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Opinion Op Ed 16 May 2020 Democracy in the tim ...

Democracy in the time of Corona

COLUMNIST | JOAN FARGOSE
Published May 16, 2020, 8:17 pm IST
Updated May 16, 2020, 8:17 pm IST
Corona crisis threatens liberty everywhere and the integrity of governments worldwide is being questioned
 In this March 24, 2020, file photo, doctors and other healthcare workers with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine suit up in personal protective equipment before taking patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing location in Las Vegas. AP Photo
  In this March 24, 2020, file photo, doctors and other healthcare workers with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine suit up in personal protective equipment before taking patients at a drive-thru coronavirus testing location in Las Vegas. AP Photo

When Shakespeare’s soothsayer predicted doom for Caesar, little did he know how accurately the ‘Ides of March’ would pan out for rest the world centuries later. Severe lockdowns, peaking unemployment, bear markets and overflooded hospitals have materialized in a Corona infested world, as leadership worldwide is either being severely criticized or heavily praised. Regardless, people have submitted to even the most invasive and unthinkable government demands in this black swan event. This, in turn, provokes a serious debate. With governments across the world getting unadulterated power, should we expect them to submit allegiance to Judas and betray democracy or imitate Penelope’s faithfulness to Odysseus. Recent reports from present a worrisome picture.

Take for example Cambodia’s Hun Sen. To deal with the recent history’s greatest pandemic, he gifted himself unrestricted power as the national assembly passed emergency laws permitting unlimited surveillance of citizens and a stronghold over the media. Myanmar, in 2010, welcomed a democratic civilian government which many still argue is just a façade for the Burmese military, the ‘Tatmadaw’. The Corona crisis seemed like a boon for the Tatmadaw as it sought to reaffirm its powers while the ill-equipped government tried to fight a battle with abysmal testing rates and poor infrastructure. A military task force, with unregulated powers was assembled, comprising primarily of cherry-picked members, shockingly overlooking even the country’s health minister and putting the Tatmadaw back in command. Another south-east Asian head of state to follow this power amassing pattern is Rodrigo Duterte. While Duterte hasn’t exactly been a media darling or an emissary of individual rights given his controversial drug war or his vitriolic rhetoric, the recent emergency powers have sent alarm bells ringing. Hungary seems to be another victim of the Corona clampdown as its parliament handed the prime minister, Fidesz’s Viktor Orbán, unfettered power without an expiry date. Interestingly, Orbán’s tenures in the public space have often witnessed democratic backsliding which makes sceptics wary of the duration of the free reign. Israel’s Netanyahu sought to keep the newly elected government from taking over by shutting down courts and stalling the parliament, ultimately leading the coalition to split and ensuring his grip on power.

 

While many of these countries have had a battered history with democracy, the Corona crisis threatens liberty everywhere and the integrity of governments worldwide is being questioned as they give themselves complete carte blanche to impose control and legitimize snooping.

In political science, there is a concept of Overton window, which marks a socially acceptable range of policy decisions and discussions. This window could move along the spectrum depending on the mainstream acceptance of ideas. So, while the women’s rights might have negative policy discussions in regressive societies and the Overton window thus might be to the extreme, as the society becomes more egalitarian, the window would shift to the centre, and policy decisions might be much more optimistic. Thus, while Saudi Arabia still discusses about legalizing women’s right to drive, the US discusses about equal pay. The problem for countries worldwide is that as Corona becomes a quotidian affair, governments would seek to consolidate more power to either curb the pandemic or get the economy in order and citizens would comply in a bid to seek big brother’s protection. This would mean that the Overton window would shift to the extreme and people would accept totalitarianism as normal.

This, in turn, threatens democracies worldwide.

The end of World War II saw a sharp increase in the birth of democracies. While many of them have been on shaky grounds, unadulterated power could be an irresistible temptress to even the most liberal regimes. If Plato is to be believed, tyranny is the next natural transition from democracy. The rise of Papa Doc in Haiti, Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines and Hitler in Germany are all a testimony to this. After all, democracy is the progenitor of dictatorship, which eventually indulges in the most bloody parricide.

In recent times, the deep resentment against the unfair assignment of equality coupled with the urgent desire to mitigate the Corona crisis might prompt countries globally to shift their Overton window and accept more autocratic governments. On the other hand, lockdowns and illustrative autocracies might appreciate the value of freedom for the public, ultimately ensuring the renewal of democratic systems. So, while we wait to see the end of this war, one can only hope that this crisis would not be an exordium to the rise of dictatorships but instead uphold unflagging democracies in the trial by fire.

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