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Democracy Versus the Pandemic

The Coronavirus Is Emboldening Autocrats the World Over

By Larry DiamondForeign Affairs

A protest against a bill to give Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte additional powers, Quezon City, the Philippines, June 2020
Eloisa Lopez / Reuters

In late March, Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte rammed a bill through his country’s parliament that granted him vastly expanded emergency powers, ostensibly to fight the novel coronavirus. The bill authorized Duterte to reallocate the national budget as he saw fit and to personally direct hospitals. “Do not challenge the government,” he bellowed in a menacing televised address. “You will lose.” Six days later, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban pushed even more expansive emergency legislation through his rubber-stamp parliament, enabling him to suspend existing laws, decree new ones, and arrest individuals deemed to be peddling “falsehoods” about the pandemic or “obstructing” the government’s efforts to fight it.

Duterte’s and Orban’s COVID-19 power grabs were especially brazen, but they were far from the only attempts by authoritarian leaders or parties to use the current health crisis as an excuse to curtail civil liberties or undermine the rule of law. Authoritarian regimes in Bangladesh, Belarus, Cambodia, China, Egypt, El Salvador, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, Uganda, Venezuela, and Vietnam have all detained critics, health workers, journalists, and opposition members during the pandemic. Democracies that have lately come under assault, meanwhile, such as Brazil, India, and Poland, have seen populist leaders or ruling parties seize on the crisis to remove checks on their power or weaken the opposition.

It will be some time, probably years, before the pandemic’s full impact on democracy around the world can be judged. The extent of the damage will depend on how long the health crisis lasts and how badly it harms economies and societies. It will also depend on how democracies fare compared with autocracies in containing the health and economic effects of the virus, on who wins the race to a vaccine, and more broadly, on who—China, the United States, or democratic countries collectively—is seen as the most generous and effective provider of global public goods to fight the pandemic. How carefully democracies monitor and circumscribe the enormous increases in governmental power that come with national emergencies will also factor into the equation, as will the ability of established democracies to summon the collective resolve to defend freedom globally in a time of rising danger.  

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So far, there is little reason to be reassured about the global outlook for democracy and plenty of reason to worry. The pandemic hit during the hardest period for democracy since the end of the Cold War, and authoritarian and would-be authoritarian regimes wasted no time in exploiting it to enlarge and harden their power. More danger could lie on the horizon as democratic governments weigh the dilemmas of using new surveillance technologies to fight the virus and holding regular elections in the midst of a pandemic. The downward democratic spiral can still be reversed, but it will require mobilized civil societies, effective democratic management of the health crisis, and a renewal of American leadership on the global stage.

A DEMOCRATIC RECESSION

Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic. For each of the past 14 years, according to Freedom House, more countries experienced an erosion of political rights and civil liberties than strengthened political rights and civil liberties, reversing the pattern of the preceding 15 post-Cold War years. While blunt military and executive coups have become rarer, more and more elected leaders have gradually eviscerated democracies from within. Politicians who initially came to power via democratic elections—such as Orban in Hungary, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh—have packed courts; co-opted other independent institutions; squeezed the press, political opposition, and civil society; and sought to subvert or prevent the elections that might otherwise remove them. As a result, the rate of democratic breakdown worldwide has risen sharply in the last decade to nearly twice that of the preceding two decades. At the same time, fewer countries have transitioned to democracy. 

Democracy was faltering globally even before the pandemic.

The democratic downturn has been particularly steep in the last five years (2015 through 2019), the first five-year period since 1975 in which more countries transitioned to autocracy than to democracy—twice as many, in fact. In January 2020, the proportion of countries with populations over one million that qualified as democracies fell below 50 percent for the first time since the end of the Cold War. Just as worrying has been the significant decay of democratic institutions and norms in democracies that were thought to be consolidated, such as India, and also liberal, such as Israel and Poland; the more subtle and little-noticed degradation of democracy in South Korea; the steady decline in the quality of democracy in the United States; and the rise of xenophobic populism and political polarization in Europe’s liberal democracies. According to Freedom House, democracy has declined in 25 of the 41 established democracies since 2006.

In short, COVID-19 attacked a world in which democracy was already under threat. The resulting public health crises enabled some leaders (such as Erdogan and Orban) to consolidate authoritarian powers they had already been accumulating and others (such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India) to intensify their illiberal campaigns against critics, independent news media, and opposition parties. In other words, the pandemic has mostly reinforced existing negative democratic trends, supplying illiberal governments with an incentive and an excuse for repressive tactics. Human rights defenders have paid the price in arrests, killings, and extended jail terms. The virus has cut a particularly deadly swath through prisons, furnishing cynical and murderous autocrats with a perfect weapon to use against indefatigable activists who try to hold them to account.

SURVEILLANCE CREEP, ELECTORAL LAG

Still more damage may lie in store for democracy before the pandemic is done. In the name of managing the disease, governments are already implementing surveillance and tracking systems that could result in permanent losses of privacy. The apps generally work by gaining access to a phone’s GPS location and its range of Bluetooth communication. When someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 comes into contact with other people, the software alerts those contacts and advises them to self-isolate. With the proper democratic oversight and restraints, these apps can be powerful weapons in the fight to control the virus. But without such limits, they can be used to spy on private citizens and expand social control.

In India, for instance, many fear that a new tracking app rolled out in April could become a tool of mass surveillance for a government already bent on trampling civil liberties. Since Modi was first elected prime minister in 2014, his government has been assaulting venerated pillars of Indian democracy: press freedom, religious tolerance, judicial independence, and respect for dissent. Most alarming has been the Modi administration’s escalating campaign against India’s Muslim minority, which, at about 180 million, is the second-largest Muslim population of any country in the world after Indonesia. The narrative—pushed most blatantly by Modi’s extremist followers but condoned by the prime minister with the same wink and nod that U.S. President Donald Trump gave to neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville—is that Muslims (and sometimes Christians and other non-Hindu minorities) are “internal enemies” with allegiances to lands and peoples outside India. That narrative has grown only stronger during the pandemic, fueled by a vile stream of disinformation that blames Muslims and Dalits for deliberately spreading the virus. Modi has used the COVID-19 crisis to centralize authority over revenue at the expense of India’s states and parliament and to wrest control of state governments from opposition parties. Many rights activists and cyber experts fear that his government will enlist the disease-tracking app, called Aarogya Setu, to compromise privacy and monitor opponents. 

Aarogya Setu was initially voluntary, but as the government eased lockdown restrictions in early May, it made the app mandatory for public- and private-sector employees as well as for people in so-called containment zones, areas with particularly high rates of COVID-19 prevalence. It also required anyone traveling by train to download the app. Later, the government took the positive steps of prohibiting the storage of individual data beyond 180 days and enabling individuals to seek deletion of their data within 30 days. To alleviate concerns about privacy and security, it also eventually opened up the app’s source code to public scrutiny (and improvement). But reasonable suspicion persists, and it may abate only if India does what all democracies should do—appoint an independent ombudsman to ensure that rules on privacy, data gathering, and use are respected.

To comply with international human rights norms, disease-tracking apps and technologies must be grounded in law, publicly deliberated, transparent, limited to the duration of the emergency, and restricted to the specific requirements of combating the virus. The MIT Technology Review has initiated an important effort to study and rate government tracking appsaccording to five criteria, such as whether or not they are voluntary, whether the data they collect can be used only for public heath purposes, how quickly that data is destroyed, and the transparency of the policies and the code that underpin them. By these measures, Aarogya Setu rates only a single star (for data destruction).

Election delays should be limited in time and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.

Privacy is not the only democratic precept under threat in the time of coronavirus: holding regular elections has become a logistical conundrum. Many democracies are left to decide which poses the greater threat: holding elections on schedule, when the opposition cannot campaign, poll workers and monitors may not show up, and large numbers of people don’t feel safe going to the polls; or postponing elections and perpetuating in power unpopular governments that voters might have otherwise ejected. The choice is straightforward in established democracies that have the time and resources to alter election procedures so that voters can vote safely from a distance, ideally by mail, or at least at fully staffed poll stations that have been disinfected and updated to accommodate physical distancing. But even in the United States—five months away from a general election—some Republicans, led by Trump, have turned voting by mail into a fiercely partisan issue, despite convincing evidence that it won’t give either party an advantage. Imagine, then, how much more fraught elections could become in countries with weaker institutions and less widespread postal services.

According to International IDEA, an intergovernmental organization that supports democracy around the world, more than 60 countries and territories have postponed elections at the national or (much more often) subnational level due to the pandemic. In many cases, doing so may have been the least undemocratic course of action. To avoid enabling authoritarian power grabs, the Kofi Annan Foundation has recommendedthat any decision to postpone elections be guided by rules that the government and the opposition agree upon, that are clearly communicated to the public, and that ensure the inclusion of vulnerable groups. As with the use of potentially invasive tracking apps, election delays should be limited in time, grounded in law and technical expertise, and proportionate to the danger the virus poses.

A DEMOCRATIC RENEWAL?

To protect rights, privacy, and the integrity of elections during a pandemic is a daunting task, but it is not impossible. It will require politicians, bureaucrats, and members of civil society to restrain their partisanship, adhere to sound expert advice, and submit all emergency measures to disinterested monitoring and oversight.

Before the pandemic, democracy-minded people in countries that had slid toward electoral autocracy showed that it was still possible to make democratic inroads through organized political campaigns. A campaign of “radical love” carried the opposition to a stunning victory in municipal elections in Turkey last year, and opposition parties won municipal elections in Prague in 2018 and in Budapest last October.  Even in the absence of a national electoral upset, similar municipal campaigns that engage practical issues and transcend political divisions can limit the ability of autocrats to consolidate power in the pandemic’s wake. Public opinion can also help defend the frayed boundaries of democracy. The original emergency powers bill that Duterte’s office sent to the Philippine Congress in March would have enabled the president to temporarily take control of any privately owned business or utility. But congressional and public resistance forced Duterte to accept much narrower language, involving only the budget and hospitals.

Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States.

Ultimately, the pandemic’s effect on global democracy will be shaped in large part by its effect on the advanced industrial democracies and most of all, the United States. At a time when China and other autocracies are using the pandemic to trash the efficacy of democratic governance and tout their superior capacity to deal with public emergencies, free governments must show that they are up to the task. Some have already done so. Ironically, the “other” Chinese society—Taiwan—has vividly exposed the lie that competent governance in a pandemic requires the extinction of freedom. Australia, Germany, Israel, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea have also performed well in containing the virus. The successful governments responded early and vigilantly, with widespread testing and contact tracing, and they communicated with their publics in a transparent, coordinated manner that put health professionals at the forefront. Sadly, few major countries have performed worse than the United States, whose president has routinely flouted such elementary imperatives as wearing masks, respecting science, trusting the public health leadership, and not promoting voodoo cures. The damage has been incalculable—not only to American lives but to global esteem for American democracy and hence, for democracy itself.

Global democratic recovery will require much of the United States. But first, the country must get its own house in order. Fortunately, supplies of ventilators and protective gear have rapidly increased. But national leadership, with discipline and strategic vision, is still lacking. The U.S. government must not only galvanize its people to act responsibly but also spearhead the international effort to distribute protective equipment and—as they become available—vaccines and medicines. Then, when the coronavirus has been vanquished, the United States must resume its leadership of global democracies in defense of liberty and against authoritarianism, corruption, and bullying.


The Death Pangs Of A Militant Theocracy And The Inevitable Demise Of The Islamic Republic of Iran

By Dr. Miklos K. RadvanyiFrontiers of Freedom

After almost four decades of ruthless oppression of the Iranian people, the indiscriminate terrorization of the greater Middle East and beyond, the absolute reign of the Shi’a Mullahs is nearing to its well deserved inglorious end. Bleeding from multiple, mostly self-inflicted wounds, the Islamic Republic of Iran, as envisioned by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Mostafavi Musavi Khomeini, has turned out to be an unviable hybrid – neither Islamic nor Republican.

To the eternal embarrassment of God, the existing Constitution implies that it has been given the Iranian nation by the Almighty God Himself: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful” intones the first sentence of the Preamble. In a follow-up provision God appears to speak directly to the devouts: “We have sent Our Apostles with veritable signs and brought down with them scriptures and scales of justice, so that men might conduct themselves with fairness.” Accordingly, the Islamic Republic of Iran is a perfect political regime, because it is religiously correct. Yet, in spite of God’s so-called direct assurances, justice and fairness have not been the guiding principles of the Iranian Mullahcracy.

As every revolution before the Iranian of January 1979, the establishment and the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been analyzed and interpreted ad nauseum from both political and emotional perspectives. Yet, perhaps the most poignant verdict came from the late President Anwar Sadat who in a remarkable speech before the Egyptian People’s Assembly in 1981 compared the Iran of pre-1979 to the post-1979 era. In his speech he pointed out that under the Shah Iran imported one-third of its food supply from Israel and earned $250 million from oil exports daily. Two years into the Mullahcracy the regime struggled to feed the people and the latter could only obtain fuel on their personal ID cards.

From its inception, the regime has relied on extreme violence against its own people for the sole purpose of retaining absolute power. Having showed no mercy even for children as young as twelve years of age, the regime has executed during its almost four decades of existence tens of thousands of Iranians and foreigners. All this internal terror has been based on Khomeini’s sick rhetoric
that differentiates among three foundations: theocratic power embodied in the doctrine of Velayat-e-Faqih, Islamic ideology corrupted by Marxist and Bolshevik dogmas, and spiritualism based on discrimination between the Shi’a Muslims who follow the correct Islam and the misguided masses who adhere to the satanic ways of disbelief, such as the Sunni Muslims, the Jews, and the Christian powers and their allies. In Khomeini’s political and religious dictionary the righteous Shi’a Muslims have been the oppressed victims of both the East and the West. In one of his frequent public speeches he said: “….when we say we want to export our revolution, we mean we want to export the spirituality that dominates Iran…. We shall export Islam when we assist Islam and Islamic ethics grow in every country.” In other words, Khomeinism called for global and permanent revolution in the mode of Leo Trotzki, one of the leading Russian Bolsheviks, a century ago.

A simple examination of the Iranian Constitution shows that the only real authority resides in a single person, namely the Leader, also called the Imam. He possesses all the powers of a despot. He plans and sets the policies of the Islamic Republic. He is the Supreme Supervisor of implementing those policies. He issues decrees, declares war and peace, is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, appoints, dismisses and retires the clerics of the Council of Guardians. He is the Supreme Judicial Authority. He is the head of the radio and television. He is the Leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. He can dismiss the elected President of the Islamic Republic. Finally, he has the power of pardons. In summary, the Leader is an unelected, absolute potentate whose status makes a mockery of all the fake democratic institutions of the theocratic state, such as the Council of Guardians, the National Exigency Council, the Islamic Consultative Assembly, also known as the Majlis, etc. For these reasons, the President and all the seemingly august institutions of the Islamic Republic have no more power than any unelected or unappointed non-governmental body or any ordinary citizen.

Indeed, Khomeini sought political legitimacy of his earthly religious kingdom in two conflicting principles – one religious and one political. While he declared God the sole sovereign, he claimed himself the monopoly to be self-appointed as God’s omnipotent earthly despot. This clearly is an inadmissible contradiction. Moreover, the subjects who are forced to live under such an inadmissible contradiction, constantly feel that their intelligence and morality are insulted daily. The problem for the regime
has been that it could not disguise itself any more from the critical eyes of the majority of Iranians, because the latter have discovered the Mullahcracy’s real nature. A terrible situation in which the incurable agony of the regime causes the people to seek redemption in no-holds-barred violent revolts.

Violent eruptions by the oppressed masses in Iran have been the ever present hallmarks of the Mullahcracy’s reign since its very inception. Indeed, Khomeini’s Iran has never known peace and stability. The ubiquitous restlessness and ever present anger, not only against the Mullahs and their coterie, but also against Khomeini and his successor Khamenei, have established a chain reaction of official terror and public counter terror across Iran. Clearly, both Khomeini and Khamenei have been accused as the individuals almost exclusively responsible for the many miseries of the Iranian people. They have been the despots who have designed the ruinous scheme of foreign interventions that have demanded the lives of hundreds of thousands and that have pushed the Iranian economy to the brink of bankruptcy. To wit, they also have been instrumental of transforming the country into a living cemetery. It has been in this general atmosphere of mutual hatred that the 2009 and the currently ongoing riots have shown that the Mullahcracy has lost its quest for the hearts and minds of the people. What is left appears to be nothing but a political, religious, spiritual, cultural, economic, and financial vacuum that cannot be filled by lies, idiotic accusations, and blind terror any more.

Khomeini’s invention of Velayat-e-Faqih is for all practical purposes dead. The odor of its stinking corpse has contaminated the air throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the Gaza strip are dying too. Meanwhile, the appeasement policies of the Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and particularly Obama administrations have ended in spectacular failures. Collectively, these presidents have learned nothing from the disastrous Munich Agreement of 1938. As the West betrayed the countries that they created in 1918 in Versailles, the totally incompetent former President Barack Hussein Obama abandoned the United States’ friends in the pursuit of an idiotic utopia with a denuclearized Iran.

Over a millennium ago, a Persian by the name of Jabir Ibn Hayyan penned a book with the title “Book of Stones.” In it he claimed to have created by a secret script and even more secret codes a human-like, artificial creature called “homunculus.” Following the Shi’a dogma of takiya, which roughly translates to concealment, the author hoped to mislead everybody, but those Shi’a Muslims who truly believed in Allah. Throughout the next centuries his version of takiya has taken on a life of its own to be resurrected in the late 20th century by the Mullahcracy. While the Islamic Republic of Iran is a militarily weak economically exhausted, and financially bankrupt regime, its leaders pretend that their country is the hegemon of the greater Middle East. Yet, the only area that they enjoy an advantage is in employing terrorist and paramilitary tactics.

Facing unending nationwide protests, the Mullahs are in a state of extreme panic. For this reason alone appeasement is not an option. The anti-Shah movements of 1978 and 1979 were about the establishment of a Republic based on justice and freedom. In Khomeini’s Mullahcracy there is neither justice nor freedom. Therefore, the Iranian people must be assisted in their attempt to accomplish the noble objectives of the pre-Mullahcracy era.


Iran Breaks With Arab States, Continues Backing Hezbollah

Iran blames Jews for forcing Arab states to designate Hezbollah as terrorist group

by Adam Kredo      •     Washington Free Beacon

Hezbollah fighters hold flags as they attend a memorial / AP

Iranian leaders publicly broke ranks this week with major Arab Gulf nations in a series of statements criticizing these regional powers for formally designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, or GCC, a regional governing coalition comprised of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain, announced last week that it is formally designating the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

The GCC joins the United States, Israel, Canada, and a host of other nations in labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization. These nations, including Saudi Arabia, have already taken steps to blacklist organizations and individuals associated with Hezbollah. Continue reading


China’s Military Built with Stolen Technology

by US Naval Institute Staff     •     USNI News

Historically, China has been a great innovator contributing inventions such as gunpowder, paper and the compass to human advancement. However, China has earned an international reputation in recent decades as being the home of a prolific copycat culture.

The Chinese have become proficient at cloning products ranging from designer handbags and the latest smartphones to movies and alcoholic beverages. Fake Apple stores, counterfeit KFC restaurants and imitation IKEA big-box outlets dot the Chinese landscape. They have even built entire replica European towns.

Some Western observers believe this cultural attitude towards imitation is rooted in Confucianism where followers traditionally learned by replicating masterworks and then tried to improve upon them. Continue reading


Iran: Missiles Pointed at U.S. Targets

Iran, Russia, Syria, Iraq form joint war room

by Adam Kredo     •     Washington Free Beacon

The chief of the aerospace division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, left, listens to an unidentified colonel as he points to US RQ-170 Sentinel droneThe chief of the aerospace division of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh, left, listens to an unidentified colonel as he points to US RQ-170 Sentinel drone / AP

 

A senior Iranian military leader warned this weekend that “all U.S. military bases in the Middle East are within the range of” Iran’s missiles and emphasized that the Islamic Republic will continue to break international bans on the construction of ballistic missiles.

Much of this missile work, like the details of Iran’s advanced arsenal, remains secret, according to Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force. Continue reading


Putin’s Dream Clouds the Approach of a Nightmare

by Larry Franklin

Vladimir-Putin-006Vladimir Putin has succeeded in portraying himself as a leader of a resurgent Russia. The three-term President of the Russian Federation has proven to be a skilled manipulator of the media and masterful political tactician. He has burnished his image of a man of action who has catapulted Russia back into the front rank of nations. He has convinced most Russians that he has outwitted the West which, he claims, humiliated weak Russian governments since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Continue reading


George Washington’s Farewell Address

“If I may even flatter myself, that [these counsels] may be productive of some partial benefit, some occasional good; that they may now and then recur to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischiefs of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism.”

Washington_Farewell_BroadsideThe Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States

September 19, 1796

Friends and fellow-citizens: The period for a new election of a citizen, to administer the executive government of the United States, being not far distant, and the time actually arrived, when your thoughts must be employed designating the person, who is to be clothed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct expression of the public voice, that I should now apprize you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those out of whom a choice is to be made. Continue reading


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