On Thursday, President Donald Trump raised the U.S. public’s collective blood pressure with a tweet blasting mail-in voting as “FRAUDULENT” and suggesting that the country should “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote.” Trump can’t actually cancel or move Election Day, at least not on his own, but this certainly appears to be an attempt to undermine public faith in the vote as his poll numbers continue to sag.
Expressing any concern about “safely” voting was an opportunistic change of tune for a president who has resolutely downplayed the risks of the coronavirus and insisted that businesses and schools return to normal operation. Unlike authoritarian leaders like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Trump has not (yet) used the virus to justify a crackdown on dissent. (Immigration policy is another story.) But by threatening to delay the vote on public health grounds, he is, perhaps unwittingly, borrowing from a now well-established international playbook.
Citing fears of a coronavirus resurgence, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed authorities are currently threatening to delay Sept. 6 legislative elections in which the pro-democracy camp, galvanized by public opposition to a controversial national security law, are poised to win a landslide. Twelve of Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition leaders were also barred from running under the new law.
Bolivia’s interim government also announced last week that its general election, which was already pushed from May to September, will now be delayed another month to Oct. 18. There is indeed a legitimate concern for people’s health—Bolivia has one of the highest COVID mortality rates in the world—but the country has been in a political crisis since the overthrow of President Evo Morales in November, and further delays could be devastating for its fragile democracy. (A recent study has cast doubt on the international accusations from last fall that Morales, a socialist, engaged in election fraud, the state justification for the coup that put the current right-wing interim government in power.)
Ethiopian lawmakers in June also voted to postpone that country’s election, originally scheduled for August, for at least nine months. This will extend Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s mandate for at least a year, a disappointment for those who hoped the Nobel Prize–winning reformer was moving his country toward full democracy after years of single-party rule.
The election delays are not the only worrisome sign. More than six months since the pandemic began, the global situation for democracy is as bad as anyone could have feared. In the Philippines, Duterte, after winning broad emergency powers for himself, has employed the same tactics he used to wage his brutal drug war—mass arrests and extrajudicial violence—to tackle COVID: He has publicly told police and the military to shoot those who defy lockdown orders.
In Egypt, at least 10 doctors and 10 journalists have been arrested for publicly criticizing the country’s coronavirus response, and more have been arrested for spreading “fake news.”
In Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro’s government has arrested hundreds of political prisoners this year, according to rights groups, many of them also critics of the country’s disastrous coronavirus response.
The situation is dire, to be sure, but one pessimistic prediction from the early days of the pandemic has not come to pass: The virus has not kept people off the streets. In fact, particularly since outdoor marches where most people wear masks don’t appear to be a major factor in spreading the coronavirus, more people seem to be protesting around the world than ever.
The protests against racism and police brutality that spontaneously erupted in dozens of countries after the George Floyd killing were the most obvious manifestation of pandemic-era dissent. But they weren’t alone. There were large protests against Belarus’ longtime strongman president (and COVID denier-turned-patient), Aleksandr Lukashenko, after opposition candidates were barred from this month’s controversial election. The far east of Russia has emerged as an unexpected hotbed of resistance to Vladimir Putin’s rule. Anti-government protesters have returned to the streets in Lebanon amid the country’s dire economic collapse. And public gatherings, though much smaller than last year, continue in Hong Kong despite the stepped up threat of arrest under the new national security law.
The coronavirus gave governments around the world a pretext to undermine democracy, but the public corruption and incompetence it revealed also gave citizens yet another reason to fight for it.