States of Emergency have been used widely to undermine and overthrow democratic electoral governments, and also to attack political opponents of unpopular autocrats. But they also may indicate that popular movements and established government bodies outside of the executive office are making headway in opposing autocratic or oligarchic, anti-democratic leadership. The effects of a declaration of a state of emergency depend on those political agents that are involved in the struggle for democracy, and how they respond to such declarations.
Declarations of a national emergency have a long history, and have been used widely around the world for political gain by narrow interests. The Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben has discussed such efforts of the head of state to rule outside the law, what he calls the state of exception. A brief overview of the use of declarations of a national state of emergency in the twenty-first century will help us get some sense of how political bodies committed to democracy can respond to this threat.
In the past decade or two, national states of emergency have been declared by autocrats and oligarchs, generals and military councils in order to remove elected governments, as seen in Bangladesh in 2007, Myanmar in 2012, and Thailand in 2014. In these cases, the declaration is deployed as part of the arsenal of weapons to destroy electoral systems and replace them with autocracy.
Before the recent declaration by President Trump of a national state of emergency in the United States, legal commentators were already concerned that the American President was not willing to submit to the established rule of law. With the declaration of a state of emergency, Trump has greatly expanded the considerable range of powers that he is granted by the laws that make such a declaration legal, as discussed in last month’s post. As Trump’s poll numbers remain low and the 2020 election approaches, we will see whether Trump uses those special powers to promote his own election or even attempts to remain in office by other means.
With Trump’s declaration, the U.S. joins the small number of G20 countries that have used such declarations for political purposes: Argentina and Turkey. Among OECD countries, only Turkey has a history of using such declarations to pursue unpopular policies and consolidate political power.
States of emergency also have a history of being used by autocratic, unelected governments to oppose popular movements pressuring them to change policies or attempting to remove them from political power, as in Argentina in 2001, Paraguay in 2002, Nepal in 2005, and Ecuador in 2006. In several of these cases, popular opposition proved to be strong enough to withstand the impact of the national state of emergency, and leaders were forced from power within a year or two after the declaration.
In recent years the national emergency has been a weapon used by elected leaders to attack opposition political movements, court decisions opposing elected leaders, and even opposition parties, as in Pakistan in 2007, Kyrgystan in 2010, and Turkey in 2016. In some cases (as in Turkey), the declaration has successfully marginalized opposing organizations. However, in others (as in Kyrgystan) the state of emergency was not effective in weakening opposition to autocracy, and the leader fell from power.
In the United States there was some objection to Trump’s declaration of a state of emergency by a few commentators, but almost zero public opposition by social movements or political parties. Perhaps the citizens of the United States are so accustomed to electoral democracy, with its many compromises of popular will, that they did not feel moved to object to the establishment of another beachhead of autocratic governance. Since there is little public education in the United States about the high stakes of such a clear threat to electoral practices, perhaps it is understandable that there was so little popular opposition.
These historical uses of the declaration of states of emergency show why many supporters of democracy find these declarations problematic. But they also show that even when a political leader wields the cudgel of an emergency declaration, they still may be forced from office if popular opposition remains vocal and strong through the process.