How autocrats are using coronavirus to grab more power

How autocrats are using coronavirus to grab more power
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Demagogues love a crisis, especially one that frightens people into trading freedom for the illusion of security. It should come as no surprise, then, that authoritarian leaders around the world have exploited the COVID-19 pandemic. They have demanded extraordinary powers to combat the threat, dismissing the checks and balances essential to democracy as hindrances to developing an effective response to the crisis. Desperate times, they argue, require extreme measures. 

Hungarian Prime Minister and ultranationalist Viktor Orban represents the best example of the new brand of an authoritarian leader in Europe. Since coming to power for the second time in 2010, Orban has become increasingly autocratic. He has limited the power of the courts, restricted freedom of the press, and changed the electoral laws to benefit his party. Orban exploited the 2015 refugee crisis and has been accused of encouraging xenophobia.

Similarly, the Hungarian prime minister has turned the pandemic to his advantage. On March 30, Orban got Parliament to pass a law allowing him to rule by decree for an indefinite time. The act also criminalizes spreading "false" information, a measure aimed at further muzzling the press. 


Half a world away, another populist demagogue has also exploited the crisis. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for apparent human rights violations during his drug war, has gotten Parliament to grant him emergency powers to fight the pandemic. These measures give him greater control over some public and private sector institutions, discretion in allocating funds, and the ability to ensure that local governments comply with directives from Manilla. Even though the emergency powers expire after three months, human rights advocates worry that Duterte will abuse them.

Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi has also been using the pandemic to enhance his position. Since the Hindu nationalist came to power in 2014, journalists, intellectuals, and dissidents critical of his anti-Muslim policies have been harassed, jailed, and even killed. Pro-government media and members of Modi's party have attempted to blame COVID-19 on Muslims. 

China's one-party state boasts that its draconian measures brought the pandemic under control amid growing suspicion that the government under-reported the number of cases and deaths. Beijing is now increasing the use of surveillance technology to monitor its citizens. Phone apps track people's movements, and color-coding restricts access to certain areas and venues for those who might have been exposed to COVID-19. These measures may seem reasonable in a crisis, but if they remain in place permanently, they could further erode the countries' already limited civil liberties.

Ironically, for one of the world's most autocratic rulers, COVID-19 has been an inconvenience rather than an opportunity. Vladimir Putin has amended the constitution to allow him to continue serving as Russia's president. The amendment would undoubtedly have been ratified by a referendum scheduled for April 22, but the pandemic necessitated postponing the vote. Putin has sought to deflect blame for Russia's weak response to the epidemic, by delegating responsibility for it to governors, counting on the historical tendency of Russians to blame local officials rather than the central government.

Putin's approach should sound eerily familiar to Americans. Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpBiden says voters should choose who nominates Supreme Court justice Trump, Biden will not shake hands at first debate due to COVID-19 Pelosi: Trump Supreme Court pick 'threatens' Affordable Care Act MORE has the temperament of an autocrat but lacks the means to govern like one, not that he hasn't tried. "When somebody's president of the United States, the authority is total," he told a stunned group of reporters last week. 


The remark drew a firestorm of criticism, even from conservatives like Liz Cheney. Trump rapidly shifted gears, issuing guidelines but leaving the decision as to when to open up the country to the governors. Taking a page from Putin's playbook, he seems to be engaged more in blame than crisis management. As Meet the Press host Chuck ToddCharles (Chuck) David ToddMurkowski: Supreme Court nominee should not be taken up before election Republican senator says plans to confirm justice before election 'completely consistent with the precedent' Sunday shows - Trump team defends coronavirus response MORE observed, the president is telling governors, "I'll take the credit for trying to reopen the country, while you take the blame for anything that goes wrong." 

Several commentators have suggested that the president is also playing politics with Personal Protective Equipment and ventilators in the national stockpile. Governors and state health officials have complained vociferously that they have been forced into a bidding war with one another and the federal government to get vital supplies. In some cases, states have seen orders canceled because the feds outbid them. 

This unhealthy competition may be the result of nothing more than bureaucratic ineptitude, but perhaps something more insidious is happening. The "Washington Post" has raised concerns about the inequitable distribution of medical equipment. Florida, whose governor has a close relationship with Trump, who needs the states 29 electoral votes to get reelected, has gotten virtually everything it requested. New York, with by far the worse outbreak, has received only a fraction of what it asked for and far less than it needs. 

The president's demand that governors show him "appreciation" for what they receive lends credence to charges of favoritism. So does the administration's lack of transparency. Lawmakers have repeatedly asked the administration to explain its criteria for distributing equipment. Their requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Frightened people will sacrifice freedom for security, or even for the illusion of safety. History warns us, however, that liberties surrendered in a crisis are difficult to recover when normalcy returns. Trump's warning that the cure for the pandemic must not be worse than the disease is truer than he realizes, but not for the reason he thinks. It is not the reopening of the economy that should worry us, but the very survival of our democracy.

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of "Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat."