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Will the legacy of COVID-19 include increased authoritarianism?

A man addresses a room of screens depicting protests

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause enormous suffering in many countries, with the number of deaths in the United States alone passing 100,000 this week, some countries are cautiously lifting restrictions on movement and some types of economic activity.

Governments around the world have taken on extraordinary powers to tackle the crisis. As we begin to return to normal, it is vital that the checks and balances on executive power also return to normal as soon as possible. In many places, however, there are worrying signs that the pandemic will leave in its wake increased authoritarianism and weakened rule of law.

Corruption thrives when democratic institutions such as a free press and an independent judiciary are undermined; when citizens’ right to protest, join associations or engage in initiatives to monitor government spending is limited.

The COVID-19 crisis has offered corrupt and authoritarian leaders a dangerous combination of public distraction and reduced oversight. This has perhaps been best illustrated in Brazil, where last week the Supreme Court ordered the release of a video of a closed-door meeting in which President Jair Bolsonaro threatened to fire senior law enforcement officers and ministers in order to stop investigations into his family. The Justice Minister has already resigned after the president did in fact replace the head of the federal police force.

The video also shows the Environmental Minister, Ricardo Salles, making plans to use the pandemic as a smokescreen to advance deregulation of the Amazon, without scrutiny from the press or discussion in Congress.

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Elsewhere in Latin America, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed serious concern that the rule of law and constitutional order are being undermined in El Salvador, as authorities implement measures to combat the spread of the virus.

Egypt: el-Sisi tightens his grip

Last year, a series of constitutional amendments in Egypt made the military de facto the ultimate authority in the country, wiping out what little remained of the democratic gains made in the Arab Spring.

President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has since used the COVID-19 crisis to amend emergency powers that have been in force since 2017, further strengthening the military's grip on power. Immediately, there has been an enormous impact on human rights – with the rights to protest, assembly, and freedom of speech all coming under further attack on top of sustained violations in recent years.

In a region facing increasing pressure on press freedom during the crisis, Egypt has been especially hard hit. Lina Attala, the editor of Mada Masr, often described as the last remaining independent news source in the country, was recently arrested while interviewing the mother of a prisoner on hunger strike.

As limits on the power of el-Sisi and the military disappear, the expectation increases that the large volume of international funds released for Egypt’s coronavirus response will go towards lining the pockets of the regime, rather than helping those most in need.

Spiralling controls in Eastern Europe and Central Asia

In a region with already weak political rights for citizens, the COVID-19 crisis has provided cover for further abuses.

In Georgia, members of the ruling party have proposed a law that would allow the government to impose limits on fundamental rights, without the implementation of a state of emergency approved by parliament.

The protection of public health is an important legitimate goal. Nevertheless, this cannot be used as a justification for unconstitutionally restricting human rights.
Transparency International Georgia

Authorities in Azerbaijan have taken advantage of severe lock-down measures to crackdown on dissent. The President of Kazakhstan this week signed a law that restricts freedom of assembly. In Kyrgyzstan, parliamentarians have been debating a law that would weaken Civil Society Organisations.

The European Union is not immune to backsliding on the rule of law, either.

In Hungary, even as Prime Minister Victor Orban's power to rule by decree seems to be coming to an end, the incremental disruption of checks and balances and the undermining of the rule of law in the country continues. MEPs in Brussels have called for action to stop threats to judicial independence in Poland.

The end of ‘One country, two systems’ in China and Hong Kong?

There have been further crackdowns on the pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong in recent months, with commentators on the ground saying that limits on gatherings to combat coronavirus are being used to stifle freedoms.

Now, Beijing has passed a bill to extend China’s national security law to the territory, which was previously considered an autonomous area.

Alarming deterioration in media freedom in Southern Africa

In the southern African kingdom of Eswatini, journalists who have criticised authorities’ handling of the crisis have been hounded by the police, according to Reports Without Borders. Madagascar too has seen journalists arrested for criticising the government’s response to the crisis, which has included the promotion of a herbal cure for COVID-19.

With concerns about dodgy procurement practices and the abuse of funds intended to tackle the crisis rising across the region, it is vital that the press and civil society are able to fulfil their watchdog function and hold the powerful to account.

Not an inevitable outcome

In countries where authoritarianism is on the rise there is typically little space for Civil Society activists or independent media to demand change, or to campaign for their democratic rights and freedoms. That is why international and multilateral organisations must help ensure that post-COVID, we don’t enter a new normal in which corruption and kleptocracy can more easily thrive.

Transparency International and our partners have been urging institutions such as the European Commission and European Council, the Organisation of American States, the G20, the Southern African Development Community, International Monetary Fund and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to use their leverage and leadership to promote transparency, accountability, and rule of law wherever possible in their response to the COVID-19 crisis.

With so much at stake, there is no room for backsliding during the COVID-19 crisis. If lost, the social, political and economic gains made in many countries will take decades to win back, and the poorest and most vulnerable in society will suffer most.

This though is not an inevitable outcome, and together we can ensure the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19 is strengthened checks and balances, better oversight mechanisms and greater accountability for those in power.

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