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How authoritarianism has spread since the coronavirus pandemic began

According to pro-democracy institutions, authoritarianism was on the rise globally even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. But experts say the distraction of the crisis has allowed some leaders to indulge their dictatorial impulses without attracting much attention from the people they govern. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum about this dangerous global dynamic.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's an old saying: Never let a crisis go to waste. And for some leaders around the world, the pandemic has been the crisis they have been waiting for.

    Pro-democracy groups say that authoritarianism was already on the rise before COVID-19.

    And, as Nick Schifrin tells us, the pandemic has accelerated that trend.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    They marched for democratic values and held signs "Free Country, Free Press, " but, in Hungary, the press is increasingly not free, and democracy is sliding down an authoritarian slope.

    Last month, the editor of Hungary's most read news site was fired for coverage critical of the government. Nearly all employees at the Index news site walked out.

    Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long called Index a fake news factory. But COVID became a cover for him to expand attacks and seize more power.

    And it's happening elsewhere. An open letter from 500 former world leaders and Nobel laureates warned, COVID-19 increased global authoritarianism that threatens the future of liberal democracy.

  • Alina Polyakova:

    Authoritarian-leaning leaders across the world are using this to push through far, far more aggressive autocratic matters and to repress independent voices in civil society.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Alina Polyakova is the director of the Center for European Policy Analysis.

  • Alina Polyakova:

    I don't think they would've been able to do this, because there would be much more attention, much more criticism, at a time when we weren't going through a global pandemic.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    COVID has emboldened would-be dictators. In Russia, during a World War II commemoration parade, police shoved protesters into vans, thanks to a new measure against public assembly. Vladimir Putin won a referendum that extends his power until 2036.

    In Egypt, Dr. Hany Bakr was arrested for a Facebook post criticizing the government for sending medical masks abroad, when he didn't have enough in its own practice. Abdel Fattah El-Sisi's government has arrested more than a dozen people for criticizing the official COVID response.

    In other countries, opportunism. In Poland, President Andrzej Duda pushed through and won a recent election, despite E.U. concerns it wouldn't be safe or fair. The vote was upheld by Duda's handpicked Supreme Court.

    In Hong Kong, the pro-Beijing legislative council cited COVID to postpone a planned September vote that it was expected to lose. Pro-democracy groups say more than 60 elections have been postponed during COVID, and more than 40 countries have restricted press freedom.

    These leaders say extraordinary times require extraordinary steps, like border closures, quarantines, and tracking.

  • Viktor Orban (through translator):

    We successfully defended our country. Our achievement is comparable to any other country. And we did that within democratic frameworks.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But many of the new powers don't expire or have anything to do with COVID.

    In Hungary, Orban withheld COVID relief money from his political opponents. Parliament temporarily gave him the power to rule by decree. He declared victory over the virus.

    But, in this house, there is only loss. Last month, Lilla Szeleczki's mother died.

  • Lilla Szeleczki (through translator):

    I really miss her. Everybody loved her. She always made our favorite food for us and always got us little surprises and presents. It hurts a lot that she is not with us anymore.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Szeleczki's mother was suffering from kidney cancer when she was sent home to make room for COVID patients.

    Orban's silencing of the press and downplaying COVID meant Hungarians didn't receive the information they needed. Szeleczki says her mother's death could have been prevented, and that, in Hungary, no one person should have total control.

  • Lilla Szeleczki (through translator):

    I think it was a huge mistake that unlimited power was given in one person's hands.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Part of the problem is that COVID arrived when democracy was already under attack. Freedom House says 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in their Global Freedom Index.

    To discuss that and how authoritarianism has spread during COVID, I'm joined by Anne Applebaum, staff writer at "The Atlantic, " a historian on Central and Eastern Europe, and author of a new book just out, "Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism."

    Anne Applebaum, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    You have known many of the players. And Poland was one example we just cited, Hungary. You have seen them shift over the decades from advocating democracy to eroding, in some of their cases, rule of law. What happened?

  • Anne Applebaum:

    You have to look country by country for a complete explanation.

    But I do think you can point to, across both mature democracies and new democracies, a kind of disappointment with democracy. And, sometimes, this is a cultural disappointment. People don't like the way their societies have changed.

    And I think we have to acknowledge that there is a part of every society that doesn't like the cacophony and noise of democracy and the arguments, that doesn't like the fact that democracies can't take instant decisions, the way autocracies can.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Turning to COVID and the focus we just put on one particular country, Hungary, and its leader, Viktor Orban, how did Orban take advantage of COVID to seize more power?

  • Anne Applebaum:

    When the coronavirus arrived in Hungary, Orban used it to illustrate that he was already fully in control of his system.

    In other words, he passed a decree, or an order, that said that, from — for the period as long, as he wanted, in fact, he would be able to rule by decree.

    And a number of Hungarians said to me, well, you know, we know this sounds terrible, but, in a way, Orban was simply confirming what we already know, which is that he operates functionally already as a dictator, there are no checks and balances on him, and he was simply using the excuse of the coronavirus to rub this in.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    One of the aspects, of course, of Orban's crackdown is against freedom of the press. And we have seen governments all over the world restrict freedom of the press.

    What's the long-term impact of some of those measures?

  • Anne Applebaum:

    The instinct to crackdown on the free press and to try and control speech and to channel it in certain directions, I think, has always been with us.

    And the coronavirus simply allowed some governments to take advantage of that situation, remembering that, for many people, moments when they are afraid and when they fear for their lives are often moments when they are willing to trade freedom for security or freedom for safety.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's talk about China for a second.

    That propaganda apparatus has waged an ideological battle, arguing that their version of communism, their country, their structure is better equipped to deal with this kind of crisis.

    Do you fear that that argument could be accepted by people around the world?

  • Anne Applebaum:

    The problem with the Chinese argument is that it's undermined by their own actions during the crisis and the fact that it was the Chinese government that first denied that the pandemic was dangerous. And so China is not in a good position to be arguing that its method of dealing with the virus is the best.

    But even when you step away from that, there is another interesting thing happening. Many of the countries that have dealt best with the virus are democracies. They have governments that can create a sense of community and of trust and get people to behave in a way that reduces the virus.

    And so — and there are a number of autocracies, at the same time, that have done badly. So, it turns out that the line between who's doing well and who's doing badly is not democracy vs. dictatorship. It's to do more with efficiency, with trust, with community and solidarity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lastly, President Trump has raised the possibility of delaying the U.S. election. Where is the U.S. when it comes to this story?

  • Anne Applebaum:

    His purpose is to undermine our faith in the electoral process itself, so that people don't vote, so that they stay away, and then perhaps so that they doubt the result if the result is bad for him.

    This is a tactic that is used by authoritarians all over the world. When they want to undermine people's faith in the system, they undermine their faith in voting and in the purpose and meaning of voting.

    We have all been convinced for many decades now that American democracy is something inevitable, it's like water coming out of the tap, or the air we breathe, that there's nothing special that we have to do in order to perpetuate it.

    But the lessons from around the world show that democracies do die. People lose faith in them. Political parties with anti-democratic beliefs take over democratic countries.

    Our democracy, like every democracy, requires work. It requires reform. It requires renewed commitment. It may require new kinds of politics. And it may be that all of us are going to have to be a lot more involved in politics and think a lot harder about how to ensure that our democracy survives than we ever expected to.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Anne Applebaum.

    The book is "Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism."

    Thank you very much.

  • Anne Applebaum:

    Thank you.

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