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The hour of the executive, or the crisis of authoritarianism: what effect does Corona have on populism?


The question of what effects the coronavirus pandemic will have on political systems worldwide has preoccupied political commentators since the beginning of the spread of the virus, when the extent of the current crisis was not at all yet apparent. This indicates a clear consciousness of crisis prior to the pandemic itself. By the end of 2019 it was already evident that a crisis of representation had intensified in most of the world’s states: within established democracies, populist and authoritarian parties and movements continued to grow in strength and this had led to the erosion of democratic institutions. Outside of Europe, such processes had often progressed so far that authoritarian emergency regimes had already been established. In August 2019, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung dedicated the meeting of its foreign staff to the topic of the “Globalization of Authoritarianism”.

Wolfram Schaffar is a political scientist who deals primarily with the topics of the democratization process and the erosion of democracy, social movements, alternative development policy, the internet, and social media. This article originally appeared in maldekstra #8. Translation by Joshua Rahtz.

When the epidemic assumed its global magnitude, analysts and observers soon concluded that corona, much like a magnifying glass, amplifies processes that were already underway before its spread. From this perspective, two different and contradictory expectations were formulated with respect to the continuing development of authoritarian regimes: on the one hand, it was often said that the corona crisis would bring down the new authoritarian populists. In March, the magazine Politico ran the headline “Coronavirus’s Next Victim: Populism”, and predicted the end of Johnson and Trump. Walden Bello's study “Could the Duterte Regime Be COVID-19’s Next Victim?" was likewise representative of many similar articles.

The authoritarian populists worldwide—according to this analysis—ignore scientific truths and secure their power by deceiving people through “simple solutions”. This analysis claims that the corona crisis is incorruptible, however, and that it ruthlessly exposes such strategies and the incompetence of the populists. But this image is problematic: it operates from the perspective that there is a true, rational way of doing politics that has been subverted by populists. The idea of unmasking assumes that, after a cathartic realization, the population will return remorsefully to the ballot box and vote better, or stand up for democracy. And it assumes that there is a better policy already available.

Some analysts have, however, predicted the opposite: the crisis is the “hour of the executive”. The increase in executive power associated with emergency measures will be used by authoritarian governments to further expand their power and authoritarian control. The new crisis will result in a greater intensification of the coarsening of politics; the remnants of liberal democratic institutions will continue to erode.

The interpretation of the processes unfolding before our eyes in countries such as the United States on the eve of its elections, Great Britain, Hungary, and Poland, oscillates between these two poles. By declaring an indefinite state of emergency justified by corona, Viktor Orbán appears to have shown the EU that he can accumulate unlimited power, if it was ever doubted. Jair Bolsonaro, on the other hand, appears to be progressively losing legitimacy due to his denial of corona’s dangers. Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, meanwhile, are judged by one standard as often as its opposite.

The idea that the corona crisis functions as an amplifier is somewhat limited. For most regimes, the coronavirus was a completely new entity and a surprise. Its appearance was completely exogenous and—unlike climate change—it did not announce itself, nor did it indicate who directly was to blame. What is emerging therefore is a situation resembling what Frank-Walter Steinmeier described in a mid-March interview: “Our response to this crisis will be part of the global debate about the best political system.” The crisis is generating a form of competition among systems. This is defined by three elements:

  • First, the political constellations that produced the authoritarian populists before the crisis continue to be potent. Authoritarian populism spread as a strategy of crisis management, and this new crisis only compounds this fact.
  • Second, the new crisis is quite severe and unexpected. It is overwhelming all existing political forces. (Significantly, all political forces in Germany are struggling equally—including the Left—to find the right political approach to the crisis).
  • Third, the crisis is not yet over. Up until now, governments have had the comparatively easy task of limiting people's short-term mobility under the impact of a global shock. This was relatively simple, because many were confident that they would only have to suspend their daily lives temporarily. The second wave, which is currently gathering momentum worldwide, brings much greater challenges: long-term changes in behaviour must be specified and enforced. These will affect people’s lives profoundly. In economic terms, it will mean job losses for many. Entire industries will likely shrink or perish. In this situation, one observes both a consolidation of already-established processes, but also ruptures and totally new developments.

What interests us about the question of corona’s influence on authoritarian regimes is not an academic question of regime development, but rather one of how democratization (in the emphatic sense) can be achieved. For this reason, the questions about the “disenchantment of the populists” caused by the corona pandemic do not go far enough, because they presuppose a former liberal-democratic norm to which a return would be desirable. They also assume a certain methodological nationalism.

There is much more to be observed beyond the continuation and intensification of known processes and a competition among systems, as Alex Demirović points out. He reminds us that democracy must always be fought for, and that these struggles break out in unexpected places, are carried forward by unexpected actors, and generate unanticipated dynamics.

A recent example is particularly telling in this regard: the most active pro-democracy movement in East and Southeast Asia is currently a transnational alliance between young people in the orbit of Korean K-Pop fans, who organize themselves through social media—Twitter and TikTok. During a mobilization against Trump’s election campaign event in Tulsa, these actors were noticed in the West for the first time.

Much more far-reaching, however, was a mobilization that emerged in mid-April under the hashtag #MilkTeaAlliance—a so-called meme war, in which over 1.5 million messages were posted and clicked on by several billion users within its first two days. The catalyst was a passing message from Thai pop star Bright, the main character in a homoerotic TV series of the “boys’ love” genre. As with K-Pop, this genre experienced a tremendous increase in popularity in Thailand, China, and other countries in East and Southeast Asia during the corona crisis lockdown.

Bright had passed on a message in which he referred to Hong Kong as a “country”. Nationalist Chinese fans interpreted this comment as criticism of the One China policy, and led an organized siege of his account. Unlike previous intimidation of this kind, where state-organized bloggers, the so-called “50 Cent Army” (among others) intervened in social media debates, this campaign provoked resistance: bloggers from Thailand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong repelled the attack by openly discussing matters like the growing authoritarianism in Thailand and China, the question of the monarchy in Thailand, the security laws in Hong Kong, sovereignty of Taiwan, but also the ecological impact of dam projects along the Mekong River. The debate was characterized by the self-effacing and indirect manner of formulating messages on TikTok. This is a format which aids young people in Thailand in undermining the draconian censorship of the military government.

In early August, Twitter exchanges detonated the largest protests since the 2014 coup. In the wake of the corona crisis, the military regime and the ever more absolutist monarchy were confronted by TikTok women in Harry Potter and Hamtaro costumes dancing around the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. Their message: “The king is naked".