Authoritarianism advances as the world battles the pandemic

LONDON (AP) – Here’s some of what happened while the world was distracted by the coronavirus: Hungary has banned the public display of homosexuality. China has shut down Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper. Brazil’s government extolled the dictatorship. And Belarus hijacked a passenger plane to arrest a journalist.

COVID-19 has absorbed the world’s energies and isolated countries from one another, which some researchers and activists believe may have accelerated the creep of authoritarianism and extremism around the world.

“COVID is a dictator’s dream opportunity,” said Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American human rights attorney who has been charged, among other things, with high treason in the supposedly democratic Southeast Asian nation in which Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for more than three decades.

Human Rights Watch has accused the Cambodian government of using the pandemic as a cover to detain political opponents without due process. Numerous people have been charged and face mass trials.

Speaking of the government opposition, “fear of COVID alone and as a political weapon has severely limited the mobility of an assembly or movement,” Seng said.

The largest global public health emergency in a century has put government agencies in power and cut 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 enormous economic, health and social resources invested in fighting the pandemic mean that “the state is returning as a force is that manages society and delivers public goods ”. . “

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

For a decade, the conservative-nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban curtailed the freedom of the media and justice in Hungary, criticized multiculturalism and attacked Muslim migrants as a threat to Europe’s Christian identity.

During the pandemic, Orban’s government introduced an Emergency Powers Act that allowed it to implement resolutions without parliamentary approval – in effect a license to rule 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 purpose is to protect children from pedophiles but effectively banned the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and in the media.

Poland’s conservative government has changed the rights of women and gays. A ruling by a government-controlled court last year imposing a near-total ban on abortion sparked a wave of protests that opposed a ban on mass gatherings during the virus outbreak.

In India, the world’s largest democracy, populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of silencing critical voices about his government’s response to a brutal pandemic wave that swept through the country in April and May. His government arrested journalists and ordered Twitter to remove posts criticizing its handling of the outbreak after far-reaching regulations that give police greater powers over online content.

Even before the pandemic, Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was accused by opponents of suppressing dissenting opinions and introducing policies aimed at transforming a multi-religious democracy into a Hindu nation that discriminates against Muslims and other minorities.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin’s government has used the pandemic as a new pretext to arrest opposition members. Staff members of the imprisoned opposition activist Alexei Navalny were placed under house arrest and charged with the mass protests against his arrest in violation of the rules for mass gatherings.

In neighboring Belarus, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko extended his iron grip on power by winning the August 2020 elections that the opposition – and many Western countries – claimed were rigged. The massive protests that broke out 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, Minsk, after the crew was informed of an alleged threat. Opposition journalist Raman Pratasevic, a passenger, was taken off the plane with his girlfriend and arrested.

Western nations called the forced diversion a brazen kidnapping and sanctions against Belarus, but it seems unlikely that these will lead Lukashenko to change his ways and underscore the weakness of democracies in fighting hardline regimes. Hungary’s actions have drawn harsh words from other leaders of the European Union, but the bloc of 27 nations has no single response to restrictive regimes like those in Hungary or Poland.

Even before COVID-19 emerged, extremism was on the rise.

“Over the past 15 years, authoritarian politics has repeated itself around the world,” said Cooper. “Democracy feels very fragile. Democracy has no clear vision for what it is trying to do in the 21st century. “

The global financial crisis of 2008, in which governments pumped billions into fluctuating banks, shook confidence in the Western world order. And the following years of recession and government austerity fueled populism in Europe and North America.

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

Historian Rana Mitter, director of Oxford University’s China Center, said the crisis had convinced China’s communist government that “the West had run out of lessons to teach them.” Since then, Beijing has increasingly let China’s economic power abroad play its part, while at the same time taking action against the opposition within its borders.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs have been detained in re-education camps in China’s western Xinjiang region, where activists and former inmates have accused the authorities of forced labor, systematic birth control and torture. Instead, Beijing refers to the camps as vocational training centers.

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

When the coronavirus first surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the authorities reacted decisively – if anything but transparent – with draconian lockdowns that kept the virus in check.

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

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

Last year, curfews and travel restrictions became the order of the day across Europe. People in France were required to provide a signed declaration to travel more than 1 kilometer (just over half a mile) from home. And the British were legally prohibited from vacationing abroad while some participants in a London vigil for a murdered woman were arrested for an illegal gathering.

UK lawmakers have raised concerns about the extent of the Conservative government’s emergency powers, many of which were passed without debate in Parliament.

“Since March 2020 the government has passed a huge amount of new legislation, much of it changing everyday life and introducing unprecedented restrictions on normal activities,” said Ann Taylor, an opposition Labor Party leader who chairs the House of Lords Constitutional Committee. “However, parliamentary oversight of these important political decisions was extremely limited.”

Politicians and intelligence agencies in the West have also warned of the threat posed by coronavirus conspiracy theories, which are interlinked with existing extremist narratives. In many countries there were large protests against lockdown, mask and vaccination, in which a mixture of far right, far left and various conspirators took part.

The UK government has warned of “extremists taking advantage of the crisis to sow division and undermine the social fabric of our country”, with different hate groups blaming Muslims, Jews and 5G phone technology differently for the pandemic.

But there are signs of fighting back. The pandemic has also increased confidence in scientists and fueled calls for more responsible political leadership.

In Hungary, which has one of the highest per capita coronavirus death rates in the world, opposition to both the government’s pandemic policies and its broader authoritarianism has grown, and thousands have taken to the streets for academic freedom and rights of LGBT support. With an election in 2022, a six-member opposition coalition has come together to overthrow Orban’s Fidesz party.

Both extremism and resistance can be seen in Brazil, where far-right President Jair Bolsonaro expressed his longing for the country’s two decades of military dictatorship and participated in protests against the country’s courts and Congress last year. He dismissed the virus as “minor flu”, expressed doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines and opposed social and economic restrictions.

Renato Meirelles, director of the Brazilian polling institute Locomotive Institute, said authoritarianism had advanced through “a strategy of fake news and attacks on the truth of the facts.” “The next step will be to question the electronic voting and thus the outcome of the next elections,” he said.

Bolsonaro has so far been held in check by Brazilian institutions, notably the Supreme Court, which prevented him from preventing states and cities from implementing restrictions to contain COVID-19 and ordered an investigation into the government’s pandemic response. And the protests have finally spread to the streets. Twice last month, protesters marched in dozen of cities across the country.

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

In the US, President Joe Biden has turned his back on Donald Trump’s populism, but a Republican party radicalized by the former president’s supporters has every chance of coming back to power.

Cooper of the LSE said the authoritarian tide was unlikely to recede anytime soon.

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


Associated Press Writer 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 have contributed to this.

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