After the US Civil War, the president's leading role to protect the union was overruled and the division of powers was re-established. How are we going to force powerholders in Central Europe to give back similar powers after the pandemic?

Hundred and fifty years ago, during the US Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln violated at least half of the civil liberties enlisted in the constitution and the first ten amendments known as the Bill of Rights including the sacred habeas corpus, securing the right to face a judge upon arrest.

In his letter to Albert G. Hodges, the editor of Frankfort Commonwealth Lincoln defended his actions with the following words:

“By general law life and limb must be protected; yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. I felt that measures, otherwise unconstitutional, might become lawful, by becoming indispensable to the preservation of the constitution, through the preservation of the nation.”

This is the logic that encapsulates the concept of necessity. The demand for the concentration of power in times of emergency.

Rule by proclamations

US President Abraham Lincoln

Historians largely agree that Abraham Lincoln violated civil liberties in various ways. The establishment of a parallel military judicial system able to adjudicate in cases of civilians, the limitation of the due process, the freedom of speech and press or the right to privacy are just a few examples.

Lincoln also ruled by proclamations, which for many was considered as a blatant usurpation of power to the extent that the opposition was calling him Lincoln Africanus I. Despite this dire fate of civil liberties during the war, historians pay attention to one more important aspect – namely Lincoln’s mild personality. This aspect of his character had a profound consequence for the practical attitude towards civil liberties.

The adjudicated death sentence for treason was rarely executed because Lincoln was generously using his right to pardon. Aware of the need to protect the nation, Lincoln sacrificed the constitution, being at the same time aware that even the sacrifice has its limits.

Today, amid the daily COVID-19 news cycle we observe the limitless temptation for power grab. Coronavirus is not just the necessity; it is the perfect explanation for any single activity that powerholders will apply.

On Monday, President Trump, in his particular style, declared that he holds absolute power and speaking in one voice, media, scholars and lawyers unequivocally claimed that he is wrong. He himself, softened his tone to appease the state governors and to hush up a potential competence storm during the elections.

Unlike Lincoln, historians will hardly write about Trump’s mild political character, but luckily in the American case, two additional mechanisms protect the nation from the President’s dreams: the division of powers and the public opinion.

However, Trump’s escapade seems like a walk in the park in comparison with what is happening in Central Europe. COVID-19 has hit the region like a tornado even though it was already swirling around the world for months.

Bulgaria – from scandal to scandal

Many EU member states introduced a state of emergency. Within the region, such state was introduced among others in Bulgaria, Slovakia and Chechia, but not in Poland. The introduction of states of emergency turned out to be an unexpected gift for the powerholders.

In Bulgaria, this unexpected window of opportunity for draining the state budget, could not be missed. The Chinese Communist Party virus served as a good excuse to immediately indebt the country, which a month earlier announced 1.5 billion budget surplus.

In the shadow of the introduction of the state of emergency, a journalist was beaten severely, but that remained largely unnoticed.

Among the first quarters to be isolated upon request of the Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev and the nationalist VMRO were the Roma ghettos, although the first cases of COVID-19 appeared a month later.

Recently, in a staggering way, the head of the Bulgarian Pharmaceutical Union was accused of “causing a panic” under the newly adopted law on the state of emergency. Asena Stoimenova was accused of sharing in public media about the possibility of drug shortages and her case is now pending in the Prosecutor’s office.

At the same time, the government faced two new scandals. The first one relates to the government measures to support the economy. Although the idea to share the employer’s costs are commonplace in the region, the Bulgarian Development Bank hurried to subsidise a debt collector company with 2000 leva income, for the last year, with 75 million leva.

Such blatant misappropriation of funds by the GERB party nominated BDR director has cost him the job. Apparently, the bank will play an important role in the fight with COVID-19, since instead of one new, two more directors were nominated.

Most recently, a poorly organised PR campaign for the donation of medical supply from Dubai appeared as another fig leaf for the transportation of a dozen tones of dates with the government’s official plane.

What seems to be obvious in the Bulgarian case, is that the PM Borisov is not capable of controlling all the opportunities for misuse of power in the times of coronavirus. The power players have sensed the potential for unrestrained plundering of the state and have lowered their protection instincts flooding the society with daily scandals.

Elections or nothing

In Poland, the main concern of the Law and Justice (PiS) is not the coronavirus, but the May 10 presidential elections. PiS party leader Jarosław Kaczyński is afraid that an election postponement might diminish the party’s chance to keep the presidential office.

When some of the opposition candidates consider suspending their campaigns, the ruling party was ready to secure the elections with the creation of another candidate, so that the formal requirement for at least two candidates be fulfilled.

Kaczyński’s determination to conduct the elections takes no hostages.

In one week, the election law was changed twice to provide for distant voting. The elections perspective also determines the non-introduction of the state of emergency, due to the constitutional ban to hold elections in such an extraordinary situation.

The swift removal of the head of Poland’s Post Office and the threat that the army will replace mailmen protests aim to crush any hope that the elections can be postponed. The government also declared the “defrost” of the economy, despite the galloping growth of daily infections.

The same contempt

Bulgarian and Polish politics are substantially different, but what unites them in the coronavirus times is the same contempt for the rule of law and self-restraint.

Just as the Bulgarian ruling class saw the virus as an opportunity to increase its power and diminish the role of the public opinion, Jarosław Kaczyński saw it as a threat for his political calculations and decided to adjust the reality to his plans. Kaczyński marches over people’s political rights and Borisov’s Bulgaria is now a legal jungle in which the powerholders can apply the law wherever and whenever.

The most recent political achievement of the region is the consolidation of power and the complete dismantling of checks and balances. Unsurpassed in that respect is Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán with his dictatorial prerogatives, but this is not important if all the strings of the state are in one hand.

During the US Civil War, the Congress and the judiciary allowed the president to take the leading role and to protect the union, but even then, Justice Roger B. Taney questioned president’s competences and as soon as the war was over, the president’s actions were overruled and the division of powers was re-established.

The question is, who and how is going to force the powerholders in Central Europe to give back the powers apprehended at the time of a pandemic? They managed to capture the state prior to the crisis and now there is a unique opportunity to appropriate it.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Lazarski University in Warsaw, Poland.

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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