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The pandemic challenges democracies — but really hurts dictators

Here’s how the economic fallout may fray domestic political alliances

- April 30, 2020

The covid-19 pandemic poses enormous threats not only to public health but also to government. Democracies around the world face unprecedented challenges. But turmoil among dictatorships may be one of the pandemic’s most enduring legacies.

Democracies face critical challenges

Democracies have to figure out how to maintain checks and balances when legislatures can’t meet in person, how to uphold civil liberties amid quarantines and how to ensure the government does not overstep its bounds while intervening in private enterprise for the public good. The prospect of mass tracking and surveillance to monitor the spread of the virus also poses unprecedented threats to privacy.

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For some democracies, these delicate trade-offs may prove too much. Democratically elected leaders like Victor Orbán in Hungary have used the pandemic as a pretense to extend their power. Orbán indefinitely suspended parliament and elections, and is ruling by decree. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu placed the courts — which were slated to investigate him on corruption charges — on recess. Bolivia postponed its much-anticipated elections that were intended to resolve the ousting of former president Evo Morales last year.

American democracy is also feeling the strain. President Trump faced off against state governors over who has the authority to set and enforce guidelines on shelter-at-home and quarantine orders. Trump also threatened to adjourn Congress to unilaterally appoint nominees to federal positions.

Protesters in several U.S. states are demanding governors roll back lockdown orders, citing their right to move freely — while governors and health experts warn reopening too fast or ignoring quarantine orders puts people at risk from second-wave outbreaks.

This week, Attorney General William P. Barr ordered federal prosecutors to watch for potential overreach in state and local coronavirus restrictions. A Pew survey last month suggests Americans generally agree their state and local officials are handling the coronavirus threats well. But other research suggests a bitter partisan divide is shaping how people view the dangers posed by coronavirus and the government response, threatening to further erode trust in government.

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Dictatorships are equally vulnerable to crises as democracies

Dictatorships are also vulnerable to crises in the current pandemic — but for different reasons than democracies.

Dictatorships, of course, are not premised on a balance of power between citizens and the government, and between major political groupings in society. Dictators instead tend to fall through internal purges, coups, citizen uprisings and hardball competition. Critical regime insiders like the military are often decisive in toppling an incumbent, whether by directly intervening or by throwing their weight behind a challenger during sham elections.

Here’s the new twist: The burgeoning pandemic promises to shake up dictatorships by radically reshaping the resources that disparate groups hold at their disposal. Most authoritarian regimes — like democracies — are facing major economic slowdowns due to the pandemic. This will shrink the size of the economic pie. It will also generate new winners and losers as some groups bear more of the economic shocks than others.

These shocks will in turn provide grist for leadership challenges and perhaps even rekindle dormant civil conflicts, if the balance of power between opposing groups changes on the ground. Research shows all of these factors can spur leadership change within dictatorships. Furthermore, if critical groups like the military feel they are getting short shrift in a new age of austerity, they may be willing to turn against their patrons.

For example, consider Venezuela

For the past two years, Venezuela has been mired in a nearly unparalleled peacetime economic crisis. Its economy has shrunk by half. Diseases long thought eradicated have returned to ravage the population, hunger is widespread, and more than 50 countries do not recognize its president, Nicolás Maduro.

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Against this already dire backdrop, the covid-19 pandemic helped to further sink oil prices — which the Venezuelan economy relies on heavily to fund its budget — and threatens to exacerbate the country’s public health crisis.

The Trump administration is seizing this moment of vulnerability to exert geopolitical leverage on Venezuela. Several weeks ago, the United States indicted Maduro on drug trafficking charges — recalling a similar U.S. move in 1988 against Panama’s military government in advance of a December 1989 U.S. invasion that deposed Manuel Antonio Noriega.

The Trump administration also put forth a political transition plan to ease Maduro from power. And it deployed Navy ships closer to Venezuela, ostensibly for counternarcotics operations.

Venezuela’s top military brass has so far remained unified behind Maduro despite desertions and waning prestige. But the pandemic is shifting two key factors that could have an impact on their calculus.

The first is that revenue from the drug trade, which the military is deeply implicated in, is likely to take a major hit as commerce and mobility grind to a halt under strict quarantines in their largest markets: the United States and Europe. The second is that critical support from allies such as Russia and China may wane as those countries concentrate their resources on fighting the pandemic domestically. Either of these shifts, conceivably, could encourage Venezuela’s military to oust Maduro in pursuit of a better alternative.

The global political fallout could be widespread

The covid-19 pandemic is only just beginning to upend politics. The economic carnage being unleashed could take years to repair. Long-standing domestic political alliances will be frayed. Government powers to intervene in society are being dramatically expanded. International partnerships are being rewired. These uncertainties provide a window of opportunity for leaders and political groups to try to seize more power.

What can citizens of democracies do, other than remain vigilant to ensure democracies survive? There’s reason to also pay equal attention to the radical changes afoot in the world’s dictatorships. After all, these shifts could be the source of the world’s next wave of democracy — or merely the changing face of despotism.

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Michael Albertus is an associate professor of political science at the University of Chicago and co-author of “Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy” (Cambridge University Press, 2018).