Authoritarianism advances as world battles the pandemic

Jul 15, 2021, 12:45 AM | Updated: 4:18 pm
FILE - In this Saturday, April 3, 2021 file photo, demonstrators holding banners and flags march pa...

FILE - In this Saturday, April 3, 2021 file photo, demonstrators holding banners and flags march past Buckingham palace during a 'Kill the Bill' protest in London. The coronavirus pandemic has upended life around the globe, but it has hasn’t stopped the spread of authoritarianism and extremism. Some researchers believe it may even have accelerated it, but curbing individual freedoms and boosting the reach of the state. Since COVID-19 hit, Hungary has banned children from being told about homosexuality. China shut Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper. Brazil’s president has extolled dictatorship. Belarus has hijacked a passenger plane. A Cambodian human rights lawyer calls the pandemic “a dictator's dream opportunity.” But there are also resistance movements, as protesters from Hungary to Brazil take to the streets to defend democracy. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham, File)

LONDON (AP) — Here’s some of what happened while the world was distracted by the coronavirus: Hungary banned the public depiction of homosexuality. China shut Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper. Brazil’s government extolled dictatorship. And Belarus hijacked a passenger plane to arrest a journalist.

COVID-19 has absorbed the world’s energies and isolated countries from one another, which may have accelerated the creep of authoritarianism and extremism across the globe, some researchers and activists believe.

“COVID is a dictator’s dream opportunity,” said Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American human rights lawyer who has been indicted on charges including treason in the ostensibly democratic southeast Asian nation, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for more than three decades.

Human Rights Watch accuses Cambodia’s government of using the pandemic as cover to imprison political opponents without due process. Scores have been indicted and face mass trials.

When it comes to government opposition, “the fear of COVID, on its own and as a political weapon, has substantially restricted mobility for a gathering or movement to take shape,” Seng said.

The biggest global public health emergency in a century has handed power to government authorities and restricted life for billions of people.

Luke Cooper, a London School of Economics researcher and author of the book “Authoritarian Contagion,” said the vast economic, health and social resources poured into fighting the pandemic mean “the state is back as a force to manage society and to deliver public goods.”

Restrictions on civil liberties or political opponents have been stepped up during the pandemic on several continents.

For a decade in Hungary, conservative nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban has curtailed media and judicial freedom, criticized multiculturalism and attacked Muslim migrants as a threat to Europe’s Christian identity.

During the pandemic, Orban’s government brought in an emergency powers bill allowing it to implement resolutions without parliamentary approval — effectively a license to rule by decree. In June, it passed a law prohibiting the sharing of content portraying homosexuality or sex reassignment with anyone under 18. The government claims the purpose is to protect children from pedophiles, but it effectively outlawed discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools and the media.

Poland’s conservative government has chipped away at the rights of women and gay people. A ruling last year by a government-controlled court that imposed a near-total ban on abortion triggered a wave of protests that defied a ban on mass gatherings during the virus outbreak.

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, populist Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of trying to silence voices critical of his administration’s response to a brutal pandemic wave that tore through the country in April and May. His government has arrested journalists and ordered Twitter to remove posts that criticized its handling of the outbreak after introducing sweeping regulations that give it more power to police online content.

Even before the pandemic, Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was accused by opponents of squashing dissent and introducing policies aimed at refashioning a multifaith democracy into a Hindu nation that discriminates against Muslims and other minorities.

In Russia, the government of President Vladimir Putin has used the pandemic as its latest excuse to arrest opposition figures. Associates of jailed opposition figure Alexei Navalny have been subjected to house arrest and charges that the mass protests against his arrest violated regulations on mass gatherings.

In neighboring Belarus, authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko extended his quarter-century iron grip on power by winning an August 2020 election that the opposition — and many Western countries — said was rigged. The huge protests that erupted were met with tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrests.

Then, in May, a Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in the Belarusian capital of Minsk after the crew was told of an alleged threat. Opposition journalist Raman Pratasevic, a passenger, was taken off the plane along with his girlfriend and arrested.

Western nations called the forced diversion a brazen hijacking and slapped sanctions on Belarus, but those seem unlikely to induce Lukashenko to change his ways and underscore the weakness of democracies in confronting hardline regimes. Hungary’s acts have drawn sharp words from fellow European Union leaders, but the 27-nation bloc has no unified response to restrictive regimes like those in Hungary or Poland.

Even before COVID-19 came along, extremism was on the march.

“Over the last 15 years, authoritarian politics has replicated all over the world,” Cooper said. “Democracy feels very fragile. Democracy doesn’t have a clear vision for what it’s trying to do in the 21st century.”

The 2008 global financial crisis, which saw governments pump billions into teetering banks, shook confidence in the Western world order. And the years of recession and government austerity that followed boosted populism in Europe and North America.

In China, authorities saw the 2008 economic crash as evidence that they, and not the world’s democracies, were on the right path.

Historian Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford China Center, said the crisis persuaded China’s communist government that “the West no longer had lessons to teach them.” Since then, Beijing has increasingly flexed China’s economic muscle abroad while cracking down on opposition inside its borders.

In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs have been confined in re-education camps in China’s western Xinjiang region, where activists and former detainees accuse authorities of imposing forced labor, systematic forced birth control and torture. Beijing instead characterizes the camps as vocational training centers.

Beijing also has tightened control on Hong Kong, stifling dissent in the former British colony. Protesters, publishers and journalists critical of Beijing have been jailed and the last remaining pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, stopped publishing in June after the arrest of its top editors and executives.

When the coronavirus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, authorities responded firmly — though far from transparently — with draconian lockdowns that got the virus in check.

Mitter said the pandemic has cemented a view — among many ordinary Chinese, as well as the country’s leaders — “that something had gone very wrong in terms of the way in which the democratic world had dealt with the virus, and something had gone right in China.”

“That is now being used very much as a lesson, not just about the pandemic, but about the virtues of China’s system as opposed to the systems of liberal countries,” he said.

Last year, curfews and travel restrictions also became commonplace across Europe. People in France needed to show a signed declaration to travel more than 1 kilometer (just over a half-mile) from home. And Britons were banned by law from going on vacation abroad, while some attendees at a London vigil for a murdered woman were arrested for gathering illegally.

British lawmakers have expressed concern about the scope of the Conservative government’s emergency powers, many passed without debate in Parliament.

“Since March 2020, the government has introduced a large volume of new legislation, much of it transforming everyday life and introducing unprecedented restrictions on ordinary activities,” said Ann Taylor, an opposition Labour Party politician who chairs the House of Lords Constitution Committee. “Yet parliamentary oversight of these significant policy decisions has been extremely limited.”

Politicians and intelligence agencies in the West also have warned of the threat from coronavirus conspiracy theories that dovetail with existing extremist narratives. Many countries have seen large anti-lockdown, anti-mask, anti-vaccine protests attended by a mix of the far right, the far left and assorted conspiracists.

The British government has warned of “extremists exploiting the crisis to sow division and undermine the social fabric of our country,” with different hate groups variously blaming Muslims, Jews and 5G phone technology for the pandemic.

But there are signs of fighting back. The pandemic also has boosted trust in scientists and spurred demands for more accountable political leadership.

In Hungary, which has one of the world’s highest per-capita coronavirus death rates, there is growing opposition both to the government’s pandemic policies and to its wider authoritarian thrust, and thousands have taken to the streets in support of academic freedom and LGBT rights. With an election due in 2022, a six-party opposition coalition has united to try to unseat Orban’s Fidesz party.

Both extremism and resistance can be seen in Brazil, where the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has expressed nostalgia for the country’s two-decade military dictatorship and last year attended protests against the country’s courts and Congress. He dismissed the virus as a “little flu,” cast doubt on the effectiveness of vaccines and opposed social and economic restrictions.

Renato Meirelles, director of Brazilian polling company Locomotive Institute, said authoritarianism had advanced through “a strategy of fake news and attacks on factual truth.” “The next step will be questioning the electronic vote and, as such, the result of the next election,” he said.

Bolsonaro has so far been held in check by Brazil’s institutions, especially the Supreme Court, which stopped him from preventing states and cities from implementing restrictions to curb COVID-19 and has ordered an inquiry into the government’s pandemic response. And protests have finally spilled out onto the streets. Twice over the past month, demonstrators marched in dozens of cities across the country.

“I’m here to fight for the rights of those in need, for the rights of my children, for my right to live, to have vaccines for all,” said Claudia Maria, a protester in Rio de Janeiro.

In the United States, President Joe Biden has veered away from the populism of Donald Trump, but a Republican Party radicalized by the former president’s supporters has every chance of winning power again.

Cooper, of the LSE, said the authoritarian tide was unlikely to recede soon.

“This is a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism that’s going to last decades,” he said.


Associated Press Writers Jim Heintz in Moscow, Justin Spike in Budapest, David Biller in Rio de Janeiro, Christopher Bodeen in Beijing, Sheikh Saaliq in New Delhi and Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko speaks to The Associated Press reporters during an intervi...
Associated Press

Ukrainian minister says Russia blocking access to medicines

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s health minister has accused Russian authorities of committing a crime against humanity by blocking access to affordable medicines in areas its forces have occupied since invading the country 5 1/2 months ago. In an interview with The Associated Press, Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Liashko said Russian authorities repeatedly have blocked […]
2 hours ago
ADDS NAME OF DETAINED PERSON Law enforcement officers detain Hadi Matar, 24, of Fairview, N.J., out...
Associated Press

Author Salman Rushdie on ventilator after New York stabbing

CHAUTAUQUA, N.Y. (AP) — Salman Rushdie, whose novel “The Satanic Verses” drew death threats from Iran’s leader in the 1980s, was stabbed in the neck and abdomen Friday by a man who rushed the stage as the author was about to give a lecture in western New York. A bloodied Rushdie, 75, was flown to […]
2 hours ago
A view of the peninsula of Sirmione, on Garda lake, Italy, Friday, Aug. 12, 2022. Lake Garda water ...
Associated Press

Italy’s Lake Garda shrinks to near-historic low amid drought

SIRMIONE Italy (AP) — Italy’s worst drought in decades has reduced Lake Garda, the country’s largest lake, to near its lowest level ever recorded, exposing swaths of previously underwater rocks and warming the water to temperatures that approach the average in the Caribbean Sea. Tourists flocking to the popular northern lake Friday for the start […]
2 hours ago
FILE - Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., speaks before President Joe Biden signs the $1.2 trillion bipa...
Associated Press

Sinema took Wall Street money while killing tax on investors

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the Arizona Democrat who single-handedly thwarted her party’s longtime goal of raising taxes on wealthy investors, received nearly $1 million over the past year from private equity professionals, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists whose taxes would have increased under the plan. For years, Democrats have promised to raise […]
1 day ago
FILE- Internal Revenue Service taxes forms are seen on Feb. 13, 2019. The flagship climate change a...
Associated Press

Expanded IRS free-file system one step closer in Dems’ bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — The flagship climate change and health care bill passed by Democrats and soon to be signed by President Joe Biden will bring U.S. taxpayers one step closer to a government-operated electronic free-file tax return system. It’s something lawmakers and advocates have been seeking for years. For many Americans, it’s frustrating that beyond […]
1 day ago
FILE - In this photo released by China's Xinhua News Agency, air force and naval aviation corps of ...
Associated Press

China sending fighter jets to Thailand for joint exercises

BANGKOK (AP) — The Chinese air force is sending fighter jets and bombers to Thailand for a joint exercise with the Thai military on Sunday. The training will include air support, strikes on ground targets and small- and large-scale troop deployment, the Chinese Defense Ministry said in a statement posted on its website. China’s expanding […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Ways to prevent clogged drains and what to do if you’re too late

While there are a variety of ways to prevent clogged drains, it's equally as important to know what to do when you're already too late.

Best retirement savings rates hit 4.30%

Maximize your retirement savings with guaranteed fixed rates up to 4.30%. Did you know there is a financial product that can give you great interest rates as you build your retirement savings and provide you with a paycheck for life once you retire? It might sound too good to be true but it is not; this product is called an annuity.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Authoritarianism advances as world battles the pandemic