Author: Andrew Shi
Editor: Yihan (Bradley) Tian
Image Source: Getty Images
The COVID-19 pandemic has instigated considerable changes in the political systems around the world, especially those of Western countries. From the rise of populist leaders in liberal states like the United States and Germany to the rollback of democratic institutions within authoritarian-leaning states such as Poland and Belarus, a global trend toward centralized power under individual leaders has been emerging since 2016.
Autocracies are defined by the consolidation of power of the ruling party. Recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has created the means for greater administrative measures and surveillance of individuals. What is to happen after the pandemic recedes will determine the nature of democracy within many countries around the world.
The Expansion of Control
Surveillance in an all-encompassing fashion has not been feasible until recently. Since the rise of smart mobile technology, an increasingly prevalent culture of passive surveillance, where service providers track and sell user data and insights, has entered the mainstream without major impediment caused public opposition. Recently, however, there has been a massive consolidation and processing of individual location data following massive spikes in COVID-19 cases - both within existing authoritarian states as well as liberal democracies. In South Korea, the combination of both location-based credit card information as well as a centralized grid of networks and surveillance cameras has allowed the state to track individual movements in relation to one another. Moreover, the scaling up of traditional tools to cover an entire population has allowed for greater surveillance to take place: in China, an intricate network of data collected by technology companies and state-sanctioned apps has created the means to keep immediate tabs across the most populated countries in the world, something just 10 years ago would have been thought to be impossible.
This state authority maintains such operations with funds collected from the public. Measures as radical and comprehensive as the ones currently being implemented are unthinkable in times of peace and prosperity; however, in times of crisis, the public invests its trust into the state, hoping that the population would receive adequate protection. This public consent comes with the opportunity for exploitation as individuals find opposition or accountability to infringement very difficult to articulate and measure. Combined with the rollback of protections, the state is thus able to impose sweeping changes to the societal infrastructure. For authoritarian-leaning states in Eastern Europe, this creates the potential to attain further centralization of power through the establishment of social protection.
Consolidation of power
In the wake of this crisis, legislative bodies have written off accountability measures to ensure efficiency and timeliness of policy decisions. In many countries, legislatures are considering,
or have already given, significant power to the state by dissolving many of the necessary accountability measures from different branches of government. Through bills comparable to the war measures act, the executive from Ghana to Hungary have coalesced consider power via centralization. For countries with an authoritarian focus, this has allowed leaders to maintain and enforce a base of control as long as a state of emergency is declared and continued. In Hungary, prime minister Victor Orbán has already declared an indefinite state of emergency. This power also comes with the suspension of the rule of law, democratic institutions, and the courts. Many of these institutions formed the bastion of accountability on his leadership. These measures have been prevalent in Russia and Turkey.
Shadow of a Crisis
After every instance of social upheaval, a total re-understanding of state authority in relation to its people is likely to follow. State expansion, as a means of protecting individual safety and security, never fully recedes after the danger has ceased; rather, a shadow of an expanded executive remains for administrations to come. In retrospect, two distinct instances have occurred. After the financial crisis of 2008, massive federal quantitative easing imposed by federal reserves was not completely rolled back; it now serves a critical role within the economic relief efforts enacted by the state under the current crisis. After this crisis, however, many of the rollbacks within the accountability and prevalence of security are unlikely to be rolled back either. As states brace for the next pandemic, stringent federal policies and a stronger executive are expected to be an integral part of the government. Whether democracies are able to adapt to this change will help form the political landscape within the next couple of years.