Nearly a year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, its effects on people’s lives, countries’ economies and health care around the world are becoming clearer. In some Central and Eastern European countries, however, this pandemic has had repercussions in another crucial area: democracy. This begs the question of whether the COVID-19 pandemic is emboldening the rise of illiberal politics in certain parts of the region. Indeed, the US-based Freedom House concluded earlier this year that Hungary and Serbia are no longer democracies but are “in a ‘grey zone’ between democracies and pure autocracies.”
One democratic process affected by the COVID-19 pandemic around the world was elections. Indeed, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, elections have been canceled or postponed in at least 67 nations around the globe. Central and Eastern Europe was no exception. Serbia’s parliamentary election, originally set for April 26, was postponed by two months even though it was boycotted by much of the opposition due to the steady decline of democracy and media freedom in the country, resulting in a turnout of less than 50%.
The controversial election secured another term for President Aleksandar Vucic with over 60% of the vote, granting his Serbian Progressive Party 190 seats in the country’s 250-seat parliament. As a result of the election and in-person voting, while the rest of Europe is now in its second wave of the pandemic, Serbia is now in its third.
Europe’s Far Right Fails to Capitalize on COVID-19
Leading up to the elections in Poland, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party proposed a change to the constitution to postpone the election for two years due to the pandemic, automatically extending President Andrzej Duda’s term in office. In the end, elections were held in June and July, with Duda narrowly beating the opposition Civic Platform’s candidate.
Beyond elections, the pandemic has been used to mask legal and constitutional changes in the region. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s government first passed the Authorization Act during the first wave of the pandemic, effectively giving the prime minister the power to rule by decree. The government’s first action was to pass a law mandating that transgender people only be recognized by their sex at birth. The government also announced that disseminating “fake news” about the pandemic or the government’s response to it was a crime punishable by up to five years in prison.
As a result, although no one has yet been charged under the new laws, several people were arrested and detained after criticizing the government on social media, which some commentators likened to being picked up by the notorious black cars driven by the secret police during the communist era.
In November, as the country entered its second wave of the pandemic, the Orban government announced the Second Authorization Act for a period of 90 days. The following day, proposed amendments to the constitution were announced that would make it mandatory for children to be raised amid “Christian cultural values,” defining the mother as female and the father as male, as well as prohibiting changing gender after birth. These amendments bar same-sex couples from adopting, but single parents can request an exemption through special ministerial permission.
Additionally, one minute before midnight on the day before new curfew measures went into effect, the government proposed a change to the election law, making it impossible for coalitions to contest elections, effectively wiping out the opposition.
At the same time that Hungary adopted its first Authorization Act, Poland adopted the Act on Special Solutions Related to the Prevention, Counteracting and Combating of COVID-19, which was ultimately used by the Polish government and PiS to limit social dialogue. A few weeks later, the “Stop Abortion” bill was enacted by the Polish parliament. Already among the strictest abortion laws in Europe, the high court’s October ruling that it was unconstitutional to abort a fetus with congenital defects effectively baned all abortions, bar in the case of incest, rape or a danger to the mother’s health.
This new ruling was met with mass protests around the country, even spreading to church services in the devoutly Catholic Poland and seeing as many as 100,000 people on the streets of the capital Warsaw. This attack on women’s health was also met by a push to leave the European treaty on violence against women, known as the Istanbul Convention, citing that it is “harmful” for children to be taught about gender in schools. Hungary refused to ratify the treaty in May, stating that it promotes “destructive gender ideologies” and “illegal migration.”
It is likely that what the world is seeing in these countries is what Ozan Varol calls “stealth authoritarianism” that “serves as a way to protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option,” with the ultimate goal of creating a one-party state. The pandemic seems to be helping authoritarian leaders to secure their grip on power. In Serbia, Vucic gained popularity during the first wave and, even after criticism from the opposition and supporters alike, Orban maintained his popularity in Hungary, as shown in a recent Závecz Research poll.
Findings from interviews carried out as part of a project, Illiberal Turn, funded by the Economic & Social Research Council, suggest that while people were predominantly supportive of democracy in the months before the pandemic, some of those interviewed in Hungary, Poland and Serbia during the first wave in the spring seemed to have a change of heart, expressing more sympathies toward authoritarian forms of government. This trend is worrying, as it shows the potential effects that crisis can have on democratic values. These abuses of power in Central and Eastern Europe cannot be ignored. It is crucial to pay attention to how these times of crisis can further exacerbate the already existing illiberal tendencies across the region.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.