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Addressing the Effect of Covid-19 on Democracy In South and Southeast Asia (Part III)

The Global Context: Beyond the Two Regions, Illiberal Leaders Use the Pandemic to Amass Power

Laws passed and executive actions taken during an emergency remain entrenched long after the emergency has passed.


By Joshua Kurlantzick


Democratic backsliding is not unique to South and Southeast Asia, even though those regions have fallen from greater democratic heights than some other developing regions. COVID-19 has been a boon for many, though not all, illiberal politicians around the world. A recent Freedom House study shows that the condition of democracy and human rights has deteriorated in eighty countries since the pandemic began. To be sure, not all illiberal leaders have taken advantage of COVID-19 to amass more powers. Nevertheless, many have. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has jailed journalists, activists, and health-care workers for questioning Maduro’s approach to the virus—and for generally questioning the government at all.68 The government of El Salvador, using COVID-19 as an excuse, has ignored Supreme Court rulings that declared it illegal for the government to seize property of people it accused of disobeying quarantines; El Salvador’s government also has used the police for widespread detentions.

In Eastern Europe and other former Soviet states, the story is similar. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been granted extensive emergency powers by a compliant parliament. Even though the law that gave him these powers was withdrawn in June, he continues to wield essentially the same, almost limitless, powers. Partly because of COVID-19-related crackdowns in former Soviet states and their neighboring countries, Freedom House’s most recent annual report on democracy in the former Soviet Union found fewer democracies across that region than at any time since 1995.

In the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa as well, governments have used the pandemic to restrict freedoms. The Algerian government has arrested and used brutal force against many anti-government activists under the guise of stopping the pandemic’s spread. Turkey, meanwhile, has detained hundreds of people for allegedly writing “provocative” posts about the pandemic online. In Egypt, the most repressive state in North Africa, the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has used the pandemic as an opportunity to amend emergency legislation and give the president and the armed forces even stricter control over Egyptian society. In sub-Saharan Africa, Zimbabwe’s government has used the threat of COVID-19 to step up detentions of opposition politicians and activists.

Long-term Implications

Measures enacted, in theory, to combat COVID-19 could last long beyond the end of the pandemic. History suggests that legislation enacted and executive actions taken in response to national emergencies are rarely repealed, even when those emergencies recede. Sometimes, crisis-era legislation and executive actions are kept in place. Other times, they are repurposed to suit other policy aims while still helping governments maintain sizable powers. In the United States, a more consolidated democracy than countries in South or Southeast Asia, the Patriot Act, passed after 9/11, is essentially still in place nearly two decades later despite criticisms that it has outlived its usefulness, allows law enforcement overly broad surveillance powers, and has been used in ways not envisioned by its drafters in 2001.

In South and Southeast Asia, legislation and executive actions implemented in the COVID-19 era could have similar fates as the Patriot Act. Some opposition Philippine policymakers and civil society leaders, for instance, believe that Duterte, who has already had his emergency powers extended to 2021, could maintain his emergency powers into 2022, when his term ends. He could use these powers to help his favored successor win the next presidential election and then continue Duterte-style strongman policies. (A Philippine president is limited to one six-year term.) In Cambodia, India, Thailand, and other countries in the region, governments have already extended their initial emergency powers. Leaders in these states will face massive temptations to maintain these powers even after the pandemic is controlled.

Political Power, Public Health Failures

Many of these illiberal leaders have become more powerful even as they have failed on the public health front. Many leaders, both in the region and globally, who have mismanaged the pandemic are illiberal

populists, who dislike expertise and employ an improvisational, chaotic governing style. Disdain for expertise and poor policy coordination, challenging even at the best of times, have hindered such leaders in addressing COVID-19. (By contrast, some authoritarian states not led by populists, such as Vietnam, have been able to pursue coherent, coordinated, and effective COVID-19 policies.)

Not all populist leaders have downplayed or mishandled COVID- 19: a recent study by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change found that a majority of populist leaders had taken the pandemic seriously. However, the study also found that populist leaders of some of the largest democracies have not taken the pandemic seriously enough, and even those populists who took the pandemic seriously have degraded democracy as they pursued relatively effective public health policies. In Brazil, for instance, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has intense contempt for expertise, long denied that the virus was a real threat, mishandled the federal-state relationship in combating COVID-19, and promoted conspiracy theories, even as he himself contracted COVID-19. Under Bolsonaro’s chaotic leadership, Brazil has experienced one of the worst outbreaks in the world. In the United States, the Trump administration’s mismanagement of COVID-19 also has stemmed in part from the president’s disregard for expertise, undermining of the federal bureaucracy, and improvisational governing style. As a result, the United States has had by far the most deaths from COVID-19 of any country in the world, and the virus has ravaged the White House itself.

In South and Southeast Asia, many illiberal populist leaders have struggled to contain the virus, yet this poor governance has not stopped them from grabbing more power. Modi’s lockdown, which gave the population and provincial leaders little time to prepare and came while the national government spent little effort creating a safety net, has been a disaster. The poorly planned lockdown did not flatten India’s COVID-19 caseload curve. But it unleashed societal chaos and cratered the economy, which shrank by roughly 24 percent in the second quarter of the year, even as Modi’s administration amassed more power. (Some Indian states such as Kerala, however, have handled the lockdown effectively, delivering food to people’s homes and likely reducing public anger in the process.) In the Philippines, Duterte’s approach to COVID-19 has been poorly informed and has badly damaged the economy, while the virus remains uncontrolled. Duterte underplayed the threat of the virus for far too long, telling the public in a national address in March that it would be foolish to be scared of COVID-19 and being seen in public defying guidelines on social distancing, until he abruptly reversed course and implemented an extensive lockdown. Even now, he fails to provide consistent guidance or support public health experts who could deliver a consistent public message, while amassing power through emergency measures and other efforts.

Although the pandemic has allowed South and Southeast Asian leaders to become more autocratic in the short term, their longer-term failure to adequately address COVID-19 could provide opponents opportunities to challenge them and unwind their concentration of power. Indeed, their governance failures could make them more vulnerable to challenges from political opposition, undermine their abilities to centralize power, and ultimately make restoring democratic institutions and norms easier. Around the world, leaders such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and German Chancellor Angela Merkel who have overseen effective responses to COVID-19 have seen their popularity skyrocket, with Ardern recently winning the biggest electoral victory in modern New Zealand history. Conversely, in countries with severe effects of the pandemic on public health and the economy, leaders’ public image and popularity often have declined. (To be continued)


Editor’s Note: This is the third installment of a scholarly paper by Joshua Kurlantzick, a regular contributor to PinterPolitik WRN. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of PinterPolitik.


Joshua Kurlantzick

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