The corona virus and democracy

Spoiler: The number of democracies has fallen during the last decade. For the first time since 2002, there are now more autocracies than democracies in the world. The EU now has its first autocracy, Hungary.

The Polish government is following close in the path to autocracy. The governments in Hungary and Poland have systematically attacked the media’s and judiciary’s independence the last years. Without an independent media and judiciary, the regimes’ next step on the road to autocracy is to manipulate the elections.

The corona virus has made it necessary to implement measures restricting the freedom om movement and assembly. While these are justifiable measures which will be revoked in most countries, the Hungarian government wants to use the state of emergency powers in ways that violate civil rights also after the Corona crisis is over.

These developments are deeply worrying. Russia under Putin provides a horrifying example of how autocratic leaders abuse their powers at the expense of human rights.

Governments’ ambitions to protect us from becoming infected by the Coronavirus are restricting our freedoms of movement and assembly. In France, people need to produce a signed attestation that they’re leaving their homes for reasons approved by the government. Public meetings, demonstrations and in some countries, crowds are defined to consist of more than two people. It seems we’re back in the USSR unless you’re in Belarus, where president Lukashenko assures you that being on a hockey rink keeps you safe.

In order to contain the spread of the virus, governments are using or planning to use mobile phone data which track our movements. A technique which so far has mostly been used in China for surveillance of the people. George Orwell would probably not feel comfortable with these interventions in peoples’ lives. Nor do I. Even though I live in Sweden, which by many is considered as the most relaxed or irresponsible country, I detest violations of civil rights.

Yes, the restrictions mentioned above, are violations of civil rights even if they’re implemented for our safety and health. Which, by the way, happens to be arguments that dictators have used in the past to control and contain people.

Maybe I’m too pessimistic. All these measures restricting our freedom will surely be lifted once the corona crisis is gone. But people in some countries have more reasons than I to be wary of what their governments are doing now. This year’s Democracy report from the democracy project at the university of Gothenburg, Varieties of Democracy, brings sad news:


Autocratization – the decline of democratic traits – accelerates in the world: for the first time since 2001, autocracies are in the majority: 92 countries – home to 54% of the global population. Almost 35% of the world’s population live in autocratizing nations – 2.6 billion people.


The attacks on democracy which, the authors coin “The third wave of autocratization”, are affecting people in for example Brazil, India, the United States of America, and Turkey, Hungary and Poland but also in Latin America and Central Asia. Since Hungary and Poland are the countries closest to me, I’ll devote major parts of this post to developments in those countries.

Autocracies and democracies are classified on the basis of de-facto implementations of democratic institutions and processes (Lührmann, A. et al (2018)). They distinguish between four different types of political regimes: closed autocracies, electoral autocracies, electoral democracies and liberal democracies, c.f. Table 1.

Source: Lührmann, A. et al (2018) (, p 63.



Democracy on retreat


The declining number of closed autocracies that took place especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been reversed and started to rise again after 2012. Syria and Uzbekistan are examples of countries that transformed in this way. The number of electoral democracies began to rise at the expense of democracies around 2010 and the largest increase occurred between 2018 and 2019. Between those years, in total 8 countries were de-classified from democracies to autocracies, c.f. Figure 1.

Figure 1. Autocracies and democracies 1970-2019.

Source: Autocracies and democracies in the right panel are sums of closed and electoral autocracies and electoral and liberal democracies respectively. Countries that became independent due to the break-ups of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, have all been classified as closed autocracies during the years preceding the break-ups.



Also in the EU


These developments take place also inside the EU. As I discussed in this post, Hungary and Poland have taken steps to limit the freedom and independence of the media and the judiciary which have prompted the EU Commission to react. On April the 8th, 2020, the European Court of Justice, issued a court order, ordering Poland to immediately suspend a new disciplinary regime for judges which would seriously put the independence of the judiciary into question. Staffan Lindberg, professor of Political Science in Gothenburg and manager of the V-Dem project, raises concerns of governments who use the corona crisis to implement measures which can have adverse effects on the democracy and its institutions in countries after the crisis is over.

Measures that restrict our freedom of movement and assembly can be justified for health reasons. But implementing laws against “disinformation” as in Hungary and Poland and forbidding the state-controlled media to discuss certain subjects or even mention Greta Thunberg, such as in Hungary are unacceptable restrictions of media freedom.


Where Hungarian and Polish governments may use the Corona crisis as an excuse to increase executive powers at the expense of the parliaments


The Hungarian government’s attempt to abuse the powers of state emergency have triggered reactions also from the Council of Europe which raises fears that the emergency measures restricting fundamental human rights in excess of what is necessary to combat the effects of the corona virus. The proposed emergency law will allow Orbán to rule with decrees without consulting the parliament.

The law, which was passed by the the Hungarian parliament, on March 30, by a two-thirds majority allows Orbán to rule by decree without a set time limit. Further consequences of the new legislation are that no by-elections can be held and Orbán’s government will be able to suspend the enforcement of certain laws. And if that wasn’t horrifying enough, individuals who publicize what the authorities view as untrue or distorted facts — and which the authorities think could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people — now face several years in jail. The Hungarian president approved the legislation immediately and obediently. And removing the law isn’t that easy as it also requires a two-thirds vote of the parliament and a president that signs.


The Polish government abused, end of March 2020, the current crisis to violate its constitution and push an election law through the parliament in order to make a PiS election victory more likely. The Polish opposition parties fear that re-electing president Duda would mean that the PiS party leader Kaszynski would, for several years ahead, be able to concentrate power. PiS already controls the lower chamber of the parliament, the government, parts of the judiciary and the public media.

These new developments follow upon the last years’ attacks on the media and civil societies in Poland. In this respect, the Polish government is following the bad example of Orbán in Hungary whose government has turned the country to an autocracy according to V-Dem. The situation in Poland is not yet as dire but, as mentioned above, may deteriorate if the government uses the current corona crisis to strengthen its executive power at the expense of the parliament, c.f. Figure 2.

Figure 2. Autocracy and democracy in Hungary and Poland 1977-2019

Source: Note: The vertical axis ranges from 0 to 3 where 0 indicates a closed autocracy, 1 an electoral autocracy, 2 an electoral democracy and 3 a liberal democracy.



Attacks on the media and civil society are followed by attempts to rig the elections


The analyses which are presented in V-Dem’s annual report, show how the way to autocracy is paved. A common pattern in countries that turn to autocracies, are attacks on the media and repressions of the civil society. Once these alternative sources of information are under control, the governments begin to manipulate the elections. This pattern is especially visible in the Hungarian developments, c.f. Figure 3.

Figure 3. The way to autocracy is paved with attacks on the civil society and media.

Source: Note: The indicators range from 0 to 4 where 0 indicates a conditions characteristic for autocracies. Please also note that the figure above is a rip-off of parts of Figure 11 on page 17 in this report: 



And it helps to undermine the courts’ independence


Attacking media freedom and civil society organisations are not the only measures which autocratic governments implement to prevent opponents from holding them accountable. The above-mentioned attacks often go hand in hand with attacks on the judiciary. The Hungarian government’s attacks began earlier than in Poland where the attacks, especially on the judiciary in general became more frequent 2015 when PiS won the elections. Shortly after, the Polish judiciary and Supreme Court’s independence was under attack.

As I showed here, also corruption is stronger in autocratic countries since control over the media and the judiciary allow economic and political elites to enrich themselves. Even though there are signs of increasing autocracy in Poland, the level of corruption is just as weak, or weaker than in many other democratic countries. One reason may be that Poland as the only post-communist country, discussed more here, does not have an oligarchy with close ties to the political elites. However, the increasing strength of corruption in Hungary is strongly associated with the negative effects the government’s policies have had on liberal democracy, c.f. Figure 4. 

Figure 4. Attacks on the judiciary and regime corruption in Hungary and Poland.

Source: Note: The indicators Attacks on the judiciary and High court independende range from 0 to 4 where 0 indicates conditions characteristic for autocracies. The indicator Regime corruption range from 0 to 1 where 0 indicates conditions characteristic for democracies.



Human Rights Watch and Freedom House raise our awareness about how the corona outbreak affects human rights. Governments also in other countries than those mentioned above, use the current crises to implement measures to restrict civil liberties and strengthen executive powers. As for Hungary and Poland, there are justifiable fears that such powers will not be reversed once the crisis over. The number of autocratic regimes may continue to rise in the coming years.


It looks bad but it could be worse. When the Kremlin regime goes after its critics, it doesn’t make halt at murder


Russia under Putin offers a particularly frightening example of violation of human rights and abuse of executive powers which I showed in this post.

Political opponents, journalists, members of civil society organisations in Hungary and Poland are safe and need not fear to be killed. Such fears are however justifiable in Russia, c.f. Figure 5.

Figure 5. Freedom from political killings in Hungary, Poland and Russia.

Source: Note: The indicator range from 0 to 4 where 0 indicates that political killings are practiced systematically and they are typically incited and approved by top leaders of government and 4 indicates non-existence of politically motivated killings.



However, since both Hungary and Poland are members in the EU, its governments are not free to violate their citizens’ civil rights. EU citizens’ civil rights are guaranteed in the EU treaties. But the Treaty is not perfect. As discussed in this post, the Treaty should be revised in order to prevent Member States’ from blocking Article 7 decisions. And the article only allows for revoking a Member State’s right to vote in the European Council. There are no rules for to throw a Member State out of the EU.

The EU Commission is currently evaluating how Hungary’s and other Member States’ emergency measures conflict with fundamental rights and the European Parliament will most certainly raise this with Hungary. MEPs have started a petition demanding that emergency measures must have a deadline, that journalists and civil society organisations are not restricted in their work, that the EU Commission takes actions against Hungary such as channelling EU funds directly to the people of Hungary instead of to the Hungarian authorities. Some Member States have already stated their concerns about Orbáns deconstructing of democracy in Hungary:

“Emergency measures should be limited to what is strictly necessary, should be proportionate and temporary in nature, subject to regular scrutiny, and respect the aforementioned principles and international law obligations. They should not restrict the freedom of expression or the freedom of the press.

We need to jointly overcome this crisis and to jointly uphold our European principles and values on this path. We therefore support the European Commission initiative to monitor the emergency measures and their application to ensure the fundamental values of the Union are upheld, and invite the General Affairs Council to take up the matter when appropriate.”


Read more:

Freedom House (2018). “Hostile takeover: How law and justice captured Poland’s courts”. Nations in transit. Brief.

Lührmann, A. et al. (2018). ” Regimes of the World (RoW): Opening New Avenues for the Comparative Study of Political Regimes”.

Anna Lührmann, Seraphine F. Maerz, Sandra Grahn, Nazifa Alizada, Lisa Gastaldi, Sebastian Hellmeier, Garry Hindle and Staffan I. Lindberg. 2020. “Autocratization Surges – Resistance Grows. Democracy Report 2020.” Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem).

3 thoughts on “The corona virus and democracy

  1. Pingback: How to turn a country into a corrupt autocracy – the Orbán way. | Globalisation, furry animals and anything but fishing

  2. Pingback: World Press Freedom Day 2020 | Globalisation, furry animals and anything but fishing

  3. Pingback: Another corrupt year passed by | Globalisation, furry animals and anything but fishing

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