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A viral threat to democracy … as leaders leverage COVID-19 for power.

Earlier this year, I wrote about a possible shift in regional politics, considering the number of general elections that were due to be held this year. But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the crippling economic and social effects that followed, as many nations took drastic measures to protect their citizens and “flatten the curve” of infections and COVID-19 related deaths.
Indeed, people in more than 190 countries have allowed their civil liberties to be significantly curtailed for the sake of the greater good. As governments scampered to control the rapid and inevitable spread of a once-in-a-century infection, citizens acquiesced, and stopped gathering in groups – indeed, in some countries, once can only venture out alone. Shopping, pharmaceuticals and life-essential goods and services are being rationed by surname and times to reduce panic-buying and mob-shopping, but incurring the hours-long wait to gather a precious few items to be paid for with increasingly scarce currency. The enjoyment of life and liberty is now largely limited to 6:00 pm, and in some places, only to the boundary of your private property.
Shrewd advisors know that one can’t simply implement a full State of Emergency on carefree and liberal Caribbean populations, so leaders across CARICOM (and the wider world) have chipped away at civil liberties to arrive at a de facto State of Emergency. Don’t get me wrong… I understand and appreciate the global measures being taken in response to the Novel Coronavirus threat, but it is now emerging that as authorities gain a greater understanding of pandemic control measures, they are also unwittingly gaining knowledge of political advantage.
You see, the measures to control the viral pandemic is also providing a brand new avenue for political leaders and power-brokers to extend and expand their grip on power, while subduing the organization and influence of dissent.
Many leaders – most notably our own Dr Timothy Harris – have declared the health crisis as a “war”, to justify many of the measures taken. This can only be interpreted as a political lifeline to prevent a sitting government from asking a Parliament for extraordinary Legislative actions to mitigate the situation. Also, it is a historical fact that governments that implement States of Emergency and similar population-control measures tend to lose at the polls, as populations respond to having their liberties curtailed.
The definition of “war” is a last-gasp straw for rogue leaders to extend their reign in office. Professor of Politics at Cambridge University, David Runciman, writes in The Guardian, “It is the stripping away of one layer of political life to reveal something more raw underneath. In a democracy, we tend to think of politics as a contest between different parties for our support. We focus on the who and the what of political life: who is after our votes, what they are offering us, who stands to benefit. We see elections as the way to settle these arguments. But the bigger questions in any democracy are always about how: how will governments exercise the extraordinary powers we give them? And how will we respond when they do?”
These questions about coercive power are being answered as we speak:
- In Hungary, a recent bill allows Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to rule by decree - indefinitely. It gives him the authority to punish journalists for inaccurate accurate; and hit citizens with heavy penalties for violating lockdown rules. The bill also prevents any elections or referendums from taking place while the measures are in effect.
- In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte - a man who arrests his critics and has boasted about personally killing suspected criminals during his time as mayor of Davao City - has secured emergency powers, giving him greater control of public services.
- Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approved the electronic tracking of patients, using technology that had previously only been used in the fight against terrorism.
- In Russia, Vladimir Putin has the police and military using facial recognition technology and over 170,000 cameras to crack down on hundreds of people violating quarantine and self-isolation. It’s being called the ‘cyber-gulag’.
In the region, the obfuscation of the Guyana general election continues to fester amid the crisis, with the Granger government seemingly quite content to power through each extra day of power, in the knowledge that any adverse word coming out of the PPP camp can be easily seen as politically disruptive, uncaring and unpatriotic. No one aspiring for the top job wants to be branded as such, so Opposition parties the world over are being cleverly muzzled.
Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, Nic Cheeseman, is wary of strongman leaders creating a “new normal” for their respective societies. "The worrying thing during a crisis is that leaders with authoritarian instincts can claim to only be doing what some established democracies are doing," says Cheeseman. But while robust democracies are expected to eventually roll back such measures, citizens in weak democracies might get saddled with them at the behest of the leader.
The mighty United States isn't immune to this paradigm, postures Professor Brian Klaas of the University College, London. "If a 'rally round the flag' mentality kicks in around the world, leaders could find ways to exploit it," says Klaas. "If you accept 9/11 made people happy to give up certain liberties, consider this: The Imperial study says there will be 2.2 million deaths in the US if there's no extreme and sustained government intervention. That's the equivalent of 9/11 happening nearly every day for over two years."
US President Donald Trump repeatedly back peddles on his own pronouncements on the pandemic issue, but his apparent fumbling and bumbling seem to have had a rather fortuitous consequence – throwing the Democratic Presidential machinery into disarray and confusion. At this writing, 15 states have delayed their presidential primaries, with a lot of discussion as to what happens on November 10, the constitutionally-set date this year for the US Presidential election. It’s tough for Trump to even think about toying with the sanctity of the constitution, especially without the support of Democrats. So, no matter what he does, unless he wins an election, by midday on January 20 next year, he will simply no longer be President.
The clinical nature of US law does not readily translate the same way for Commonwealth nations. Prime Minister Harris predictably proclaimed an extension of restrictions for our nation for another five months. This is after the Team Unity government ostensibly, publicly leaked a document seeking lockdown measures for another year. There was no riot… but wait… rioting would be a breach of the restrictions. So damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. The opposition’s got to keep their mouths shut and their tails inside their house.
The situation is an uncanny reminder of a society under Nazi rule – pogroms et al – where free speech and community meetings were effectively outlawed; where views opposing the State were branded as “rebel” and “traitorous”; and where fear and cultist policies were the main ingredients of government and authority.
What has actually happened in St Kitts and Nevis, is that Harris, a man who was thrust into power by quite a spectacular accident, now simply does not seem to know how to run a country. A synopsis of the past five years has shown scant few positives, such as roadworks and minor infrastructure projects; but most people – regardless of party colour – will remember this administration as one that paid killers to keep quiet, ignored the education system, and then cut vocational programme funding for the increased number of high-school dropouts.
But most poignantly, it the obvious absence of the Minister of Health and the skittishness and insecurity of his Junior Minister that has really deflated Kittitians and Nevisians alike.
It certainly looks like just another yellow or orange herring that’s being tossed our way; let the people focus on grocery days and wonder where Eugene Hamilton and Wendy Phipps are, while the Harris family extends and cements their reign on power and the public purse.

 

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Joel B. Liburd
Communications Consultant
Basseterre/Quebec

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