Some of Europe’s leaders have been accused of taking advantage of a public health crisis to clamp down on dissent and bolster their power.
As Turkey arrests hundreds for social media posts and Russians are threatened with jail for anything considered fake news, there are fears that democracy is being jeopardised in Poland and that it has been swept away in Hungary.
BBC correspondents assess whether coronavirus is being used as cover for a power grab.
Hungary: ‘Suicide’ of parliament grants Orban extraordinary powers
Hungary’s powerful Prime Minister Viktor Orban stands accused at home and abroad ofusing the coronavirus crisis to grab even more power, instead of uniting the country.
First his Fidesz government declared a state of danger on 11 March, winning valuable time to prepare for the pandemic. But it then used its majority in parliament to extend that indefinitely, so the government now has the power to rule by decree for as long as necessary and can decide itself when the danger is over.
Critics speak of an end to Hungary’s democracy, but the justice minister insists the “Authorisation Act” will expire at the end of the emergency and it was both necessary and proportionate.
Is it the end of democracy? Constitutional law expert Prof Zoltan Szente warns the pandemic could easily be used to maintain the government’s extraordinary powers.
As it is the exclusive power of the government to decide when to end the state of danger, he says parliament has actually “committed suicide” by waiving its right of control over the government.
In theory there are still three checks on Viktor Orban’s power:
- Parliament remains in session unless the pandemic stops it
- The Constitutional Court still functions
- A general election takes place in 2022
But Mr Orban’s Fidesz party has a decisive majority in parliament and all by-elections and referendums are postponed until the end of the emergency.
The Constitutional Court is already packed with Orban favourites but the one remaining thorn in the prime minister’s side is the largely independent judiciary.
The ruling party needs to maintain its two-thirds majority in parliament to appoint a new Supreme Court president at the end of 2020. Then Mr Orban’s power would be almost unassailable.
Turkey: ‘Moment of opportunity’ for Erdogan
Turkey’s combative leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, does not need to use the coronavirus outbreak to usurp power because he has so much already. That is the view of human rights campaigners here.
“There is such a centralised system there’s no need to have a further power grab,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey Director for Human Rights Watch.
However, she says there was an opportunistic attempt to “test the water” with proposals to increase control on social media companies. They were “buried deep” in a bill dealing mainly with economic measures to cushion the impact of the virus.
The aim, she says, was “to strong-arm social media platforms to submit to government control and censorship”. The draft amendments were suddenly dropped but Ms Sinclair-Webb expects them to make a comeback in the future.
Turkey’s government is determined to control the narrative during the crisis. Hundreds have been arrested for “provocative posts” about Covid-19 on social media.
Few doctors have dared to speak out. “Hiding the facts and creating a monopoly of information unfortunately became the way this country is being ruled,” says Ali Cerkezoglu of the Turkish Medical Association. “Doctors, nurses and health workers have got used to it in the past 20 years.”
Lawyer Hurrem Sonmez worries the outbreak is a moment of opportunity for President Erdogan. “Society, and the opposition, are weaker because of the pandemic,” says Ms Sonmez, who has represented defendants in free speech cases.
“Everyone has the same agenda – the virus. The priority is to survive. There is a serious concern that the situation can be misused by this government.”
Russia: Pandemic frustrates Putin’s ambitions
Back in January, the Kremlin thought it had everything worked out.
It would rewrite the Russian Constitution, primarily to allow Vladimir Putin to stand for two more terms in office. Then it would hold a triumphant “national vote” on 22 April for Russians to back the changes. The president’s critics called it a “constitutional coup”, but it seemed a done deal.
Covid-19, though, has put everything on hold. President Putin has had to postpone the ballot: after all, how can you call people to come out and vote in the middle of a pandemic? The Kremlin’s problem now is that, if and when the ballot does take place, endorsing a new Constitution may well be the last thing on Russian minds.
Coronavirus lockdown is set to decimate the economy here, with predictions of a two-year long recession and millions of job losses.
Russians tend to blame local officials and bureaucrats, not central authority, for their everyday problems. But history shows that when people here experience acute personal economic pain, they turn their ire on their country’s leader. Such pain now seems inevitable.
That may explain why the Kremlin leader recently delegated power to regional governors to fight the coronavirus: now they share the responsibility.
President Putin’s supporters, including state media, will argue that in a national crisis Russia requires strong, stable leadership more than ever – in other words: that the Putin era should be extended. As for Kremlin critics, they have already accused the authorities of using the pandemic to tighten control.
A new law rushed through parliament imposes tough punishments on people convicted of spreading what is deemed to be false information about coronavirus: fines equivalent to $25,000 or up to five years in prison. There are concerns about surveillance systems being rolled out to enforce quarantine.
Lockdown also means that opposition protests cannot take place: mass gatherings are currently banned to prevent the spread of the virus.
Poland: Is government risking lives to keep hold on power?
Poland’s governing party is being accused of recklessly endangering lives by pushing ahead with May presidential elections during the pandemic. President Andrzej Duda, a government ally, has seen his poll numbers rise during the pandemic and is clear favourite to win.
The ruling Law and Justice party argues it is constitutionally obliged to hold the election and a postal-only vote is the safest solution under lockdown.
That is its preferred option, but it is also backing a proposal to change the constitution to allow President Duda to serve another two years, as long as he cannot seek re-election.
The opposition says a postal vote risks voters, postal workers and election staff. The EU and Poland’s own electoral commission have also raised concerns about holding the vote.
There is a legal way to wait, the opposition insists, by declaring a state of natural disaster that bans elections whilst extraordinary measures are in force and for 90 days afterwards. The government says declaring extraordinary measures would make it liable for crippling compensation claims.
If elections do go ahead in May, they would not be fair, human rights groups say, because candidates have suspended campaigning while the incumbent still enjoys widespread media coverage helping the government and visiting health care workers.
If the election were postponed, Poland may well be in the midst of a recession, and Mr Duda’s chances of re-election could be substantially diminished. Were an opposition candidate elected, the new president’s power of veto could significantly disrupt the government’s ability to push through its programme for the next three and a half years.
“This is a text book example of how to gain the biggest benefit from the crisis and to remain in power,” Malgorzata Szuleka, a lawyer for the Helsinski Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw told the BBC.