A national emergency is called when a country faces an external threat of attack, internal threat of rebellion or financial crisis. It is an altered constitutional setup where fundamental rights are suspended and the government can ‘rule by decree’, which is just a fancy way of saying they can do whatever they want regardless of opposition. That’s exactly what happened in India from 1975 to 1977. The Indira Gandhi Government called for a national emergency and what followed was not very different from autocracy. Political opponents were imprisoned, the press was silenced and human rights were suspended.
But an official national emergency is not the only way government ‘rule by decree’. They can put their entire country on pause; suspend free speech, compromise on the safety of their people and limit personal freedoms by making all kinds of other ‘official’ announcements, all leading to various forms of suppression. Here are a few that we could think of…
The press can be a very strong opposition to any government. They dig up stuff that the government rather keep hidden and they’re the first filter of criticism for any new policy decisions. If you were part of the government, you would think the press was a nuisance too. But from the point of you of the governed, they are valuable dissidents. So when the government directly or indirectly begins controlling the press, it becomes a problem for the freedom of speech in the country. While the Indian media enjoys relative freedom, seekers of sensitive information live in fear because of all the attacks and threats they face. The government does little to protect these truth-seekers because silencing them benefits the government too.
This situation is way worse in countries where the press is completely sanitized. China where the press is almost completely government-run and government-owned or Saudi Arabia political parties, unions and human rights groups are not allowed to broadcast themselves at all. Even in a developed country like Japan, frequent dismissals and resignations from members of the press under the Shinzo Abe government shows that journalists are not allowed to cover controversial subjects freely. The Indian media faced this kind of censorship during the Emergency, but none of these countries are facing an emergency. For them, it’s just how things are run.
Military coups a.k.a a coup d’état never end well for the people, whether they are successful or whether they fail. If successful, it means the military takes over the government, establishing martial law until a new government is formed. And living in a country with martial law is kind of like being forced to join the army. Not fun. In the event that the coup fails, the result is not any better. The government becomes so paranoid of rebellious elements in the country that it’s almost like the country is on lockdown. The right to privacy is non-existent. Curfews and raids become commonplace and it becomes impossible to leave the country.
Nigeria has witnessed 11 coups since 1966, some failed and some successful, in the process completely ravaging the country and the rights of its citizens. Most recently, Turkey experienced a failed military coup, an attempt to overthrow President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For months after the coup, pro-government mobs brutally attacked anyone they perceived as being anti-Erdoğan or anti-government.
Government shutdowns happen for different reasons in different parts of the world. The most common reason for a shut down is when different factions of the government don’t agree with each other on a matter than requires a majority consensus. In India, it happens in the form of President’s Rule when a coalition government loses its majority, if an election is indecisive or if there is a breakdown of law and order. In the U.S., the government shuts down if the Congress doesn’t agree on the federal budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
A government shutdown means all nonessential government offices are closed, kind of like the county’s own government going on strike. This can be a major inconvenience to everyone in the country, it can stall government procedures and eventually lead to big financial losses – all of this puts pressure on the government to reach a consensus. In India, it means the state’s government is suspended and the Centre directly governs the state. President’s rule is widely criticised because it is seen as a way of the Central government taking over power in states that are ruled by opponent parties. It is seen as a threat to the federal system of the government and by extension, a threat to democratic functioning.
Elections can be tricky, especially for a government that’s trying to get re-elected. All the focus is on them. They have to spend the year before the election coming up with populist policies that will please a majority of the public and dodge the criticism they’re bound to get from the Opposition. What better way to do away with all of this than to call for an early election? This would mean that they can pick a time when they look most favourable and it would help that their opponents would be unprepared and won’t have enough time to campaign. It’s essentially an opportunistic hack to completely cheat the election system, something that is the most fundamental part of a democracy.
Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro has called for an early election that seems to benefit his United Socialist Party of Venezuela and disadvantage his opposition. This change of election time is likely to benefit Maduro even through he seems unpopular with the people for lack of another viable option. Elections can also be delayed in order for the government to remain in power for longer than the law allows. In Thailand, a coup in 2014 toppled the existing democracy in order to replace it with a better one. However, the military continues to rule by consistently delaying the elections, even though it faces regular criticism from the people.
Know any more forms of suppression that eerily resemble the state of a national emergency? Tell us in the comments below.