In March, Hungary became the first democracy to succumb to the coronavirus. With stunning speed, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban jammed through an emergency decree that gave him extraordinary powers for an indefinite period of time and put in place draconian restrictions on political freedoms. Experts immediately began debating which democracy would be the next to fall from an autocratic power grab.
Yet while other democracies face increasing political turmoil, none has experienced a similar seizure of power. There have been plenty of instances of democratic slippage during the pandemic, including unexpected signs of leadership weakness, populist consolidation of power, political transition uncertainties, and violent crackdowns undermining state legitimacy. If the democracies experiencing these problems can’t reverse course, the political consequences will be severe.
Pandemic-fueled leadership wobbles are widespread but especially serious in Brazil, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Brazil is by far the most likely to see its leader replaced due to his failed response to the pandemic. Rather than following the Hungarian government’s example of exploiting the crisis for political gain, President Jair Bolsonaro has hemorrhaged public support through an erratic and inconsistent response. He has labeled the virus a hoax, suggested unproven self-medication remedies, and rejected any national social distancing measures. Deaths from the virus have grown steeply, and researchers from Imperial College London assess that Brazil’s rate of transmission is now the highest in the world. As a result, Bolsonaro’s approval rating has plummeted. (Of course, one could argue the departure of an erratic leader like Bolsonaro would be a gain for Brazil’s democracy, showing that democratic disruption isn’t always a bad thing.)
While Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte have not flailed nearly as much as Bolsonaro, both have displayed unexpected deficiencies in leadership, raising questions about their continued rule. In Indonesia, Jokowi also neglected to provide clear social distancing guidelines and even peddled an unproven herbal remedy to ward off the virus. Partly as a result, Indonesia is second only to China in the number of coronavirus-related deaths in Asia. There are murmurings that Jokowi’s inconsistent response has opened the door for the military to reemerge into a larger political role. In the Philippines, Duterte has followed his typical playbook of adopting strongman tactics to confront political challenges. He authorized “shoot to kill” orders for quarantine violators and has reportedly rounded up over 17,000 individuals for curfew-related infractions. Popular frustration with his leadership has boiled over on social media with #OustDuterteNow trending globally with almost 500,000 tweets.
While these democratically elected leaders are now losing support through gross mismanagement of the pandemic, others are managing to consolidate their power in questionably democratic fashion. India, Israel, Poland, and Sri Lanka are apt examples. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has encouraged and in some cases directly contributed to coronavirus disinformation targeting Muslims, Dalits, and other political minorities. In Sri Lanka, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa won a recent and divisive election last November, rallying Sri Lanka’s Sinhala ethnic majority. As the sociologist Ahilan Kadirgamar writes, the pandemic has allowed the government to reinforce “its push to mobilize majoritarian social forces, consolidate power, and forestall an economic crisis.” It has adopted a militarized response to the pandemic and initiated widespread anti-Muslim scapegoating. Rajapaksa is no stranger to exploiting identity politics for political gain—he honed many of these tactics when he served as defense secretary in the final phases of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war.
Israel and Poland, meanwhile, are stronger democracies and present a lower possibility of political upheaval. Yet both countries demonstrate worrying signs of populist excesses. In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leveraged the coronavirus crisis to the hilt, using a mixture of alarmism, populist rhetoric, and self-promotion to snatch a political power-sharing deal out of thin air and remain head of state. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party is forging ahead with presidential elections on May 10, despite a national quarantine that essentially prevents opposition members from campaigning. At the same time, the government is pushing changes to the judiciary in order to establish a “chamber of extraordinary control” to certify the elections.
Other democracies—including Bolivia and Lebanon—now face political transitions that have been disrupted by the pandemic. In Bolivia, the caretaker government led by Jeanine Áñez had committed to holding elections in May 2020 to choose a successor to longtime leader Evo Morales. In the intervening months, she initiated a wave of political persecutions and dismantled key parts of the country’s socialist safety net—actions far beyond the mandate of a caretaker government. The coronavirus has brought an indefinite electoral delay, allowing Áñez to continue pursuing her exclusionary political agenda. Lebanon, for its part, had been rocked by economic protests since October. The pandemic resulted in an uneasy calm as a national lockdown kept citizens at home, but on April 26, coinciding with the easing of coronavirus restrictions, protests started anew. Demonstrators were particularly incensed by surging food prices created by Lebanon’s tanking currency. Thus far, the government has been unable to obtain a parliamentary quorum needed to pass a big spending bill to alleviate the food crisis. What happens next is uncertain. As Human Rights Watch’s Aya Majzoub observes: “The government’s uncoordinated and inadequate response to the pandemic has further eroded public trust in its ability to help people weather this pandemic and pull Lebanon out of its worst economic crisis in decades.”
The final and perhaps most dangerous type of democratic disruption amid the pandemic is the violence undertaken by overzealous security forces to maintain quarantine restrictions. In both Nigeria and Kenya, police forces have killed tens of people to enforce strict curfews. In Kenya, at least 12 people have been shot dead by the police, making its quarantine “one of the deadliest in the world,” as the Washington Post reports. The killings have been accompanied by other forms of police brutality, including use of live ammunition to disperse crowds, widespread beatings, harassment of journalists, and even the tear-gassing of commuters rushing to make curfew. Kenya is rivaled only by Nigeria when it comes to police-initiated fatalities related to its coronavirus lockdown. In April, Nigeria had the dubious distinction of having had more people killed by its security forces enforcing its quarantine (at least 18 individuals) than recorded coronavirus deaths (12) at the time. Both countries suffer from persistent democratic weakness and regular state violence. It is not immediately clear that their heavy-handed responses will lead to political disruption. But if fatalities continue to rise under the lockdowns, then the prospect for political instability commensurately increases as well. While the Philippines hasn’t recorded nearly as many security-related deaths as Kenya or Nigeria, its massive quarantine arrest figure, along with the government’s alarming human rights record (groups estimate that Duterte’s “war on drugs” campaign has claimed over 20,000 lives), is foreboding.
How best to counter democratic backsliding in this array of countries? Each situation carries its own particular challenges.
The first set of countries, displaying unexpected leadership weakness (Brazil, Indonesia, and the Philippines), run the risk of sudden political transition initiated by a military coup. Policymakers in the United States and elsewhere hoping to forestall such moves must be direct in their messaging: Coups will not be tolerated and will bring considerable political and economic consequences. A similar message must be offered if embattled leaders (particularly relevant in Brazil and the Philippines) choose to double down on violent repression to preempt political challengers.
The concern for the second group of countries (India, Sri Lanka, Israel, and Poland) is longer-term patterns of democratic decay. While the immediate risks for political volatility are minimal, there is potential for significant future damage. The optimal strategy would be for U.S. policymakers and their allies to identify specific democracy guardrails that should be respected and to make it clear that tough measures will be taken, such as implementing targeted sanctions, if their leaders continue to dismantle their democratic structures.
For the third set of countries—Bolivia and Lebanon, whose political transitions have been jeopardized—policymakers have more options. In Bolivia, the conspicuous silence of the Trump administration in the face of increasingly egregious political behavior by Áñez should end. Public support for a transparent and accountable pathway to credible elections might make Áñez think twice about continuing to double down on illiberal actions. In Lebanon, the biggest short-term risk is a major food crisis that threatens millions of Lebanese with hunger. The international community should work with government authorities to address the immediate humanitarian problem. While resources are scarce, the world can ill afford an escalating emergency in Lebanon that would further destabilize the region. Hopefully, this would provide space for a serious political dialogue to address protesters’ broader concerns.
Finally, for the fourth group of countries experiencing heightened levels of police violence, namely Nigeria and Kenya, policymakers should be very clear about their disproval. Like-minded democracies might consider running a resolution through the U.N. Human Rights Council that publicly names and shames this behavior. The United States and other nations have pushed Nigerian and Kenyan authorities in the past to carry out reforms and develop proper accountability for security forces. It may be time to reinforce these admonishments with real sticks, such as withholding assistance or sanctioning culpable individuals.
The coronavirus is proving to be a significant test case for democracies worldwide. But the negative implications do not fit neatly into a single basket of political overreach à la Hungary. Other democracies are experiencing more complicated disruptions, requiring differentiated and nuanced response strategies. If democratic backsliding intensifies, then we can add another casualty to the terrible toll already inflicted by the coronavirus: the demise of democracies that were too fragile to withstand the authoritarian inclinations of their leaders.