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Covid-19 and Democratic Backsliding: A Tale of Two Different Pandemics 

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The post-pandemic era has introduced us to brand-new problems: there is a war in Europe, inflation is still an issue, and autocrats continue to pose a threat to our democracy. Turkey under Erdogan and Hungary under Orban are two great examples of how the pandemic led populist leaders to maintain their authoritarian agenda while also taking away our rights and freedom. As it turns out, there was another virus we were fighting: democratic backsliding.  

As we try to adapt to what many people call ”the new normal”, it is important to bear in mind what this new normal brought together into our lives. The pandemic not only took the lives of our loved ones but also imprisoned us in our homes, costing us our mental health. It introduced us to what a curfew is. While we were home baking banana bread and watching famous actors singing Imagine by John Lennon, autocrats in power were busy thinking about the ways to consolidate the power of their regimes. As it turns out, Covid-19 wasn’t the only virus we were fighting: there was also democratic backsliding that would have long-lasting impacts just like Covid did.  

Even before Covid, the world wasn’t in the right direction. Was the world ever in the right direction, you might rightfully ask. However, there is a considerable difference between the pre-pandemic and post-pandemic eras when it coms to the state of democracy. Democratic backsliding proved to be one of the symptoms of Covid. While authoritarian regimes became even more authoritarian, flawed democracies also moved further in the dark path. In this article, I will focus on how the cases of Hungary and Turkey changed from the pre to the post pandemic era.  

In Turkey, Erdogan’s regime not only struggled with handling the pandemic but also further impaired democracy and corrupted the state. In the beginning of the pandemic, the Erdogan administration banned the sales of masks, claiming that the government would distribute them for free. Meanwhile, Turkish people struggled with accessing masks in the first days of the pandemic. There was also disbelief in the government’s reportings, given that independent agencies reported differently about the severity of the pandemic at the time. The regime continued to target seculars, whether by banning the sale of alcohol for no apparent reason or further demonizing queers. The government banned playing music at bars after evening and didn’t lift this measure even after the pandemic, portraying it as a precaution to fight Covid. Freedom of association was already impaired by the regime, and the pandemic made it worse. Erdogan used the pandemic as an excuse to ban protests for a very long time. Whenever Turks took to the streets, whether protesting about femicides or inflation, Erdogan’s government cited the pandemic as the reason not to allow such gatherings to happen. Curfews were announced all of a sudden, without notifying the public earlier. This caused the resignation of a prominent minister in Erdogan’s cabinet, although Erdogan didn’t accept his resignation. Later on, Erdogan rejecting ministers’ resignations became a norm, clearly demonstrating that “his” ministers are not even capable of making their own decisions under his one-man rule.  

Related:  Monday Briefing 24/04/2023

It is important to mention two key events that happened in this period that significantly damaged Turkish democracy. Erdogan appointed an ally yet incompetent rector to the most prestigious university in Turkey, the Bogazici University. It is known to be a leading liberal arts university in Turkey, and it used to elect its rector through discussions among faculty members. However, this time Erdogan appointed someone he trusts, overriding the opinion of Bogazici faculty and students. This decision sparked protests in the Bogazici campus and all around Istanbul for weeks. The police used excessive force to disperse protestors. The Erdogan administration called the protestors “terrorists” multiple times and jailed university students. One person was detained for carrying an LGBTI+ flag with her.  

Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention is the other key event worth mentioning. The Istanbul Convention is a Council of Europe Treaty aiming to protect women and queers from the violnce of any kind, and bears the name from the city it was signed in. The withdrawal decision was problematic, and so was also the way Turkey withdrew. According to the Constitution, only the Parliament has the right to withdraw from a treaty previously ratified. However, Erdogan issued an unlawful decree to bypass Parliament. Both events were seen as an effort by Erdogan to further consolidate his Islamic-ultra-nationalist base by demonizing the other.  

On the other hand, the pandemic introduced the European Union to a new authoritarian regime: Hungary. At the beginning of the pandemic, Prime Minister Victor Orban’s administration proposed an emergency law to grant extraordinary powers to the Prime Minister with no time limit. Hungary wasn’t that affected by the pandemic at the time, but Orban wanted more power and less checks and balances. Freedom House immediately downgraded Hungary’s status from a democracy to a hybrid regime, the only one in the European Union.  

Orban’s regime started to target women and queers just like Erdogan’s regime did. The notion of a “strong family” came into people’s daily discussions as right-wing populists tend to argue that granting the most basic rights to queers harms the strong family. His administration passed laws to reduce limits on executive power while also restricting constitutional review. He pressured civil society and opposed the type of pluralism we were used to seeing in any European society. There were serious concerns about media freedom as well. Orban intended to build a self-censoring, pro-government media to control his political narrative. The election law, too, was modified to favor Orban’s party Fidesz in parliamentarian elections. With all these actions, Orban coined a new term to define his regime: illiberalism.  

Related:  Monday Briefing 06/12/2022

An illiberal democracy is a regime where there still are elections taking place but other elements of democracy are significantly flawed. What we have been seeing in Hungary, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, is an important example of democratic backsliding. Orban’s illiberal rule not only corrupted public institutions but also took away people’s most fundamental rights. Despite everything, Orban was able to win a majority in Parliament in 2022. The unification of the opposition under an alliance named “United for Hungary” wasn’t enough to deny Orban a supermajority. Interestingly, the 2022 general elections coincided with a referendum concerning LGBTI+ rights. Orban aimed to play identity politics and consolidate his base by demonizing queers. However, the opposition’s efforts led by human rights activists were successful, and the result of the referendum was invalid. Hungarian human rights groups succeeded at convincing voters to give invalid answers to referendum questions to “help ensure that the government’s exclusionary referendum does not reach the validity threshold.” 

Besides, there are differences between Turkey and Hungary to point out. First, Hungary is a member of the European Union, and Turkey is not. Being an EU country brings some responsibilities together, and there are penalties to enforce for those failing theirs. For example, the Union adopted a new mechanism in 2020 that allows the EU to suspend funding for a member state with deficiencies in the rule of law. The European Commission previously triggered this mechanism and proposed to freeze funding to Hungary. They adopted the measure, later lowering the freezing of funds as they needed Hungary to approve Ukraine aid. However, with Turkey, there is no such mechanism to restrain Erdogan. Furthermore, the popularity of Orban and Erdogan is also different. Although Erdogan managed to portray himself as a charismatic leader for decades, he struggled in the general elections in 2015 and local elections in 2019- where his party lost in Istanbul and Ankara after more than 20 years. He is now polling below 45%, while the support for his ruling party is around 35%. Orban, on the other hand, has managed to protect his voter base despite serious criticism raised by the EU allies and the united opposition. 

Related:  Tra i Leoni n. 101, December 2022

All in all, illiberal regimes leading Turkey and Hungary share some similar elements: the notion of  “strong family and traditional values” was used extensively to appeal to the masses, queers  were demonized, state institutions were corrupted, media was taken under control, and checks and balances mechanism on the executive power was harmed. Orban was able to maintain his majority despite a unified opposition, and now Erdogan seems to be struggling against the united opposition. Erdogan and Orban both took advantage of the pandemic to gain more power, and democratic backsliding continues to be a major problem not only in Turkey and Hungary but also in Europe and beyond. While the people were struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic, authoritarianism proved to be just as dangerous. 

Author profile

I am an Istanbulite trying to adapt to life in Milan. I study political science here at Bocconi, and it is my first year. My interests include politics, the environment, culture, and society. I feel like it is my job to stay up to date about pop culture and socio-political events happening all around the world, and I see myself on a mission to create a better everyday life for people and the planet.

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