By MFM Fawas –
Much before the coronavirus engulfed the entire world, global politics was seeing the emergence of strongman leaders across the borders. From Donald Trump to Narendra Modi, Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, these strongmen leaders were spread across different continents and regions. With the onset of COVID-19, people around the world have accepted the extraordinary infringements on their personal freedoms in order to combat the spread of the virus. However, strongmen leaders around the world have used the pandemic as a pretext to further reinforce their grip on power while failing poorly to control the health and economic fallout of the pandemic. Some strongmen leaders in order to main their “strength” have downplayed the pandemic, calling for life to continue as normal. These strongmen leaders have been hostile towards expert opinions and advice from the health officials and civil servants.
Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right Brazilian strongman president called the COVID-19 a “little flu” and stated that the Brazilians “natural immunity” will protect the nation. He refused to take action in order to protect the public and tried to block states from imposing social distancing measures. He also fired his health minister after he defended the World Health Organization’s recommendations. The replacement health minister quit in opposition to the president’s advocacy of an unproven drug to treat Covid-19. In the United States, then-President Donald Trump repeatedly lied about the pandemic making numerous statements such as “99%” of COVID-19 cases are totally harmless”, “Children are “virtually immune to COVID-19” continuously ignoring and silencing health experts such as Anthony Fauci. After he had contracted and recovered from the virus, Trump framed his sickness as a heroic act that needed to be done for his people. In a video posted on Twitter, Trump noted, “I stood out front. I led. Nobody that’s a leader would not do what I did. And I know there’s a risk, there’s a danger — but that’s okay,”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a strongman leader seized the emergency caused by COVID-19 to subvert the fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law. On 30 March 2020,the Hungarian parliament passed the Coronavirus Act that gave Viktor Orban unprecedented emergency powers, allowing the executive to rule by decree for an indefinite period. Even before the pandemic, since the last democratic elections in 2010, Viktor Orbán was heading toward authoritarianism by using countless methods to cement his hold on power. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, the strongman president Rajapaksa has used COVID-19 as a pretext to suppress dissent and crackdown on citizens’ rights and liberties. In 2020, the country for the first time in its history, went over three months without a functioning Parliament, with Gotabaya Rajapaksa ruling the country with no oversight or check on his executive powers. Though there were repeated calls to reconvene the dissolved Parliament, Gotabaya Rajapaksa refused to do so, stating that he does not have the power, despite the Constitution clearly stating the opposite. As such, during this period, Sri Lanka was governed entirely by the executive arm of government with no oversight over public finances. In the absence of the Parliament, the military was placed at the forefront of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s COVID-19 response. The head of the Sri Lankan Army, Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, was handpicked by Gotabaya Rajapaksa to lead the National Operation Center for Prevention of COVID- 19 Outbreak. From the beginning of the pandemic, armed forces were involved in the construction and running of quarantine centres, contact tracing, maintaining essential services.
Moreover, the curfews that were declared by the President in Sri Lanka since March 2020, does not have a proper legal basis. These curfews, which span over a large geographical area and affects the rights of millions of people, were issued through press releases issued by the Presidential Secretariat. Besides, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government response to COVID-19 has alienated health experts, the civil service, and promoted unscientific approaches to combat the virus. Former Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi, at one instance, poured “blessed water” into a river in order to end the pandemic, and publicly endorsed “magic potions” to fight the coronavirus. Also, amidst the COVID-19 outbreak, Gotabaya Rajapaksa pushed through the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, which removed crucial checks on the executive president and further strengthened his powers. In the latest attempt to further cement his already existing extraordinary powers, on 30th August President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a “state of emergency” under the Public Security ordinance. While the Rajapaksa government has noted that this state of emergency was necessary to deal with the food shortage the country is facing, there have been increased concerns that these extraordinary powers will further reinforce an already powerful strongman.
The extent of the consolidation of power by the world’s strongman leaders as a pretext to combating COVID-19 and the impact of such extraordinary powers on the fabric of democracy and the world order will only be realised in years to come.