With little regard for the “checks and balances” principle written into the U.S. Constitution, President Donald Trump declared the authority of the president “total” on April 13. Although he reversed his stance several weeks later, his claim reflects an unsettling trend among governments across the world: using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to seize extensive emergency powers and consolidate authority. Like the USA PATRIOT Act passed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the laws being enacted by leaders around the globe will enable governments to more extensively surveil their citizens and will likely outlive intended lifespans. In doing so, nations blur the line between governments’ duty to act in the interest of their general populaces while upholding individual civil liberties. At the same time, nations risk upending the precarious balance between republican and authoritarian governments on the international political stage.
Certain aspects of the authoritarian system of governance may seem advantageous in the midst of this outbreak. For example, the People’s Republic of China has supposedly suffered fewer than five thousand deaths by locking down its 1.4 billion citizens. Despite accusations of Chinese leaders underreporting the case and mortality statistics of the virus, China’s mandatory lockdown appears to have been more successful in preventing the virus’s spread than many democratic nations’ responses.
Other authoritarian-leaning leaders around the world have cited the “successful” Chinese response as a reason to expand their own powers, increasing digital surveillance of their citizens and using the military to silence critics and protesters. On March 15, Kazakhstan’s senate passed a seemingly innocuous emergency law banning all mass gatherings. Over the past year, civil protests have rocked the nation, and the new legislation underscores an attempt to prevent citizens from assembling peacefully during a tumultuous time.
While centralized authority has its benefits, authoritarian governments often violate basic human rights, and the spread of this system of governance may pull the world into an ideological conflict as significant as the Cold War. In a law resembling the U.S. Sedition Act of 1918, which silenced citizens opposed to American involvement in World War I, the Bolivian Plurinational Legislative Assembly recently cited the coronavirus outbreak as a reason to weed out political dissenters and crack down on individual freedoms, according to Human Rights Watch. During these chaotic times, however, a diverse array of opinions is more valuable than ever. Leaders must consider all possible solutions to find the best course of action in response to pressing issues.
Channeling Chancellor Palpatine and the Galactic Senate, the Hungarian National Assembly declared a state of emergency and granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban exclusive power to determine its end date. Although Orban may not be plotting to assemble a Death Star and destroy planets as the “Star Wars” villain did, he is almost certainly planning to destroy any opposition to his rule. His indefinite dictatorship-like powers point to the fragility of democracy in these trying times.
Thomas Hobbes, widely regarded as one of the fathers of modern political philosophy, once theorized that absolute authority is the only way to maintain stability. As many selfishly disregard social distancing recommendations, our democratic republic seems divided in its response. Still, while consolidated authority may be tempting in this divisive time, dictatorships, authoritarian oligarchies or even democratically elected presidents who overstep their powers to enforce unity are dangerous. Even if Hobbes is correct, citizens around the world must understand the oppression they risk in extending emergency powers to leaders without a definite expiration date. Those who stand idly by and give power to one person, one group, one idea, aid in the slow demise of democracy, civil liberties and human rights around the world.