'Coronavirus coup'? As outbreak grows, authoritarians around the world seize the moment

Laura King
Two military police officers patrol the streets in Budapest, Hungary.  (Zoltan Balogh / MTI)

To battle a spreading pandemic, democracies across the globe are turning to tools like emergency proclamations, abrupt lockdowns and enhanced public surveillance. But so are the world’s autocrats — and analysts say the burgeoning outbreak is providing cover for some audacious power grabs.

Alarmed critics have given the phenomenon a scathing nickname: “coronavirus coup.”

The latest example is in Hungary, where parliament on Monday granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban sweeping new authority to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time. Orban, already engaged in a systematic campaign to consolidate his powers and stifle political opposition, cited the need for heightened powers as a way to aggressively fight the outbreak.

“Especially in weak democracies, this is accelerating trends we were already seeing,” said Sarah Repucci, who heads the analytics department at Freedom House, a Washington-based watchdog group that for years has documented the worldwide erosion of democracy.

Repucci cited Orban as among the autocrats using the virus as an excuse to accelerate their repressive agendas.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban takes part in a Q&A session at parliament in Budapest on March 30, 2020. Lawmakers approved a bill giving Orban's government extraordinary powers during the coronavirus pandemic, without setting an end date.  (Zoltan Mathe / MTI)

From Israel to Brazil, from the Philippines to Chile, there are telltale signs of autocratic intent behind executive actions ostensibly spurred by coronavirus, analysts say. One is when measures giving a leader more authority are open-ended, rather than being linked to an easing of the outbreak.

Another warning sign, according to analysts, is when newly imposed government measures are specifically engineered to resist oversight by courts or lawmakers, or appear to have little direct connection to actual efforts to halt the spread of infection.

In Israel, the coronavirus outbreak came amid political deadlock, and at a perilous moment for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is under criminal indictment on charges of bribe-taking, fraud and breach of trust. He denies any wrongdoing.

While launching a decisive early campaign to contain the virus’ spread, Netanyahu and his allies put off the scheduled start of his trial by closing the courts, handed the government unprecedented surveillance powers without parliamentary oversight and blocked the convening of the new Knesset, or parliament, in which the political opposition garnered a majority in March elections.

Israelis wearing masks protest outside the parliament in Jerusalem on March 23, 2020. They say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is taking anti-democratic measures during the coronavirus outbreak.  (Amir Levy / Getty Images)

Then, through canny maneuvering, Netanyahu took advantage of a fractured opposition and managed to get his chief rival, Benny Gantz, to agree to serve under him. The prime minister, the country’s longest-serving leader, said the severity of the crisis demanded unity; Gantz, a former army chief, employed a classic military metaphor to explain his about-face, saying he did not want to be the one who refused to help carry a stretcher off the battlefield.

“The word ‘magician’ is too weak to describe this stunning achievement, which isn’t solely a result of his political abilities,” columnist Yossi Verter wrote in Monday’s Haaretz newspaper. The pandemic’s arrival in Israel, Verter wrote, was a matter of “inconceivably perfect timing” for Netanyahu, despite critics’ labeling his machinations a “coronavirus coup.”

Like the virus itself, power grabs can take on the quality of a contagion, especially when established democracies offer little in the way of pushback.

“It’s a dangerous signal to aspiring autocrats as to what they can get away with during this crisis,” said R. Daniel Kelemen, a professor of political science and law at Rutgers University, pointing to the muted European Union response to Orban’s moves.

In Washington, the Hungarian leader’s actions drew some sharp criticism on Capitol Hill. Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, called it “the latest overreach” by Orban.

“Such a serious affront to democracy anywhere is outrageous, and particularly within a NATO ally and EU member,” he wrote in a statement. But the White House, where Orban was warmly received by President Trump less than a year ago, said nothing publicly.

Other Trump allies have had mixed results in bids to tighten their rule amid the outbreak.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte, notorious for extrajudicial executions at the hands of death squads, has been given broad emergency powers to confront the health crisis, although lawmakers balked at a provision that would have let him take over private businesses. Even so, rights groups were alarmed by the expanded scope of presidential authority.

A woman walks along an empty park in Santiago, Chile, on March 29, 2020. More than 1.3 million people in Santiago were placed in quarantine to curb the novel coronavirus' spread.  (Martin Bernetti / AFP/Getty Images)

There are growing fears that some leaders in Latin America could use coronavirus containment as a pretext to keep a tight lid on dissent. In Chile, President Sebastián Piñera declared a 90-day “state of catastrophe," which was likely to suppress the last vestiges of massive street protests over economic inequality that ignited there in late 2019.

In Bolivia, where President Evo Morales was forced to resign and go into exile amid massive anti-government demonstrations last year, presidential elections deemed crucial to restoring stability have been postponed because of COVID-19.

As the pandemic leapt from China to other parts of the world, Trump initially played down the threat, as did some autocratic leaders with whom he has demonstrated an affinity. As late as last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was putting an optimistic face on the outbreak’s course.

“By breaking the speed of the virus’ spread in two to three weeks, we will get through this period with as little damage as possible,” Erdogan, whose government has been accused of obscuring the scope of infections and where they have taken place, said in a televised address March 25.

Another leader who considers himself a kindred spirit of Trump’s is encountering political headwinds over an initially dismissive approach to the pandemic. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who at one point referred to COVID-19 as “a little flu,” has repeatedly contradicted the guidelines of his Health Ministry, calling on people to return to work and attend large gatherings.

But like Trump, his approach has proved polarizing. For weeks, tens of thousands of Brazilians in big cities have leaned out their windows each night, banging pots to protest against the president. Bolsonaro's supporters, meanwhile, drive through the streets in cars draped in the national flag, honking horns to show their support for the president and their anger at business closures.

Russian President Vladimir Putin was yet another Trump ally who kept his own coronavirus counsel. But unlike Trump, who has placed himself front and center at briefings on the crisis, Putin has let subordinates do most of the talking about the outbreak’s course.

As it often does, Moscow has taken heavy-handed measures to control the spread of information regarding the the pandemic, setting stiff penalties for news reports or social-media posts contradicting official accounts. Russia has so far reported nearly 2,500 cases, a number many international experts believe is artificially low.

Putin suffered something of a messaging mishap last week, when he visited a hospital and was photographed in full biohazard gear. But beforehand, with no protective gear, he shook hands with the hospital’s chief doctor, Denis Protsenko, who has now tested positive for the virus, according to news reports.

By Tuesday, the Kremlin hasn’t said whether Putin had been tested.

Times staff writer Kate Linthicum in Mexico City contributed to this report.