The Jakarta Post
There’s no clear cut-off point when democracy ends and authoritarianism begins. History does not move in a straight line and most of the times, authoritarian leaders lay their claim bit by bit, creeping in until the foundations of democratic order are dismantled.
Would-be authoritarian regimes also prefer to work under the cover of darkness and when they finally achieve success, they rarely announce their arrival.
The COVID-19 pandemic is one such justification. Democratic backsliding needs a crisis to be an impetus and political leaders with authoritarian streaks have turned the health crisis into an opportunity to amass power.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared a state of emergency and that he could suspend any existing laws and rules by decree for an indefinite period of time.
Responding to COVID-19, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also taken steps to center power in himself, suspending the court and the Parliament. He went even further by using the country’s intelligence service to track people using data harvested from their phones. Closer in the region, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte enacted draconian measures to impose lockdown regulations. He ordered soldiers to shoot to kill residents who flouted stay-at-home orders.
Thus far, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has resisted the temptation of going for the jugular. When announcing COVID-19 a health emergency and imposed what he called large-scale social restrictions, he quickly shut down the debate over the possibility of declaring a civil emergency. And beyond requiring local administrations to ask permission from the central government in the imposition of a health quarantine, there is nothing that could be categorized as an accumulation of power in the hands of the executive.
It appears that President Jokowi could live up to his reputation as a popularly elected leader of a burgeoning democracy. Yet in the past few days, many have expressed concern if authoritarian tendencies have begun to creep in.
In Yogyakarta, local authorities dispersed a meetings organized by the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), claiming that the gathering violated physical distancing rules. Also in Yogyakarta, charity group Jogja Food Solidarity reported that local police had been monitoring its charity work in distributing food and health supplies for low-income workers. In Malang, East Java, three students were arrested for “inciting people to overthrow capitalism”.
To cap it off was the arrest of independent researcher and government critic Ravio Putra. He was arrested after his WhatsApp account was hacked and found to have broadcast provocative message. What happened to Ravio and other civil society activists shows yet again the government’s propensity to take the security approach for all problems standing in between it and its own agenda.
We could never tell the zero hour of when democracy begins to erode and its decline becomes an irreversible process. The best thing we can do is to treat any assault against freedom as if it could deliver the final blow.
Criminalization of critics under the guise of the fight against COVID-19 should not be treated lightly as it puts our hard-won democracy at stake.