positive opportunities the crisis may present. Coming soon is a second, perhaps even bigger wave of political disruption that will be caused by the unfolding global economic crisis. Potentially devastating increases in economic inequality, unemployment, debt, and poverty, as well as pressures on the stability of financial institutions, will put enormous strains on governance systems of all types.

But unfortunately in Pakistan when we should be concerned with corona and post corona new world order petty debates are going on diminishing powers of provinces. The clash seems to be going on amongst political parties how to defeat each other in tug of war on social media. We are still stuck on determining terminology for types of lockdown. The government is concentrating on how to curbing opposition and media instead of clarifying its policy making.

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1 Comment

  1. Guest January 10, 2021

    Thank you for pointing this out. Authoritarianism is rife in the world right now, as many commentators such as James Corbett and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are pointing out.

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Naya Daur