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Democracy Talks: COVID-19, Authoritarianism, and Democracy

The first in a series of discussions on freedom on democracy around the world features Laura Rosenberger, Mustafa Akyol, Michael Abramowitz, and Andrew Wilson. The four experts on democracy and authoritarianism discuss the impact the coronavirus is having on political freedom and democratic institutions around the world.

Article by William McKenzie, Lindsay Lloyd, and Christopher Walsh April 14, 2020 //   17 minute read

On April 7, the Bush Institute convened four experts on democracy and authoritarianism to discuss the impact the coronavirus is having on political freedom and democratic institutions around the world. The exchange took place electronically, and included Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House; Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy and a German Marshall Fund senior fellow; Mustafa Akyol, a Cato Institute senior fellow and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times; and Andrew Wilson, executive director of the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE).

The conversation was led by the Bush Institute’s Lindsay Lloyd, Chris Walsh, and Bill McKenzie. This exchange is the first in a series of year-long exchanges the Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative will publish on the challenges to democracy around the world. The series also will focus on ways to expand democracy and freedom, while showcasing how democracies are making a difference around the world.

For all of those reasons, we could think of no more urgent issue to launch this series with than the coronavirus and the cause of democracy.

Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán recently approved a decree by his nation’s parliament that gives him broad powers to rule his country as the world grapples with the coronavirus. The move drew criticism from a number of democratic leaders around the world. But do you think this pandemic is likely to give rise to greater authoritarianism? 

Abramowitz: I very much hope not. I expect dictators and autocrats to continue to try to exploit the crisis, but democracies with all their virtues — openness, transparency, and authentic public support — are better suited in the long run to tackle the crisis. The pandemic highlights how important it is that we democracies redouble our efforts to confront the spread of authoritarian practices, human rights abuses, and continuing assaults on human freedom.

Rosenberger: Crises often provide opportunities for authoritarian leaders to seize greater power, and the COVID-19 crisis seems to be no exception. The strong reaction by democratic leaders to Orbán’s move is a good sign of resistance to this trend, but it will be important for that pushback to be sustained after the crisis abates.

More broadly, I am concerned that the use of surveillance technology to track and manage the pandemic could become a more permanent feature of our societies after the crisis if appropriate safeguards aren’t put in place on the front end. Those technologies could also lead to a weakening of democracy.

Wilson: The door is open for greater abuse of power by authoritarians in both overt and less overt ways. In Hungary, we are seeing a very overt example of this, as the proposed response flies in the face of established European democratic norms and practices. 

In existing authoritarian states, it is more difficult to gauge the impact of government responses as they already lack the transparency for us to understand the depth of control being exercised in the name of health policy. For example, both China and Russia have increased the use of surveillance technology, but we only see anecdotal evidence of its application on the general public. Once the crisis is over, I find it hard to believe that these activities will be abandoned.

In other states we are seeing a well-documented trend of media suppression and opposition crack-downs.

An area that we’re very concerned with here at CIPE is authoritarian control of the economy. Under the guise of mobilizing material resources, many authoritarian governments are taking direct control of sectors of the economy. This may be a legitimate response to the crisis, but many of our partners around the globe are concerned that, once acquired, this level of control will not be relinquished.

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Akyol: Autocrats almost always rule by claiming that they are saving their people from grave threats, which are often imaginary. So, the coronavirus pandemic, a real, grave threat, will certainly offer them ample opportunities.

Viktor Orbán took a bold step towards full dictatorship in Hungary, and I would also worry for my own country, Turkey, where President [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is still busy with calling prosecutors to go after critics or obstructing opposition parties from setting up relief campaigns. And let’s not forget that we are only in the first month of this global crisis. So, we should indeed begin worrying about the political consequences of the pandemic — even in the West — as well as the many lives that it will take away.

How would you assess how autocracies versus democracies have coped with this crisis?

Rosenberger: There are examples of both autocracies, like China, and democracies, like the U.S., struggling to deal with the crisis. The Chinese Communist Party’s initial suppression of reporting of the virus and its slow initial response show the vulnerabilities of authoritarian systems that suppress information. Some of the best examples of responses to the crisis do seem to come from democracies like Taiwan and South Korea.

The Chinese Communist Party’s initial suppression of reporting of the virus and its slow initial response show the vulnerabilities of authoritarian systems that suppress information.

Akyol: It is very likely that China, which must indeed be held responsible for causing this nightmare by silencing its own experts who warned about the coronavirus, will boast about its success in suppressing COVID-19 — and thanks to the “discipline” it imposes in its own society.

But there are many counter-examples. Iran, another authoritarian regime, dramatically failed in managing this crisis. It not only failed to protect its people with rational measures, its dictates on society created additional tragedies. (As the New York Times reported, some Iranians falsely heard on the internet, “whiskey and honey kills the virus,” but since the regime bans alcoholic drinks, they drank bootleg alcohol, leading to at least 300 victims and blinded children.)

Meanwhile, South Korea and Germany, which seem to have done well so far, are democracies, and their success seems to be based on their high-tech infrastructure and sophisticated healthcare system.

In fact, what seems to matter most in this crisis is how scientifically advanced a country is. Some which are advanced, like China, may be also autocracies, but that is not their secret. The Soviet Union, too, was quite advanced in space exploration, but this did not make it an admirable place. Moreover, the dictatorial nature of the regime created huge disasters out of its scientific accomplishments, such as in Chernobyl.

Wilson: Again, the lack of transparency in authoritarian states makes this difficult to measure, and I think the authoritarians will keep it that way. Russia, for instance, hid many of its early cases by claiming an uptick in pneumonia. The death toll estimates out of Wuhan put out by Western researchers is significantly higher than those posted by the People’s Republic of China.

When authoritarian governments fail their citizenry, we rarely see it because media and civil society can’t report it. The only time we will learn the true extent of their responses and shortfalls will be when a regime ends and the files are opened.

Quality of governance is what is really proving to be important here. Well-governed democracies are providing a level of information and guidance that allows their citizens to understand where risk is, and how to avoid it. In less well-governed states we may never know the extent of an outbreak due to poor tracking, and therefore we may never be able to get a clear answer.

Quality of governance is what is really proving to be important here. Well-governed democracies are providing a level of information and guidance that allows their citizens to understand where risk is, and how to avoid it.

Abramowitz: We just don’t know at this point. First, there are all the well-known problems with testing all over the world. Second, there are all the issues around reporting fatalities — not just in China, where the problem could be enormous and is directly related to autocracy, but also in the U.S., the UK, and elsewhere because of issues in health system bureaucracies and nuances of data collection. Third, because of how it started and initially spread, the pandemic is still in a relatively early stage in places like Turkey and Russia, not to mention big swathes of the developing world. Even in the U.S., I think we are still in the beginning, not the middle.

We are seeing a lot of less democratic governments using the pandemic as an excuse for stringent measures that serve the interests of those in power. While many democracies are putting tough restrictions in place, most are time-limited and we expect them to be lifted as the crisis lessens. Autocracies are more likely to entrench measures for the long-term.

Will increasing isolationism make it harder for the U.S. to be involved globally, even if our involvement with other nations might help us control the spread of diseases in the future? 

Akyol: It is likely that isolationism in the U.S., and all sorts of anti-globalist views around the world, will see the pandemic as a confirmation of their urge to tighten up their borders. Nothing could be more misleading. In today’s world, even if you build high walls, it is impossible to contain the spread of a virus like this, unless the quarantine comes very early on.

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Once it is out of control in one place, it will be out of control everywhere. People will still travel, goods will still be traded, and if you don’t catch the virus this month, you will catch it the next month. Let’s not forget that even a century ago, when the world was much less connected, it was not possible to contain the Spanish Flu.

The right lesson is not more isolationist nationalism, but rather more efficient internationalism. Pandemics threaten not country A or B, but the whole of humankind. And protecting humankind from these invisible enemies only requires more cooperation between governments, international organizations, scientists, medical companies, health experts.  

The right lesson is not more isolationist nationalism, but rather more efficient internationalism. Pandemics threaten not country A or B, but the whole of humankind.

Abramowitz: It is definitely a danger, as Americans are already in an inward-looking period. But is also equally possible that many Americans will understand that our future depends on international cooperation to address the pandemic. It is vital that our leaders speak plainly to our fellow citizens that we will not be safe until COVID-19 is under control globally. I am deeply concerned about the prospect that the disease will disproportionally impact the Global South.

Rosenberger: COVID-19 represents the latest in a series of shocks to our interconnected world, and may reinforce more isolationist or nationalist tendencies in the U.S. or other countries. But retreating inside our borders would be a mistake — as it would have been on other previous crises. A pandemic is by definition global, and requires global solutions.

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Wilson: When the United States decreases its engagement in global institutions not only does it diminish our ability to influence and draw value from them, it also diminishes the institution in question’s ability to influence global responses.

U.S. disengagement from global institutions is often replaced by increased participation from states like China and Russia, whose values and goals are increasingly at odds with liberal democratic values. The danger we run by disengagement is that we enter a vicious cycle of withdrawal, authoritarian capture, and further Western distancing from the institution as its actions become more of an anathema to our interests. 

We saw this happen with the UN Human Rights Council during the last decade. Some civil society activists have observed that the World Health Organization may be entering a similar trajectory.

Where do you see hope for democracy amidst this crisis? Is it Americans finding creative ways to volunteer? Italians singing from their balconies? People connecting across the world thru technology? Something else?

Wilson: What is most heartening is that people recognize that they are citizens of a whole. In democracy we rightly praise the individual, but we do so within the context of citizen-led society and responsive government. 

What we have seen in all democracies is citizenship at its best. People are making the sacrifices necessary for the health of their community. Media is playing an important role, informing, mobilizing, and questioning when need be. Business as a citizen is also stepping up and playing a constructive role, even when the business itself may be on the verge of failure due to the response. 

My hope is as we move forward, we don’t forget the role that the private sector has played in responding to the crisis, and the role it will need to play in getting us “back to normal” in terms of generating growth, creating jobs, and paying taxes. 

Abramowitz: There is a real opportunity not just to beat the pandemic but also to strengthen democracy and democratic practices in the process.

I see a lot of hopeful signs, from the incredible surge in civic engagement and volunteerism to the amazing work of many journalists and civic watchdogs to expose poor government performance and spur action to address the problem.

I also think there will be chances to address longstanding problems in democracy, like the low level of voter participation in our elections. You are already seeing renewed efforts to make it easier to vote by absentee balloting, mail-in balloting and other measures that could in theory expand participation for millions more Americans.

I see a lot of hopeful signs, from the incredible surge in civic engagement and volunteerism to the amazing work of many journalists and civic watchdogs to expose poor government performance and spur action to address the problem.

Rosenberger: In the U.S., COVID-19 has served as a reminder of the important role that state and local governments play, and we have seen numerous officials in those positions take a leading role in managing this crisis. These officials are often also cited as some of the most trusted by voters. While the federal government’s response has fallen short in many ways, the effectiveness of state and local governments is a good news story for democracy in the midst of this crisis. I hope their reinvigoration will last well beyond it.

Akyol: Here is the nice thing that I am seeing: When people are properly informed (rather than misinformed) by their political leaders and mass media, they can take the necessary precautions without the latter being imposed on them. Many people in America follow “social distancing” not because there are military checkpoints on the streets, but they have understood that this is the way to protect themselves and their families. In fact, people even force their governments to take the right measures. That happened in Turkey when thousands of pilgrims returning from Mecca were quarantined in early March by the authorities — but only after a big campaign on social media.

It is also heartening to see that scientists are racing to find a cure, and not just governments but also entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates are supporting them with huge contributions. When we finally defeat this virus, it will probably be a “we-the-people” victory, with millions of heroes around the world ranging from self-sacrificing health workers to brave food deliverers, from generous capitalists to ingenious scientists, and hundreds of millions of ordinary people who patiently waited in their homes in order to “flatten the curve."