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In Some Countries, Coronavirus Has Sparked An Authoritarian Power Grab


The coronavirus pandemic has posed extraordinary challenges to governments around the world. For some, it has also presented extraordinary opportunities. We're going to hear now from three of our foreign correspondents who have been watching leaders manipulate the crisis to their advantage - Joanna Kakissis, who's covered Hungarian politics these last several years and is keeping her eye on Prime Minister Viktor Orban; NPR's Julie McCarthy, our Southeast Asia correspondent who covers the Philippines; and NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem.

All three of you - welcome.




KELLY: All right. Joanna, you start. This week, on Monday, Hungary's parliament passed new emergency powers for Prime Minister Orban. What exactly can he do now that he couldn't before?

KAKISSIS: Well, he can do pretty much whatever he wants. This is a very sweeping law, and it sidelines parliament and lets Viktor Orban rule by decree. And what that means is that his government can do whatever it deems necessary to fight the coronavirus, which officially has infected at least 585 people and killed at least 21. And theoretically, parliament, you know, can vote to end these powers. But you know, that's not going to happen because Orban's party, Fidesz, controls two-thirds of parliament.

And another concern is that there's no sunset clause in this law, so there's serious concern that this one-man rule is going to go on indefinitely because the law also suspends elections. You know, Orban has invoked emergency law before in 2015. He gave police free reign during the European migration crisis. And his majority in parliament just keeps renewing that law. So now there's concern Orban will just do the same with this pandemic law.

KELLY: Wow. So elections suspended - doesn't sound like there's a sunset clause. Julie, how does that compare to what's happening in the Philippines, where Congress has also granted emergency powers to the president, Rodrigo Duterte, to deal with COVID-19? What was in that bill? What can he do now?

MCCARTHY: Well, he can now take over private hospitals to quarantine health care workers and take over public transportation to get them to work. The COVID-19 has taken an alarming toll on health workers, particularly doctors. And when it first arrived, Duterte played it down. But before long, he had ordered 50 million Filipinos locked down. You had to stay home. You still do.

And this week, he condemned Filipinos who are harassing these hospital workers, which is happening because of the fear of this pandemic. But he's invoking the same harsh language we hear in his drug war. He's threatening to shoot anyone who creates, quote, "chaos." And he has these new troubling powers to crack down on fake news. And critics say, look; that makes him the arbiter of the facts. It's prone to abuse, and it chills the press.

KELLY: Oh, that's interesting. Joanna, I'd love to hear a quick response to you on that one because fake news is something that Viktor Orban in Hungary has been known to talk about. He was an early adopter of that term. Does he have more power over the press now?

KAKISSIS: Yes, he does. This new law - it amends the criminal code to introduce jail sentences of up to five years for intentionally spreading what the government deems fake news about the coronavirus pandemic. And this is worrying the few independent media outlets in Hungary because it's the government that gets to define what fake news is. And so they're expecting to get punished for just, you know, publishing stories that question Orban's handling of the pandemic.

KELLY: All right. Let's turn to the Middle East and bring you in, Daniel, from Jerusalem. When the coronavirus appeared in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in a very uncertain space. He had - there was an inconclusive election - another inconclusive election in Israel. Netanyahu had been indicted on corruption charges. He is now also finding ways in this moment to put himself on firmer political ground.

ESTRIN: He has found firmer political ground. You know, before the virus, it seemed as if he might be on his way out of office because his opposition had the upper hand. His main opponent, Benny Gantz, was actually appointed to try to form the government. And then he - Netanyahu was days away from appearing in court to face bribery and fraud charges. So things were not looking good for Benjamin Netanyahu.

And then the coronavirus crisis hit, and his fortunes completely changed. He became the face of Israel's coronavirus response. He started appearing on TV nightly, basically giving him this bully pulpit where he addresses the cameras. He takes no questions from the press. And his government declared a coronavirus state of emergency. So...

KELLY: I'll just note those TV briefings sound very familiar to those of us watching a president here in Washington also capitalize on coronavirus and TV briefings. But go on.

ESTRIN: Right. Well, what happened in Israel was that most court activity was frozen because of the state of emergency. And then Netanyahu's corruption trial got postponed. His speaker of parliament then froze parliament, where the center-left had a slight majority. And then the big moment happened. Netanyahu's opponent, Benny Gantz, simply folded. He said the coronavirus crisis required unity. And it looks like he's going to let Netanyahu stay in office.

KELLY: So some shrewd maneuvering from all of the leaders you're describing there, which prompts me to ask, what are the remaining checks on their power? What is the pushback against any of these leaders? Joanna, you first again.

KAKISSIS: You know, Orban has actually gotten surprisingly little pushback. And initially, he seemed to get none. The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen - she put out this very tepid statement, you know, saying, you know, member states should not weaken democratic values. But she never called out Hungary or Orban by name.

And you know, this made Orban actually push the envelope even more. Just on Tuesday, he tried to strip Hungary's mayors of political economy, but he ended up dropping that because of this huge uproar in Budapest. And then since then - you know, since that day, since that failed bill, more and more EU nations are now condemning Orban for gutting democracy in a European nation.

KELLY: Julie, what about in the Philippines - President Duterte able to pretty much plow through the opposition?

MCCARTHY: Well, yeah, he's usually able to do that, but there was an interesting stop here. He really wanted power to take over private enterprise, particularly the private utility companies. But even Duterte's allies couldn't muster the votes to give him power to seize private companies. So we are seeing limits to power grabs, even for a president like Duterte with a 70%-plus approval rating.

And I'd add one more thing. You know, leaders who are asking for these powers and getting them may very well be held to account when things go wrong. So there's a double-edged sword to these moves to acquire more power.

KELLY: And Daniel, what about in Israel? Is the public on board with Netanyahu's efforts to consolidate control?

ESTRIN: Well, at first, his critics accused him of staging a corona coup. But you know what? There are more than 6,000 cases of the virus. At least 33 have died. And when you look at the public opinion polls here, it seems that people are just too worried about the virus to care about this - these political machinations - most people, at least. A poll shows that the majority of Benny Gantz - his voters would rather him join Netanyahu's government and be a kind of centrist mediating force. And by the way, Netanyahu is now in quarantine because his health minister tested positive for the virus. So this virus is just taking over everything in politics here.

KELLY: That is NPR's Daniel Estrin, Julie McCarthy and Joanna Kakissis with a snapshot there of how leaders in three parts of the world - the Middle East, Asia and Europe - are finding ways to turn the coronavirus crisis to their political advantage.

Thanks to all of you.

ESTRIN: Thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

KAKISSIS: Nice talking to you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.