When we scour modern or contemporary political history, we discover the rise of authoritarianism being accompanied by the imposition of the state of emergency, a blatant abridgment of human rights and the use of excessive force to sustain that system. However, at present the conventional methods to impose and sustain an authoritarian rule have been challenged. Instead of military deployments and the subsequent uses of force, a true fear of contagion is on its way to achieve the same goal with the utmost consent of the people. The prevalent Corona pandemic is a real threat but it has also been the pretext for scores of governments to consolidate its power, hammer on the opposition and quell the dissent.
A crisis brings an opportunity to jolt the status quo. Sometimes it has resulted in a democratic transformation of a society whereas at many other instances an absolute power grab has ensued. The World Financial crisis of 2008 had similar effects. A seemingly progressive world was now looking for more powerful and assertive leadership. The insecurities of the masses were exploited to a greater extent and the result was conspicuous. The politics of inclusion gradually became unfashionable. As the crisis unfolded, a wave of change swept across the world with populist movements gaining a strong ground. Notwithstanding the leadership changes, the legal aspects of a democratic structure of different states remained largely intact but the onset of the current pandemic has threatened to uproot the very democratic framework which prohibits the abuse of power and authority.
Though the International laws allow certain restrictions on the liberties during a public health crisis, it also demands that the measures taken be categorically aimed at the prevention of the disease in question (Siracusa Principles). Among others, the law also requires that the imposition of limitations do not impair the democratic functioning of the society (Siracusa Principles). However, a number of states have failed to meet the International standards in this regard.
On 11th March, Hungary imposed the state of emergency for an indefinite period citing Coronavirus pandemic as the prime reason. Then the parliament where the ruling party commands a two third majority, authorized the Prime Minister Victor Orban with virtually limitless power. Now, the Prime Minister rules by decrees. In other words, his words and orders will be the law. To decide whether to lift or not the state of emergency will also be the Prime Minister’s prerogative. The story doesn’t end there. The scheduled elections have been postponed which doesn’t come as a surprise but it has implications unfavorable to a democracy.
Concurrently, new laws have been introduced in Hungary to curb any speech deemed obstructive to the effective functioning of the mechanism dealing with the pandemic and the offence may carry up to 5 years of imprisonment. The law is vaguely defined and the fear of it being used against the journalist and to crack down the dissent is more palpable. Intimidation and persecution of journalists and the independent media in the recent years in Hungary justifies this prophecy.
On 24th of March the Indian Prime Minister announced the commencement of lockdown and subsequently intensified the crackdown of political dissent. After the ratification of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), scores of protestors thronged various Indian cities last December. Notwithstanding the fierce government responses, the protest retained considerable strength but as soon the movements were restricted due to the pandemic, the protest ceased completely. The government then proceeded with arbitrary arrests targeting the minority Muslim student leaders who were part of the Anti-CAA protest. With virtually no resistance from the public and a tight control over the media, the Indian government has exercised unrestrained use of force. These arrests have only served to muffle the anti-government protests and consolidate the ruling party’s hold on its majority Hindu constituencies.
Though the arbitrary arrests and the sedition charges on the dissenter are not uncommon in India, the pandemic has further cemented this approach. As the public reels with difficulties of the lockdown, the concerns against these arrests will hardly be a priority for the public. This presents an advantage to a state to silence its critics.
Meanwhile, the punishment against violation of lockdown carries severe penalties which are overly broad and immeasurably disproportionate with respect to the offences. In the Indian State of Gujrat, Dhaval Patel a Journalist critical of the government policies on dealing with the pandemic was arrested on sedition charges. The sedition charge in this particular case was utterly unfounded. The story published by Dhaval Patel was purely of political nature but he was accused of spreading misinformation and creating panic. Manish Pandey, a news reporter was arrested from the city of Lucknow on disclosing the abysmal state of health facilities. These attempts constitute encroachment of freedom of expression and are only meant to hide the inefficacy of the state dealing with the pandemic.
In Nepal, the Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli attempted to trample the constitution, a move largely seen as a way to strengthen his hold in his party and to safeguard his position. As the fear of a widespread protest is at minimum, the government has given itself a free hand to run its way. A new surveillance bill has been introduced which will give security services to spy on and record phone calls of individuals without any prior judicial approval.
The events unfolding from other countries show a similar trend. Bolivia has postponed its scheduled presidential election indefinitely and OHCHR has accused the Interim government of persecuting its political rivals. Israel’s PM Netanyahu has ordered a closure of courts which is aimed at delaying his own trial against corruption charges. Israel has also increased its surveillance and has introduced unnecessarily harsh punishments to the lockdown violators. These are only few among many other cases.
Some may argue that these measures are temporary and the governments will have to revoke it as soon as the country gets over the crisis but the past presents a different picture in front of us. For example in 2001, the Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act which enabled the government agencies to pursue surveillance on its citizens without any prior approval from the judicial body. The act was widely misused and is still in effect to this date. This shows how the policy changes meant for an emergency situation can be prolonged even when its relevance is lost and go far beyond the intended purpose. Therefore it would be safe to assume that the current amendments which tend to empower different governments might last longer.
The International Law also demands that an emergency situation cannot be used for imposing vague or arbitrary limitations and may only be invoked when there exist adequate safeguards and effective remedies against abuse (Siracusa Principles) but little has been done for the check and balance.
We clearly see a trend which is inclined towards an authoritative style of governance. Introduction of disproportionate measures which interferes with the democratic principles have marred the Coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic presents a seasonal advantage for usurpers and the actions taken now are bound to have an insidious effect. This trend will not cease any time soon unless the priorities of the masses are set along to counter this effect and as the pandemic will be a long business, it is further going to impede attempts at overcoming these uncalled changes.