As the old saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. If a situation is dire enough, it will prompt the highest-recognized figure of authority to garner near-dictatorial influence, or Emergency Powers, until a crisis can be abated.
Ideally, these Emergency Powers are meant to speed up the process of ending a crisis; mitigate the turmoil during conflict; and/or assume a set of duties to keep order until civil unrest is permanently pacified.
Realistically speaking, if a single individual gains a set of autocratic authority, they will abuse it, often prolonging their acquisition of Emergency Powers until further notice. One of the more common ways of doing this would be to declare a "state of emergency" (a government alert that rationalizes the bending or breaking of laws and/or liberties). Note that a state of emergency can be used to suppress internal opposition without having to respect human rights.
How Emergency Powers are attained varies. Sometimes, it's granted by legislative or judicial branches. Other times, it's adopted by the all-but-name autocrat by default. In some of the deadlier scenarios, the soon-to-be autocrat can unilaterally assume Emergency Powers and rationalize that it's justified because of the direness of a situation, subsequently overriding or depriving the human rights of any group the autocrat dislikes.
Emergency Powers occur during times of any crisis; natural or man-made disasters, periods of civil unrest, just after a declaration of war, during an internal or external armed conflict, or an unstable regime change where interim commanders take over to keep the peace.
Contrast Screw the Rules, I Make Them!, where the autocrat doesn't even bother with the bureaucracy and rules as he sees fit. Sister Trope to Cincinnatus, where someone really does give up their Emergency Powers. Related to Let No Crisis Go to Waste, where something negative is turned positive, and is the ideal (but far rarer) scenario for Emergency Powers.
- Bleach. After the Central 46 was destroyed by Aizen, Gotei 13 leader Yamamoto assumed total control as a military dictator until suitable replacements could be found. As a non-abusive example, Yamamoto used the authority to overturn the miscarriage of justice Aizen had previously engineered against Urahara's group and the Visoreds before giving up the authority as promised once the new Central 46 was convened.
- Colonel Shikishima of AKIRA declares martial law near the end of the movie, taking control of the government in order to pursue Tetsuo and end the psychic crisis without interference from politicians like Nezu.
- In V for Vendetta the Norsefire group has been using these sorts of powers to maintain order in Britain, resulting in a dystopian Police State society. In the comic books, after the Leader is assassinated, the ambitious head of the Fingermen tries to grab power and become the new de facto head of government with this as his justification.
- In The Siege, the President of the United States declares martial law in Brooklyn and the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division, under Major General William Devereaux (Bruce Willis), occupies the city district, seals it off, and proceeds to round up all young Arab males into makeshift detention camps.
- Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Palpatine manipulated the Galactic Senate to grant Emergency Powers to the Chancellor in the wake of the Separatist Crisis. This meant he received executive privilege to declare the creation of an army and extend his term of office long after it was constitutionally required to end. Such broad powers allowed him to write and pass the Sector Governance Decree, which allowed him to appoint military governors (read: Moffs) to every planet in the Republic. He ultimately uses this power as one of the stepping stones to reforging the Republic into a Galactic Sith Empire (Palpatine is in fact a Sith Lord named Darth Sidious who manipulated both the Republic and the opposing Separatists as well as turn hero Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader) and ensure he would have these powers and more for the rest of his life in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith.
- In The Manchurian Candidate, the conspirators' plan is to assassinate the leading presidential candidate, to provoke a reaction that, as Eleanor Iselin boasts, "They'll sweep us into the White House with powers that'll make martial law look like anarchy". This is the page quote for this trope.
- The Dark Knight Saga discusses this concept and applies it to Batman's vigilante actions. The crisis is the mob families' control of Gotham City, and the corruption that prevents the police and the courts from opposing the mob. Bruce Wayne justifies his illegal and unethical acts (snooping, beating up criminals, etc.) by insisting that they're temporary measures to help the police do their jobs—once Gotham is able to protect itself, he'll retire the Batman persona. District Attorney Harvey Dent, initially one of Batman's biggest fans, favorably compares Batman to the first Roman dictators.
- Gabriel Over the White House (1933) is a weird film in which The Great Depression and the epidemic of organized crime leads the President to take dictatorial powers. What's weird is that this is presented in the film as a good thing.
- Near the climax of Them!, martial law is declared in Los Angeles after giant ants are discovered to be Down L.A. Drain, possibly establishing a new nest and breeding in large numbers.
- The X-Files: Fight the Future: The Conspiracy's grand plan (or so Conspiracy Theorist Dr. Kurtzweil believes) for the time where they will take over the United States is that they will manufacture a grand disaster at the moment they feel they are ready so FEMA will declare emergency powers and rise as a "secret government".
- The Ciaphas Cain series (set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe) has several examples:
- On Simia Orichalcae (Caves of Ice), Cain served notice that the alternative to martial law was summary execution of anyone who obstructed the Valhallan 597th's defense of the promethium refinery.
- On Adumbria (The Traitor's Hand), the local acting governor receives emergency powers from the "Council of Claimants" (various offspring of the deceased governor vying for the post) when General Zyvan threatens to declare martial law. The two immediately act to get the aristocrats out of the way.
- On Nusquam Fundimentibus (The Last Ditch), the threat of martial law is used to persuade the governor to order the evacuation of the capital ahead of a tyranid attack
- In It Can't Happen Here, President Windrip declares a state of emergency (or the 1930s equivalent expression) immediately after taking office and dismisses Congress & the Supreme Court and suspends the Constitution, becoming the dictator of the USA. (Needless to say It Happens Here.)
- On Gor, city-states are normally headed by Administrators and a council, but in times of war the council may appoint a Ubar who is essentially a Fantasy Counterpart Culture dictator or Generalissimo. When the crisis is over the Ubar is supposed to cede his power back to the council, but often as not decides to remain Ubar. In that case one of two things happen: either his men leave him and he stays in his castle until he is taken out and executed, or his men stand with him and he remains in power until and unless he is deposed (usually by an outside force with its own Ubar). In practice, almost all city-states we've seen are ruled by a Ubar.
- This turns out to be the reason for the periodic genocidal rampages by the Achuultani in Empire from the Ashes — their society is controlled by an AI that abused emergency protocols to seize absolute power, the problem being that the emergency protocols are apparently hard-wired, so it has to perpetuate a permanent state of crisis to maintain power, and has completely reshaped Achuultani society and meddled with available technologies for that purpose. The periodic sweeps is simply done so that Achuultani are always doing something that can be defined as fighting a war somewhere (well, than and removing potential competitors before they get too powerful, but actually fighting efficiently risks ending the crisis).
- As the civil war progresses and the tyrannical Federal Government begins to totter in the dystopian near-future setting of Victoria, the President, VP, senior legislators of both Houses and most of the Cabinet are suddenly killed in what is said to be (and may or may not actually be) an improbably successful lone wolf terrorist attack. Then the gloves come off, as the no-nonsense Chairman of the Joint Chiefs shoves aside the designated survivor and proclaims a military government with emergency powers, to last until the rebellion has been suppressed.
- On Babylon 5, the Earth Government under President Clark uses fear of alien invasion or infiltration to justify martial law and its progression of power grabs. While the fears are generally unfounded, they used scary footage of Shadow ships (their secret allies), False Flag Operations (including the assassination of the previous president), and alleged Conspiracy Theories such as Sheridan and the Minbari breeding Minbari-human hybrids on the Babylon 5 station to subvert the human race—all in order to build a full-blown Orwellian dictatorship where everyone was paranoid and spying on everyone else, and the government could dispense with its political enemies however it saw fit.
- One episode of Garrow's Law drops the anvil that emergency powers are often preserved long after the emergency ceases when Garrow defends someone who is being prosecuted under emergency laws even though they really shouldn't apply.
- The Doctor Who Series 8 finale, "Death in Heaven", reveals that the governments of Earth have agreed that, in the event of a global invasion or catastrophe, the Doctor is to be made acting President of Earth. To keep the power in check, it's only in effect while he's aboard Boat One, which is rather like the idea of Air Force One.
- On The Last Ship, Alisha Granderson's mother, who was previously a minor bureaucrat, ends up as the highest-ranking official in the US government after the Red Plague breaks out. Naturally, the power quickly goes to her head.
- "Order 1081", from the David Byrne and Fatboy Slim collaborative album Here Lies Love, describes a power grab by the Philippines president Ferdinand Marcos. In response to a (possibly manufactured) crisis, he signs an act that extends his terms of office and gives him the power to arrest any "suspicious" characters—which just happens to include his political rivals—without actually pressing charges against them.
- During Mage: The Ascension's concluding book Ascension, one scenario featured a mass-Awakening of Sleepers across the world forcing the Technocracy to institute their own variation of this in the form of the World Advisory Council, an anti-cult think tank supposedly established to deal with the growing threat of millennial cults. With the Traditions having been framed as apocalypse cults armed with hallucinogenic drugs, the Council ensures that the governments of the world can be directed against the mages without any Sleepers learning the truth - well, any more of it than necessary. Naturally, most of the solutions to the ongoing crisis involve prison camps, brainwashing, and various attempts to wipe out the Traditions once and for all. Unfortunately for the Technocracy, the sheer volume of Awakenings breaks the Masquerade so thoroughly that nobody can buy the "terrorism" excuse anymore, and eventually the Council is stripped of its authority as Sleepers turn on the Technocracy as well.
- In the BattleTech universe, this is how the Captain-General became the de facto and hereditary head of state of the Free Worlds League. Unlike many examples, The Captain-Generalcy has had a relatively weak hold over the union, to the point where the FWL has been memeticly described as under perpetual civil war. In a bit of irony, the League’s strongest leader was actually an impersonator who had replaced the real leader after the latter was injured in a bombing, and the last leader of the League before it finally fragmented during the Jihad and Dark Age.
- The Trope Codifier is the Roman title of dictator, which was bestowed in a crisis when singular leadership was needed. The most famous examples of this is the mostly legendary Cincinnatus, who discarded his powers supposedly after discharging a crisis and his office. The only source for this story is Livy, who wrote centuries later during the reign of Augustus, who was quite keen to remind everyone that he is Just the First Citizen and obviously he can be trusted with extraordinary powers (fingers crossed).
- The earliest historical era where the office was used was during the Punic Wars when Fabian Maximus Cunctator and later Scipio Africanus became dictators to better defend the state against Hannibal's invasion. Fabian's use of the office was undermined because nobody liked his delaying strategy (Cunctator which means Delayer was an insult) and the Senate declared his political enemy Marcus Minucius co-Dictator, who promptly oversaw the disastrous defeat at Cannae. The senate later clashed with Scipio Africanus as well, after his famous victories, where they suspected (not without justice) that the senator was using his military prowess to enrich himself and his clients.
- The Republic later made up other forms of emergency measures, largely because the extraordinary conditions that call for dictatorship cannot be invoked to deal with say reform movements by tribunes and others. So there needed to be another means that was strictly speaking, not in the constitution. The most notable is what Julius Caesar described as the Senatus Consultum Ultimum, calling on the consuls "to see that no harm comes to the state". Under this decree, Gaius Gracchus and his supporters, and some 1000 others were murdered without a trial and their bodies dumped in the Tiber river. Cicero invoked this again during the Catiline Conspiracy to justify the summary execution without trial of supporters of Catilina and calling the latter an Outlaw. The decree was invoked against a rebel general Marcus Lepidus, and finally was invoked by the Senate to illegally appoint Pompey a single consul for a year. The Consul was an elected office and the Senate had no right to nominate a candidate (more or less Dictator with the Serial Numbers Filed Off).
- Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix in his Second March on Rome, had himself elected dictator for life, and ruled for three years presiding over mass purges and confiscation of property before surrendering his title. Decades later, Julius Caesar so nearly one of Sulla's victims, claimed dictator-for-life after defeating Pompey, and ruled for five years before his assassination. His successor Augustus largely phased out the word dictator and called himself Princeps, the First Citizen even if he was far and away the most dictatorial of that entire period and his regime was the Trope Maker and Trope Codifier for modern dictatorship.
- Germany's constitution under the Weimar Republic included Article 48, which allowed the President to rule by decree without consulting the Reichstag, Germany's parliament. It was intended to be an emergency measure but was used more and more by President Paul von Hindenburg to conduct routine business. It severely destabilized Germany's democracy and provided Those Wacky Nazis with a simple tool to establish a dictatorship after they took power in 1933. Technically speaking, Hitler never actually abolished the Weimar Constitution; he declared a state of emergency that lasted twelve years.
- President Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the American Civil War, and at one point ordered troops into New York City to suppress the draft riots. Bear in mind that the draft riots, originally a protest against conscription, devolved into race riots and the worst violence in New York history (even more people died than in 9/11). So within the context, it was seen as necessary.
- French law
- It allows the declaration of a state of emergency, which enables authorities to enact censorship, curfews, house searches in all hours (instead of between 6 p.m. and 10 a.m.) and sending people before military courts; however the constitution cannot be amended.
- Up to Eleven: Article 16 of the Constitution gives full powers to the President in cases of near destruction of the State.
- In French history, the famous Reign of Terror of The French Revolution was conceived and justified as a state of emergency. Historians don't doubt that the stakes were high, France was in the middle of civil war and external invasion from every European power, and the Terror was part of a declaration of total war. The Terror was noted for its large-scale repression of political opponents but statistics show that all of it was contained to areas affected by civil war and the frontiers and that most of France was unaffected, which seems to support that it was mainly a war measure. However later critics point out that the executions and continued and intensified after immediate military threats were dealt with, with even the primitive legal fetters removed in the final months of the "Great Terror".
- The état de siège, or martial law, allows military courts to try defendents and let the military rules a place instead of the civilians.
- Indira Gandhi declared such state in India after being convicted of electoral fraud and protestations from her opposition. The Emergency created panic around the world for the possibilities of India becoming a dictatorship, but its high unpopularity and constant protests led to its withdrawal.
- In the case of Kashmir, India has maintained martial law and curfew in the state with its army occupying and administering the valley for decades, with their rule being highly unpopular among locals.
- Canada has done this under the old War Measures Act during the two World Wars and in the October Crisis when Quebec Liberation Front separatist terrorists began a campaign of bombings, kidnappings, murders and bank robberies throughout Quebec. Canadian Army soldiers were brought in to help law enforcement apprehend suspected FLQ terrorists and step up security in major cities.
- During the "Period of mobilization for the suppression of Communist rebellion" ranging from 1949 to 1987, Taiwan was under martial law due to the "Temporary Provisions Effective During the Period of Communist Rebellion" and the threat the "Red bandits" posed to the island.
- Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1967. It was briefly suspended after the 2011 revolution, and then promptly re-instituted after Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's coup in 2013.
- Martial law was invoked twice in the Philippines' history, the first by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 (until 1981) which led to thousands of deaths, and the other a lesser-known one by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2009 at Maguindanao after the massacre of over 50 people, most of them being journalists.
- As an after-effect of Marcos' martial law, the 1987 Constitution laid out guidelines and limits on declaring it to prevent a repeat of what happened in The '70s.
- In a case that does not involve suspending the writ of habeas corpus, current president Rodrigo Duterte is banking for the legislature to approve emergency powers for him, to solve Manila's horrendous traffic situation. Another case is Arroyo's declaration of state of emergency in 2006 after the government claimed that they foiled an alleged coup attempt.