Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban arrives at an European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium October 17, 2018. Orban has seized the power to rule by decree in Hungary and crush political opponents in the name of combatting the coronavirus.POOL New/Reuters

Stephen Holmes is a professor at the New York University School of Law.

Ivan Krastev is a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, the chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Sofia and a founding board member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

They are the authors of The Light That Failed: A Reckoning, the winner of the 2020 Lionel Gelber Prize.

In the opening scene of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the eponymous hero struggles to identify the cause of a plague laying waste to his city, Thebes. As it turns out, the outbreak was not only provoked by his own actions but can be wiped out only by his own death or banishment. This story suggests that “the god of plague” can destroy any ruler who stakes his reputation on defeating it.

Could this be why so many leaders obsessed with projecting an image of their own omnipotence have met the current pandemic with magical thinking, cowardly blame shifting and a weirdly dazed immobility?

More than any other crisis, a public health emergency can induce people to accept restrictions on their liberties in the hope of improving their personal security. Invasive surveillance systems and bans on freedom of assembly have been introduced around the world with little public pushback. And the striking example of Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who has seized the power to rule by decree and crush political opponents in the name of combatting the virus, gives us grounds to fear that the current health crisis (and the economic downturn it has set in motion) can embolden other populists in their quest for unchecked power.

But are the restrictions on individual freedom imposed in response to COVID-19, restrictions that forbid not only anti-government protests but also strutting military parades and strident pro-government rallies, genuinely favourable to authoritarian concentrations or seizures of power?

Political theorists are correct that authoritarian leaders thrive on crises and are fluent in the politics of fear. Yet, not all crises are amenable to authoritarian solutions. Nor does every form of public fear accrue to the benefit of political power. The crises authoritarians most enjoy are those they have manufactured themselves – or that at least permit them to showcase their imagined strengths. Carl Schmitt was right to say that dictators aspire to wield the power of God to work miracles. But the Almighty is never asked to solve problems thrust upon Him by an unpredictably changing world that He has not created and over which He exercises minimal control.

The last-minute postponement of a presidential election in Poland, previously scheduled for May 10, is a good example of how COVID-19 can thwart populist power grabs. The government was determined to organize an election in the midst of the pandemic, against the will of the majority of Poles, assured by opinion polls that the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, would easily win today but might not fare so well later, when the public has had a chance to evaluate the ruling party’s response to the crisis. As one opposition candidate remarked on the decision to postpone the election, “it turns out that reality is not as flexible as Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s mind” – a reference to the leader of the ruling Law and Justice party.

Only by displaying their unconstrained freedom to choose which crisis warrants a response can leaders project an image of godlike power. COVID-19 has eliminated this freedom to choose. In pre-COVID-19 Russia, President Vladimir Putin could easily “solve” one crisis by conjuring up another. He managed to reverse the decline of his popularity after the protest movement of 2011-12 by dramatically annexing Crimea. In pre-COVID-19 America, long before he assured the public that the coronavirus would soon miraculously disappear, U.S. President Donald Trump recklessly dismantled the federal government’s emergency-response capacity on the apparent assumption that only emergencies of his own imagining, such as migrant caravans from Mexico, would occur.

As a seemingly unstoppable crisis that has riveted the attention of the world, COVID-19 deprives authoritarian and authoritarian-minded leaders of the chance to manufacture a “better crisis.” That is why Mr. Orban is the exception who proves the rule. Far from citing the coronavirus crisis to justify an increase in power, a number of populists and autocrats have strenuously and risibly denied the very existence of the pandemic. Among them we find Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, Turkmenistan’s autocratic President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov and Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega. A professor of international relations in Sao Paulo has labelled them the “Ostrich Alliance.” But they are not the only aspiring tyrants who, afraid of appearing helpless in the face of a raging plague, have plunged their heads into the sands of COVID-19 denialism.

Political leaders in general prefer “enemies” who can unconditionally surrender to anonymous “threats” that need to be managed over time. Would-be dictators, in particular, find it more rewarding to pose as “deciders” than to do the hard work required of “problem solvers.” The former allows them to vaunt their I-alone-can solve-it unilateralism, while the latter requires them to co-operate with others, to freely admit their own mistakes and to spend the time needed to master complex and evolving situations. Flashy stunts by men of action must give way to slow and laborious efforts by anonymous professionals.

It is not simply that authoritarian leaders despise crises they have not freely chosen and which require them to stake their prestige on co-operatively resolving problems that, at the outset, are difficult to understand. They also spurn “exceptional situations” that compel them to respond with standardized rules and protocols rather than with ad hoc, discretionary moves. Mundane behaviours such as physical distancing, self-isolation and washing hands are the best way to stop the spread of the disease. The leader’s strokes of genius, inviting thunderous applause, are perfectly irrelevant. Worse still, the palpable courage of ICU doctors and nurses makes phony heroics in presidential palaces appear even more pathologically narcissistic than before.

Unlike democratic leaders, who can suffer defeat on a policy initiative and still manage to govern, authoritarian leaders follow the maxim “Never show weakness.” This is yet another reason why COVID-19, which gives no signs of abating any time soon, has proved particularly unwelcome to rulers obsessed with projecting an image of indomitable power. That the virus is indifferent to government edicts is obvious. Even worse for the optics of authority, citizen compliance with Phase 2 government orders to restart the economy is likely to be much less deferential than citizen compliance with instructions to keep their families safe.

COVID-19 also compels leaders to share both power and the political limelight with epidemiologists and other experts. In the COVID-19 world, a political leader risks losing all credibility if he continues to reward personal loyalty over technical competence, dismisses mask-wearing as an expression of political correctness or pontificates from the stage without being accompanied by medical specialists. Up-to-date information and professional advice are what matters to a frightened public. More rhetorically hyped xenophobia and political polarization have marginal appeal at best. This must be especially grating to leaders who have risen to power by dismissing all discomfiting information as political and ideological. Contrary to their basic instincts, many would-be authoritarians are being forced by the pandemic into a system of power sharing and even podium sharing that they may despise but cannot politically avoid.

A final feature of the pandemic that causes problems for aspiring authoritarians is the global nature of the crisis. The ubiquity of the disease makes it possible for people to compare the actions of their own governments with those of other governments around the world. Success or failure at flattening the curve provides a common metric, making cross-national comparisons possible and putting pressure on governments that had previously succeeded in insulating themselves from public criticism.

We are just at the beginning of what promises to be a multiyear crisis. It is therefore too soon to make any definitive judgment about which governments have dealt most effectively with the unfolding pandemic and its radiating consequences. But we can already see how some of the world’s most prominent populists and authoritarians are being swept to ruin by the god of plague, just as Sophocles would have led us to expect.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe