The coronavirus has already overwhelmed medical services, grounded flights and halted economic growth, but one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in a political age in which soft authoritarians have turned harder, and the surveillance state becomes a way of life even in some democracies.
In Hungary, after a set of measures introduced on Monday, it is now a criminal offence to spread misinformation about coronavirus, and the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, can rule by decree for an indefinite period. In neighbouring Serbia, soldiers patrol the streets as part of the coronavirus response plan. In Moscow, authorities are reportedly mulling measures that would require everyone who wants to go outside to submit the reasons online, and then be tracked via their smartphones.
By now, most countries across the world have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle coronavirus, and even many democratic governments have faced little dissent over changes that in normal times would have been met with months or years of furious parliamentary debate. But what happens when the pandemic is over?
“Extraordinary legal situations are very easy to introduce, but it is much harder to return to business as usual afterwards,” said the Budapest-based thinktank Political Capital in response to the Hungarian measures. The sentiment could be equally applicable elsewhere.
The Hungarian government, which in the decade since Orbán took over has been accused of rolling back freedoms and democratic norms, has insisted that its measures are purely about fighting the coronavirus, and Orbán’s spokesman has dismissed criticism of them as “fake news”.
But the country’s beleaguered opposition says it offered to agree to everything, in the spirit of national unity, but merely asked for a time-based renewal clause to be placed on the measures. None was forthcoming.
Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist who has written extensively on European political shifts, referred to the Hungarian law as “a kind of authoritarian entrepreneurship”, comparing it to people selling masks and other equipment at inflated prices. Orbán, he said, is experimenting with what might be possible in this sudden new reality. “He’s trying and testing, to see what the market will take.”
While Orbán is a leader flying high who has sought to push the boundaries even further, in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has looked to use the situation to ease himself out of a sticky spot. Despite having failed three times to form a government in the past year, he is now in talks with his rival, Benny Gantz, to agree on a deal for him to remain prime minister for at least the next two years. Additionally, Netanyahu’s trial on charges of bribery and fraud has also been delayed for two months because of the state of emergency.
At a time when even stepping outside could be dangerous, mass protests against government moves are a non-starter, and international criticism is not likely to be robust given other leaders are occupied with combating the crises in their own countries.