Check out the first episode of our podcast series, TwentyTwenty; Your Podcast for (Un)Precedented Time, here! Find us also on
Check out the first episode of our podcast series, TwentyTwenty; Your Podcast for (Un)Precedented Time, here! Find us also on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts. For those who wish to read along, a transcript of the episode can be found below.
In this week’s episode, Cracking Down in Lockdown, we explore with Drs. Nic Cheeseman (University of Birmingham) and Aniko Szucs (Yale University) how national leaders have leveraged lockdowns to consolidate their power: what tools they use, what defences citizens have and how this has played out in Hungary.
As always, interviews have been condensed and edited for brevity.
Elizabeth Dykstra McCarthy: Unprecedented times. Such has been the clarion call of this year. But just how unprecedented are these times? Whilst a global pandemic might not be an annual issue, many of the crises we are facing, from the erosion of civil liberties to debt crises, or from fears around technology to the shifts in geopolitics as major powers flex their muscles, these other products of trends and concerns we know only too well in which a state of global emergency has amplified. Even the pandemic itself was no surprise to those in the know. So what are these trends? Where have they come from? And what kind of path can we expect them to put us on?
This is TwentyTwenty Vision, and I’m Elizabeth Dykstra-McCarthy with a podcast, brought to you by Foreign Brief brief in partnership with the Fletcher School, about how this year has accelerated global trends in the state of global crisis has made them that much more visible
With over 20 million people infected, and close to a million deaths across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken more than just human lives. Economies have ground to a halt, leading to a global economic slowdown with nearly unprecedented job loss and unemployment. Stay at home orders and travel restrictions have called for over 4 billion people worldwide to remain inside the homes. And, although countries around the world are just beginning to ease lockdown restrictions, and the economy is beginning to restart, we have a long way to go before life returns to normal, if it ever will. Fears of a resurgence of the virus in the later part of the year have raised the prospect of a possible return to unmitigated lockdown restrictions. And yet, as this international public health crisis rages on, the perennial contest for political power continues. Throughout history, authoritarian rulers have often taken advantage of emergencies to consolidate their power. From Adolf Hitler’s 1933 Reichstag fire to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s more recent leveraging of the crisis in Chechnya, wars, terrorist attacks, high-profile arsons and natural disasters have historically been used by would-be authoritarian rulers to rally public hearts and minds behind a strong governing hand. How have rulers taken advantage of the pandemic to consolidate political power? What tools protect citizens from these threats? And should we be nervous, expecting to see some kind of popular backlash?
Nic Cheeseman: In many countries, the restrictions that governments are imposing are very popular. You know, the idea that people, whether it’s in the UK or in the United States, or in African countries, Latin American countries, don’t like lock down restrictions and are revolting against them is actually untrue. If you look at almost all the survey data we have, people want a firm and strong government response. They’re genuinely afraid of COVID and they don’t mind being asked to quarantine or socially distance, if it’s necessary to deal with that. So you know, in a sense, there is a kind of democratic foundation for some of this, which is popular support.
EDM: This is Dr. Nic Cheeseman professor at Birmingham University, who’s here to talk about what actually authoritarianism is and how it manifests. The COVID-19 pandemic has been somewhat a watershed in facilitating what many claimed to be our authoritarian regimes. Is that what we’re seeing, leaders using emergencies or crises as an opportunity to consolidate power? Or is the pandemic simply symptomatic of something larger?
NC: Well, I think we might want to split this into two different categories. I mean, I think we are seeing some instances where we could say there’s a deliberate manipulation, where a leader has seen this as an opportunity to increase their powers and they pass laws or they’ve enacted policies to do so. There might also be cases where this is happening almost accidentally. For example, it could be that technology that’s generally being used just for the purposes of tracking people, it’s genuinely just intended to help us deal with the crisis, will lead to innovations in government’s ability to track and follow people that will then subsequently expand the powers of the security forces in ways that aren’t currently being foreseen. So I think we need to think about this as a sort of dual track process, in some cases deliberate, in some cases, it might be more kind of accidental, or even kind of evolutionary. But in order to put all of that in context, I think we also need to keep in mind that the crisis of democracy or the democratic recession we see around the world, it’s not something new and it’s not something being generated by the coronavirus pandemic, it is something that precedes it. And you know, if you look at major democracy indices, for example, Freedom House and others, one of the things we know, is there’s been a kind of decline in the quality of democracy globally over the last 10 years. Pretty much every year, more countries have become less democratic than have become more democratic. So COVID-19 is playing into an ongoing trend, but it’s not itself the source or the driver of that trend.
EDM: How do we tell the difference between genuine policies targeted at crisis management, or public health and those that seemed to be taking advantage of the situation to enact draconian or politically motivated agendas? What kind of signs could we be looking for?
NC: So I mean, we might see a sort of policy that’s enacted by a really democratic government, has a history of being really democratic, we might say, well, they’re probably doing that because they feel forced to by the weight of the COVID cases in the country. And then we might see another example of the same policy, but being enacted by an authoritarian regime, where it might make us deeply suspicious that the COVID-19 pandemic is being manipulated. So I think here’s two important indicators that we could use. The first is how significant is the COVID crisis. And if you’ve got a country where the weight of the cases is crippling the health system, you can then understand, for example, why really severe restrictions might be needed in South Africa, for example, which has been a democracy for a long period of time. The recent imposition of a curfew appears to be a proportional response to a significant increase in cases that threatens to overwhelm the system. There are other countries, though, where we see much lower levels of COVID, where we seem to see governments inacting a much more authoritarian response. And it’s those cases, I think, where we might be much more suspicious about what the government’s doing. So the first is really the significance of the problem. The second key indicator I think we need to keep in mind is to what extent are democratic checks and balances built in. So a lot of countries that have imposed a state of emergency or some kind of extraordinary powers for the government to be able to respond to COVID have done so we’re very specific timeframe, and have a process in which the judiciary is able to review that periodically. And parliament, for example, might be able to review that periodically, and it has to be renewed. So I think the second key criteria is, are the checks and balances that are actually built in to the way that those measures have been introduced, that demonstrate to us that there’s still that core concern for democracy and accountability and transparency.
EDM: And would you do you feel that it’s a fair use of the term authoritarian when we see countries that are, say, preventing public gatherings before there are any cases that have been reported yet–is preventing those gatherings authoritarian or is that just cautious?
NC: So if governments are imposing a lockdown again for a limited amount of time, and they’re using that lockdown consistently, you know, government officials and supporters as well as opposition officials and supporters are being restricted, then we might say this is a consistent policy that’s simply being used for the health benefit. But if we see a country which is coming up to an election, and we see these restrictions are being really vehemently imposed on the opposition, but don’t seem to be imposed on ruling party members, when they have a mass rally or when they’re knocking door to door to try and mobilize people, then we might start to get very suspicious that actually these regulations are being manipulated to consolidate the power of the government and to undermine democracy and accountability. So I think in many cases, it’s going to be a case by case picture.
EDM: Could you give us an example?
NC: Uganda has just announced that because it wants to have COVID-19 restrictions in the lead up to its next elections, it wants to have a kind of digital or scientific election. And the idea of that seems to be that instead of having mass rallies and the kind of things that you would normally see in the Ugandan election, which of course, could spread the disease, you will see online campaigning and kind of digital campaigning. And the process will be taken into a kind of different sphere where people won’t have to come together all the time. Now, in principle, that sounds fine. But there are two things that make us very suspicious. The first is that this is an authoritarian government that has a history of manipulating electoral processes and arresting opposition leaders. The second is that we’ve got an election coming up very soon. And related to that, some of the things that government has been doing as part of this sort of COVID response in a broader term, seem to give it a big advantage. Because one of the things the President has said as well, as wanting the elections to be digital, is that he’s going to be distributing TVs and radios to thousands of villages around Uganda. The extensible purpose of those gifts is to enable people to get better information on the COVID-19 situation. But given the government’s history, we might be very suspicious that one, these gifts are effectively an electoral bribe in the lead up to the election. And two, they’re designed to enable the president to use his influence over state broadcasters and use his ability to influence private broadcasters to get his message into the minds and the houses of ordinary Ugandans when opposition parties denied a lot of that opportunity won’t be able to get in there. And then having the rallies being banned will disproportionately affect the opposition and not the ruling party,
EDM: As well as opposition parties, civil society groups are often vocal about resisting these manipulations. How have they been disproportionately disadvantaged by the pandemic and the lockdowns?
NC: Civil society groups have historically really depended on being able to get people to the streets to force change. So the fact that they can’t do so right now, and that if they do so they might be arrested on COVID-19 related legislation, is a really significant blow to civil liberties.
EDM: And if one of our means of defense is a strong civil society and an active public one, then another possible line of defense that could be very strong is the freedom of information and free press. Has this taken a hit with potential avenues for misinformation or information control?
NC: There’s a significant risk here. And the risk is that governments that have been looking for an excuse to regulate social media and to censor social media so that they can go and basically prevent their rivals, their opponents, their critics, from saying legitimate criticisms of the government, will take advantage of this situation to pass legislation or bring in new rules that would then enable them to continue doing that in the future, and significantly erode the kind of privacy of individuals and the ability of individuals to use social media to start speak truth to power. The real concern is that it’s not simply being used against people who are spreading fake news. It’s also being used against people who are, for example, questioning the government’s official figures–people who are criticizing the government’s health measures as being inadequate, criticizing the government for not responding economically to the needs of citizens. And in that way, it’s actually being used to silence debate, as well as to prevent people sharing fake news around COVID-19.
EDM: And why do we the public or the citizens, why would we let governments or leaders take this action? Is it just a public desire for a leader to rally behind during scary times, or fear of instability or fear of the unknown that’s playing into preventing objections to legislative power accruing to central government and its executives?
NC: Sometimes it happens because people actually are willing to support these measures. And in some cases, that’s because of fear, in other cases as because of effective government propaganda.
EDM: So it’s twofold. There isn’t space for vocal opposition. And also the sentiment of opposing itself is being slowly eroded away.
NC: And as we talked about earlier, you know, some of these countries have been undergoing a process of gradual de-democratization, if you like, or gradual shift towards more authoritarian government. And as a part of that process, we’ve seen the gradual erosion of the mechanisms you might use to protest, you know, the courts have become increasingly politicized and loyal to the ruling party, the media has become increasingly censored, and it’s tough for journalists to speak out. They’re increasingly self censoring, because they’re worried that if they criticize the government, they might get sacked, or they might get harassed, and so on. And so these, sort of, small incursions into different areas of the political system mean that the opportunities to challenge this kind of thing are increasingly shrinking. There is then a really genuine question about what’s the most effective way for civil society to respond. You know, do you respond by using social media? But then what if you find that social media isn’t actually giving you significant traction? Do you then break the law by going to the streets, but then you risk being demonized by the ruling party as a kind of agent of COVID and a force for, you know, instability and a driver of negative health outcomes for the country. And of course, that’s what you don’t want, because that’s one of the mechanisms that government can use to delegitimize the opposition, and legitimate the imposition of even more restrictive legislation. So I do think that it’s a real challenge for opposition parties to be really imaginative and creative, and to actually have to come up with new ways of resisting authoritarianism that, you know, were not the ones that they probably relied on 5-10 years ago.
EDM: And given that there is no definite foreseeable end to coronavirus, what long term trends may we anticipate? And what concerning developments should we be attuned to?
NC: Well, I think going back to the point that this is a trend that started before COVID-19 and has been exacerbated by the pandemic, I think there are two things that we should really be worried about. The first is that, you know, this trend will continue once the pandemic is over, because it isn’t solely being driven by the pandemic, and therefore, we should expect to see a further deterioration in the quality of democracy around the world in the next two years. And that, you know, is a real call to action, that if we don’t actually act concertedly across borders to stop that from happening, the world will be a less democratic place in 5-10 years time than it is now. I think the second thing that we need to take very seriously, is that, you know, in each of these countries, we need to reevaluate very carefully whether the things that have been done to tackle COVID themselves create this greater risk. So has new legislation been introduced that hasn’t yet been revoked or removed from the statute books, that is expanded government powers in a ways that will legitimate join COVID but will not be legitimate after COVID? Has the government used new technology for scanning our faces or identifying us and tracking us that, you know, we need to make sure it’s turned off after COVID because it could be used by, for example, security forces or police as a way of targeting, you know, legitimate protesters, legitimate groups who would be seeking to question the government’s policies? And I think there’s a significant risk that if we don’t do that, one of the things we’ll see is a kind of gradual strengthening increasing government power. And I think it’s worth remembering that, you know, COVID-19 is not alone, you know, major national crises, whether it’s major health epidemics, whether it’s big wars, whether it’s in civil conflicts, etc, and the gradual increase in the authority of central governments over our lives, you know, to some extent, occurred as a kind of ratchet effect. And one of the things that we as, kind of, concerned and active citizens should be doing is reevaluating that balance between ourselves and governments, you know, how much of our information is private and how much can governments see? How much of what we can do are we allowed to do outside of the sphere of government sort of regulation, and controlled? And how much are we actually being told what to do by governments? And we, as you know, each individual society needs to decide where that line is, between what it’s willing to tolerate, and what it wants to push back on.
EDM: A lot of these developments have been brought to our attention because of scrutiny by the international community and the global press. Is there a role for the international community to mitigate or even critique this perceived erosion of democracy?
NC: And so I think one of the things that the international community really needs to think about moving forward is how do we move to a different way of promoting a strengthening democracy? Which isn’t a relatively small number of western states funding democratic projects and talking about democracy and human rights to the rest of the world, but is a genuine partnership between those states and other states, between civil society organizations in different states that starts from the premise that all of us have a reason to be worried about the quality of our democracy, that all of us should be engaged in our own countries trying to make sure that government is accountable and transparent, that we have problems like racism, sexism, etc, that need to be addressed just as other countries do. And that we can learn from each other to address them. And I think if we can build something like that kind of a model, we can do this in solidarity. And rather than being rejected as a kind of form of Western imperialism, and Western lectures that are not legitimate given what’s happened in western states over the last few years, we could actually see a genuine kind of global movement around democratic renewal. But as I say, I think to do that we have to first become significantly more modest about our ability to lead on these things. I say that as a, kind of, British citizen. And we need to, you know, recognize the weaknesses in our own systems, and we need to demonstrate much more of a willingness to actually address them.
EDM: When it comes to strengthening democratic projects, it’s really important that the international community embodies this as a project of solidarity, rather than one of instruction. As you’ve mentioned, the perceived primacy of Western democracy is equally under threat, without the checks and balances provided by civil society groups, or at least an inclusion of a variety of stakeholders in the conversation. Often we only realize there’s a problem when the international community calls attention to it with widespread coverage. And this feels almost self selective. Certain countries with serious democratic concerns such as Eritrea, or who have manipulated emergency laws and fears around national security during the pandemic, such as the Philippines, have not received the same invasive coverage that some other countries have, where perhaps the pivot is more stark, or there’s more at stake geopolitically. And one example that comes to mind is Hungary, under Viktor Orbán’s regime. It’s an interesting example, because as a European nation that heralds democratic institutions, we’ve seen the slow, careful erosion of democracy over the years accelerate during the pandemic with the Enabling Act. The Enabling Act, or Authorization Law, was passed by the Fidesz government to suspend the enforcement of certain laws for an indefinite period of time, which most controversially included the incarceration of individuals who are deemed to spread false information about the virus. Orbán also curtailed media independence by slowly acquiring media outlets, most prominently resulting in the forced resignation of Szabolcs Dull, the-editor-in chief of Hungary’s largest independent news website. Despite this, the extent of the expected outcry appears to be tempered and localized only to pro-democracy opposition groups. Opinion polls reflect a high degree of trust in the government’s strong and benevolent reforms. So, as Dr. Cheeseman mentioned, it presents a conundrum–if we can categorically rule Hungary out as an example of authoritarianism.
AS: People feel uncannily comfortable with a strong leader.
EDM: We have today Dr. Annika Szucs, a fellow at the Yale Macmillan Center and an expert of performative authoritarianism in Hungary, to discuss with us some of the ground sentiment toward Orbán’s administration and the new laws, and how they seem to have gained traction with the man on the street. What kind of a relationship has Hungary had with totalitarian and autocratic governments?
AS: Hungary has nothing else but a history of different authoritarian and oppressive regimes. So if we’re looking at, if you’re just looking back at the past hundred years or 20th century, we see one authoritarian regime and totalitarian regime like the following the others. So we can go back all the way to the feudalistic Middle Ages that transformed into the monarchy of the Habsburg Empire. All of these regimes were a very strong strength like centralized power under which the Hungarian people themselves were oppressed in many different shapes and forms. And then as you’re arriving to the 20th century, it really is a history of different dictatorships, totalitarian machines, basically following each other, whether it’s fascism or communism, until 1989.
EDM: Speaking of Orbán himself, are his overtures during the pandemic something exceptional in his consolidation of power, or has this been part of a broader trend of democracy erosion over the years?
AS: In my view, Orbán has long, massive, excess power. The first time he became a prime minister was in 1998. And he was a prime minister for four years and paved the path for building a strong right-wing conservative regime that would rule the country very ideologically. And so once they won the election in 2010, and they won the super majority, they very systematically started to implement an authoritarian regime. Orbán himself argued that he wants to build a new liberal democracy. I will say that he did his best and he did everything to extremely efficiently, extremely meticulously, build up this political machine that does not give space to other voices, that does not encourage any freedom rights. I would make the argument that he was not solidifying his body. That power has been solidified a long time ago.
EDM: Given that Orbán has sown the seeds for this illiberal democracy that he has promised, why choose the pandemic as the moment to implement the Authorization Law? What unique opportunity has the pandemic offered his administration? And how has this played out in Hungary?
AS: I would propose that this was the moment when Orbán authorized and centralized an authoritarian power was most a danger during the past 10 years, I would say that. And from the very first moment, he took this as an opportunity for him to demonstrate his that he is in control, that he’s here to protect the Hungarian people. And if you think about it, these are all broad and extremely powerful statements at a moment when you when you basically cannot guarantee anything. He knew very well that, if if nothing else, this virus could seriously endanger his power. And I think he seems to really fear that. During this time, he introduced a handful of decrees in the parliament has a number of laws that have nothing to do with the virus, that have nothing to do with the epidemic. But, this to pass certain decrees, that would have a long term effect on Hungary and on its international relations. There’s a new surveillance law that allows access to more people’s information, personal information.
EDM: So let’s talk about the Authorization Law, which it seems like he has spun well to gain popular support. Why exactly is this slew of legislation a prickly issue and what does it symbolize?
AS: What is the message to the Hungarian people when he chooses to say that, “I need to have all the power in my hands to make the right decision for you, my people.” It was also a really smart strategic move. This was as much about the opposition as it was above him that he did not want to have an end date. He, from the beginning, he said that this will last as long as if my proposed propagandistic message was framed. And how can how can an opposition respond to this? No way. So then the public discourse, the very debate in the public, to the people, becomes about, “Here I am standing wanting to protect you. And there are all these people in the middle of the pandemic, in the middle of the utmost danger that we could experience, they want to prevent me from doing what’s best for you.” And that’s exactly what happened. The announcements, and it was just the announcement so he has not implemented the law yet but just the announcement of this Authorization Law, put the opposition into an impossible, into an absolutely no win situation. Because if they’re not gonna say anything, they do not stand up for democratic values that they believe in.
EDM: Hypothetically, assuming Hungary was dealing with a truly democratic and transparent premier, wouldn’t we still face the same conundrum that it would be difficult to define a sunset clause given that the extent and duration of the pandemic remains an unknown unknown? How could one potentially deal with the fact that no guarantee can be given?
AS: But many of the other, I would say European countries definitely did. There was a sunset clause and they were very transparent about it, that they will have to reconsider the next steps. And then and then many European countries actually renewed the state of emergency. There, there were a number of end dates, and usually they these implementations were for two months, if I remember correctly, early May-late April-early May were the time when when the government’s wanted to reconsider or to see where they stood. But it so powerfully and importantly signals that this is not about me wanting to seize the power. This is about us needing to devote all our energies or our attention to fight the virus.
EDM: You said that there’s been very little resistance, almost no resistance, and opinion polls approval for the handling of this pandemic are at 80% close to 95% stating support for the Fidesz government to declare a state of health emergency in the future. With such little visible concern from the Hungarian citizenry, what are the probable long term impacts of these measures? What’s the worst case scenario that we’re likely to see?
AS: The fact that eventually, and I think it was June 20th, the enabling law, and there was a common understanding that it doesn’t change much. It doesn’t, becoming a law was not changing much as we were discussing earlier, it did give more power to Orbán but he already had all the power in his hands. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that most of the decrease, so most of the decrease that were banned implemented during the time, were introduced during this time, did not expire and will not expire because they were not related to the virus. So he had a different agenda with those decrees and they’re to stay. And then there’s also a new change of the law with the new law that the parliament actually has, which is from now on, the Prime Minister doesn’t even need the parliament to introduce a state of emergency and pass this enabling law. But the recommendation of the medical officer of the state medical officer can actually be enough for a state of emergency and for Orbán to start his own ruling. Because of course who is appointing the medical officer, senior medical officer? Viktor Orban is appointing that person.
EDM: What’s the EU’s role in all of this? Recent negotiations with the EU saw Orbán secure close to 53 billion euros for a seven year recovery period, decoupling it from conditions of rule of law. EU lawmakers have repeatedly threatened the use of Article Seven of the European Union treaty to sanction Hungary for breach of values. Do you think they will or that this might hurt Orbán’s public support? Or more specifically, at what point would action by the EU hurt Orbán?
AS: The point when the EU will stop giving money, and the moment this the EU stops, the popularity of the government will immediately go down because they will not have any money to force, like they have built oligarchies but they make sure that the people get enough, at least on the surface, this country is growing and thriving. And before so before Viktor Orbán went to Brussels to start these negotiations in the parliament, he had a discussion of this very clause, which is that what happens if this aid is tied to the rule of law and he had the parliament, parliament authorize him to veto the law, if there is going to be a clause that would make the rule of law a condition. So he went there with this, and again like it’s the same trope; it’s the same strong man who will go to Brussels and fight for, and just notice the deep irony, for Hungarians rights so that we can have a lawless democracy. And at the end of the day, the EU decided to not have this clause and or have an extremely pared version of it. At the end of the day, there is a financial relief package, rule of law is not one of the conditions.
EDM: Given all we have discussed, what does the future herald for Hungary? Are we likely to see further resistance or resignation from the people?
AS: Hungary is not the country that we have committed protesters to go out on the streets. There is such a lack of investment for the people, people want to believe that it would make any difference. I do not know what could make people realize how much they are abused and exploited by this government. If they still do not know that is a mystery to me and I don’t think that the EU will take action, which means that then both the country and the EU are perpetuating the situation.
EDM: So have national leaders been using the coronavirus lockdowns to strengthen their powers? Yes, but this isn’t a unique event, but part of a longer, older trend of the erosion of democracy. Nor is this erosion confined to a few rogue states, but a global issue which might strike closer to home than we might think. Our best safeguards are a robust civil society and free press, and when these are under threat we can be pretty confident that this trend is accelerating; what we can’t count on is a well-informed citizenry forming a resistance to it.
TwentyTwenty was produced and presented by Elizabeth Dykstra-McCarthy, with the Associate Producer Max Klaver, and lead researchers Vivek Ganesh and Nick Giurleo. The Editors were Elizabeth Dykstra-McCarthy with Jessie Newman. Many thanks to this week’s interviewees, Dr Aniko Szucs and Dr Nic Cheeseman and, until next week, goodbye.