Amidst the onset of an economic recession in 2008, the Wall Street Journal quoted former Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emmanual with his now-infamous phrase, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” While certainly not his intention, Emmanual’s quote underscores something autocrats know all too well: crisis awards opportunity.
In 2019, a year before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a global-health pandemic, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt wrote a New York Times piece entitled, “Why Autocrats Love Emergencies.” As it would seem, this article illuminates a sobering reality the world faces in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Levitsky and Ziblatt note that historically, “crises offer—would-be authoritarians an escape from constitutional shackles.”  Burdened by constitutional restraints and democratic institutions, emergency powers such as the ‘right to rule by decree’ provide ambitious leaders a unique chance to break free from these constitutional shackles. History is littered with examples of opportunistic leaders capitalizing on emergency powers to undermine democratic institutions, suppress resistance, and silence the free press.
The Reichstag Fire is probably the most conspicuous case. Framed as an attempt by communists to overthrow the German government, Hitler, alongside his cabinet, used the fire as a predicate to draft the Reichstag Fire Decree.  This document became a tool for Hitler to imprison political opponents and suppress opposition parties; it further imposed restrictions on the right to assemble, dissolving critical news outlets, and instituting limitations on free speech. With much of the Nazi’s opposition dealt with as a result, that March, the Reichstag passed the Enabling Act granting Hitler his dictatorial powers, particularly the right to rule by decree.  While this event is often the most cited example, it is by no means unique.
In 1969, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines became increasingly wary that his power was waning with rumors of a military coup and assassination plot circulating. To secure his position, Marcos took advantage of a wave of bombings between 1971-1972 and a failed assassination attempt targeted at his defense minister. In response to these attacks, Marcos signed Proclamation No. 1081.  Similar to the Enabling Act, through this action, Marcos gained the right to rule by decree. With this power, Marcos prohibited the assembly of Congress, outlawed critical media outlets, and ordered the arrest of a number of notable opposition leaders. Once again, emergency powers like the right to rule by decree presented an opportunity to undermine democratic institutions and consolidate power.
Within the last decade, a botched coup in 2016 attempting to oust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan led to a two-year state of emergency precipitating several illiberal constitutional reforms. Most notably, these reforms abolished the prime minister’s office, giving Erdogan the power to appoint ministers directly and the ability to dissolve parliament unilaterally. 
Unfortunately, amid this emerging crisis, opportunistic actors act no differently. Following the WHO’s declaration of COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 12th, several concerns have manifested.
Before the outbreak, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be on his way out. Failing to win re-election after a third attempt in early March and the subject of a looming corruption trial, everything seemed stacked against him. Nevertheless, amid crisis, opportunity presents itself. Faced with a corruption trial on March 17th, the previous Saturday, Netenyahu’s government announced a series of restrictions to curb the virus, including banning gatherings of more than ten people. The following day, Justice Minister Amir Ohana announced that due to the crisis, the court would operate at a reduced capacity, postponing Netenyahu’s trial until May 24th. By Wednesday, Israeli speaker of the House, Yuli Edelstein, closed parliament, claiming that the crisis jeopardized efforts to form a unity government, prompting concerns over a potential coup.
Further restrictions were expanded on March 19th when Netanyahu formally declared a state of emergency, issuing a mandatory seven-day lockdown. With the parliament and judiciary neutralized, and restrictions on organizing public gatherings imposed, Netenyahu, for at least a few days, was untouchable.
Even with recent news of his primary opponent, Benny Gantz, agreeing to form a unity government and the Knesset reconvening, Netenyahu’s disregard of democratic norms and overall illiberal behavior, least to mention his abuse of the Palestinian people, are alarming. As it stands, no agreement has been formally settled between the two rivals, his trial remains postponed, and the impact of the virus is still in its infancy. If Israel’s current response to the crisis is any indication, Netanyahu not only retains the capacity to consolidate further control, he is willing to.
In Hungary, on March 30th, the National Assembly passed the ‘Coronavirus Bill,’ granting Prime Minister Victor Orban the right to rule by decree indefinitely, in addition to criminalizing news media that either “alarms or agitates” the public.  While this development is still relatively recent, and its consequences have yet to fully manifest: precedent warrants concern. Already the subject of Article 7 sanctions by the EU, Orban’s government has a history of undermining the rule of law within Hungary and suppressing oppositional dissent.
Since Orban’s government ascended to power, his party, Fidesz, has continuously sought to curtail judicial independence. In 2011, Orban’s government passed legislation that fundamentally changed the processes by which judges were appointed to the constitutional court.  This change allowed Fidesz to appoint every seat on the court for the next four years.  More recently, in 2019, Hungary walked back on commitments made to the EU aimed at improving the independence of the courts.
On top of eroding Hungary’s judicial independence, the EU propagated Article 7 in response to several reports of Orban’s government suppressing critical journalism.
In October 2013, Orban forced the closure of Hungary’s largest independent newspaper, Népszabadság, prior to a controversial referendum that the publication adamantly opposed. This record, in tandem with Orban’s ability to now rule by decree, signals a significant benchmark for democratic erosion in Europe.
In India, restrictions on gatherings have all but dissipated protests against a highly controversial citizenship law passed in December. Comparably, on March 12th, President Nicolás Maduro declared a national health emergency prohibiting the congregation of mass public gatherings. In the months leading up to the virus, Maduro faced a rising opposition movement led by Juan Guaidó; However, with current attention focused on the pandemic and newly imposed restrictions, opposition activities have largely stagnated.
With guidelines released by the WHO recommending strict social-distancing measures, how can citizens organize against such power grabs? Under the pretense of curbing the virus, governments can now justifiably stifle protests and public dissent.
Not surprisingly, this trend is not isolated to democracies. Recent reports suggest that the pandemic is serving as a precipice for non-democratic leaders to further consolidate power.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), on March 25nd, Azerbaijani authorities arrested prominent opposition leader and ardent government critic, Tofig Yagublu. Three days before Yagublu’s arrest, President Ilham Aliyev released a statement implying that he would use measures aimed at addressing the pandemic to repress critical opposition.
“It is possible that a state of emergency may be declared at some point. In this case, the isolation of representatives of the fifth column will become a historical necessity—we cannot allow the anti-Azerbaijani forces—and national traitors to take advantage of this situation to commit various provocations.”Statement released by President of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev
Earlier that month, Azerbaijani police forces, void of a court order, shut down an office owned by an opposition party claiming that the activists could not “gather en masse” due to concerns over COVID-19.
Additionally, in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) capitalized on the divergence of media attention to jail members of the royal family who threatened his legitimacy. On March 7th, the same day Italy announced the first comprehensive lockdown in Europe, three senior princes of the royal family including the previous crown prince, Mohammed bin Nayef, were arrested on charges of treason. This revelation seems to be another apparent attempt on the part of MBS to secure his position and cement his authority.
The United States even appears to lack immunity to this phenomenon. Citing the pandemic as a justification for additional border restrictions, on March 21st, Politico reported that the Department of Justice submitted a proposal to Congress that would give the administration unprecedented emergency powers. To summarize the request, the Attorney General would gain the authority to instruct chief judges to pause ongoing court proceedings “whenever the district court is fully or partially closed by virtue of any natural disaster, civil disobedience, or other emergency situation.”  In theory, these emergency powers would allow the administration to detain individuals without trial indefinitely. As unlikely as it is that a Democratically controlled House would approve such a request, it is no less an ominous sign.
President Trump does not feign his affinity for strongmen, unrestrained by ‘constitutional shackles’ and the rule of law. Often tweeting or declaring his adoration for less-than-democratic leaders like Vladimir Putin or Erdoğan, Trump covets their near-omnipotent authority. Already, the administration has been seeking to emulate these leaders, stacking the federal court with loyalists, purging executive agencies of critics, declaring a national emergency to secure funding not appropriated by Congress, and now, with the onset of a global crisis, Trump has another such opportunity. If the behavior of the administration or Trump’s veneration of unrestrained leaders suggests anything, it’s that they will likely continue to capitalize on this crisis.
With the nascency of this crisis and recent estimations suggesting COVID-19 could last through the fall of 2020, the global community can expect more cases of opportunistic leaders consolidating power and eroding democratic institutions. For leaders like Netanyahu, Orban, and Trump, COVID-19 is the cure for the constitutional shackles that restrain them.
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www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1972/09/21/proclamation-no-1081/.  “Turkey’s Powerful New Executive Presidency.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 22 June 2018, www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-election-factbox/turkeys-powerful-new-executive-presidency-idUSKBN1JI1O1.  “Abusing the State of Emergency.” Political Capital Policy Research and Consulting Institute,
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