Opinion: In 2022, the world’s strongmen could fall on their Covid-19 swords
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In Brazil and Hungary, strongmen Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán are candidates for re-election. In the Philippines, term limits put an end to the tumultuous presidency of Rodrigo Duterte. While in the United States, the midterm elections held in the shadow of the false Republican claim that Joe Biden “stole” the 2020 election from Donald Trump could give an authoritarian-leaning GOP control of the Congress.
2022 is also the third year of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been a double-edged sword for autocratic leaders who prioritize maintaining personal power over public welfare. Some, like the Hungarian Orbán, used it to accumulate more authority. In March 2020, he took advantage of the state of emergency in Hungary to rule by decree. Others, like Trump, who was governing in a still robust democracy, discovered that mishandling the crisis could end in their defeat.
The pandemic has been a stress test for democratic and authoritarian governments. Around the world, it has deepened existing economic inequalities and caused immense loss of life: more than 5.5 million deaths have so far been recorded by Johns Hopkins University and others. By making the costs of corrupt and insensitive leadership painfully clear, he also breathed new vigor and clarity into social justice movements around the world.
Strongman leaders are particularly susceptible to defeat by a global health emergency like Covid-19. In some cases, their arrogance downplaying the severity of the coronavirus — and its fatal consequences — can be directly compared to how other countries are handling the same threat. Citizens can see that the virus doesn’t take orders from the strongman – it follows scientific rules.
Let’s look at how the impact of Covid-19 can be felt in elections
for the head of state to be held in hot spots of autocracy this coming year.
The first is Orbán. Hungary’s prime minister faces a challenge in April’s parliamentary elections from a newly unified opposition. Six parties are putting aside their political differences to stand together against what coalition leader Peter Marki-Zay calls a “corrupt dictatorship”. Orbán’s advantage as incumbent may be magnified by a repeat of gerrymandering, vote-rigging and other tactics that critics say altered the outcome of the 2018 election.
While Orbán appeals to voters with economic relief (tax cuts, pension and salary increases), the concentration of wealth among his cronies, including EU contracts, stands out in a time of inflation and misery fueled by the pandemic. Orban’s government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs brushed off those allegations to CNN at the time, saying it was “up to the courts to decide” in such cases.
Its lack of transparency on public health data also does not inspire confidence. Hungary does not have an official dashboard of Covid-19 trends and geographic breakdowns (although it does have an official government website including daily deaths and infections) and a press freedom crackdown makes it difficult to report on the pandemic. Orbán may be the darling of the US GOP, but the unprecedented alliance of parties against him signals a decline in his authority.
Next, we turn to the Philippines. In May, Filipinos will have to reckon with the consequences of a leader who uses force to cover up his lack of strong policies, including on public health. Critics accuse incumbent President Duterte of using his emergency powers to suppress free speech (his loyalists shut down the ABS-CBN media network by failing to pass bills that would have granted him a new license ) and passed economic measures that benefited big business and foreigners. investors, rather than the sick and the unemployed. Mass vaccinations didn’t begin until March 2021, and Duterte’s response – “I’m going to have you arrested and I’m going to inject the vaccine into your buttocks” – sums up his attitude towards those he governs.
While the Hague-based International Criminal Court’s investigation into Duterte’s use of extrajudicial violence in his drug war is on hold, he will not run again due to term limits. As of this writing, Duterte does not endorse any candidate, including Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., who is running for president with Duterte’s own daughter, Sara Duterte, and is the son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
This volatile situation could help opposition candidates like Leni Robredo, the current vice-president. Its progressive “pink revolution” has around 700,000 volunteers working in more than 200 organisations. Robredo not only challenges Duterte’s agenda, but the long-standing nostalgia for the original Marcos – another despot who failed to provide for his people in times of need.
The same could be said for Brazil’s Bolsonaro, who is up for re-election in October. The president rolled out the strongman’s playbook using misinformation to downplay the severity of Covid-19; by firing experts, like his Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who contradicted him by recommending social distancing; and rejected offers from vaccine manufacturers for the sick Brazilian population. Even cash transfer payments given to the poor as part of pandemic relief did not save his approval rating, which plummeted in November.
This fueled support for the opposition candidate, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a leftist jailed in 2018 for corruption and money laundering. Da Silva has always attributed these charges to political machinations, and they were recently overturned. He called Bolsonaro “an agent of genocide” for his pandemic negligence. A Brazilian congressional panel agrees; in October, he recommended that Bolsonaro be charged with “crimes against humanity”.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is adamant he’s not going anywhere, as he told local media in August: “My message is: only God take me out of this job,” suggesting he would refuse to accept electoral defeat. However, such authoritarian action risks turning out badly for him given his low popularity.
Around the world, the pandemic has accelerated in many a sense that the autocratic model of governance, with its suppression of freedoms, plunder of the environment and creation of oligarchies, has run its course.
The recent Chilean presidential elections could herald the rise of a new generation of leaders attentive to economic and racial inequalities and the costs of dismantling social safety nets. Leftist Gabriel Boric, a 35-year-old former student activist, beat former Congressman José Antonio Kast, 55, who praised Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and his regime notorious for violence and politics neoliberal.
This could be an early sign that a desire for more accountable, transparent and democratic leadership is emerging from the Covid-19 calamity.
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