Quarantining Hungarian Democracy
The Covid-19 crisis is exploited by Viktor Orbán to consolidate power and undermine democracy. The increasingly authoritarian Prime Minister has used the pandemic to further authoritarian ends. Democratic backsliding in Hungary has for long been a cause of concern for the European Union.
Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán at the 2012 EPP convention in Bucharest
(European People's Party, Creative Commons)
This week, the Hungarian parliament, where Orbán's party Fidesz and its ally KDNP hold a two-thirds supermajority, passed a coronavirus bill that allows Orbán to rule by decree, without a clear cut-off date, that makes yet another contribution to the erosion of democracy in Hungary.
Viktor Orbán's power grab
Hungary is not the only country that has declared a state of emergency over the coronavirus outbreak. Across Europe, leaders have approved bills that allow governments to perform actions and impose policies that under normal circumstances would be incompatible with divisons of powers. However, the time constraints on such bills typically ranges from 30 to 90 days, which signals that they are intended for an extraordinary, temporary emergency.
In Hungary, the “Act on the containment of coronavirus” allows Orbán to rule by decree, without a sunset clause on the legislation. The parliament can decide to end the law, but Orbán's party has a comfortable majority with no previous track-record of resistance among Fidesz MPs to the will of the government. Furthermore, the law criminalizes the “spreading of falsehood and distorted truth in relation to the emergency”, with punishments up to five years of imprisonment. The bill could lead to self-censorship among critics and journalists who fear being prosecuted for allegedly posing a threat to public health.
The Containment Act, therefore, purposely blurs the distinction between the acts of an effective state that protects the public health of its citizens, and those of an authoritarian government seeking to cement power. This is not the first time that the Hungarian president passes bills to undermine democracy. Since Viktor Orbán’s return to office in 2010, the Alliance of Young Democrats–Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) party has pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed it to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions.
In 2010, the parliament changed the electoral law in a move that would favor Fidesz. Orbán has also overseen the complete restructuring of Hungary's media landscape to skew coverage in favour of the governing Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic People's Party) alliance. Judicial Independence, the free press and academic freedom are under strain too, as Budapest’s prestigious Central European University (CEU), a high-ranking institute funded after the fall of the Soviet Union to champion the principles of democracy and open societies, has been forced out of the country.
Taken together, these developments amount to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule. According to the democracy index developed by Freedom House, Hungary is now only “Partly Free” and the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project has proposed to classify the EU member state as an “electoral autocracy”.
Hungary has become “a textbook case”, the example of how crises can provide fertile ground for authoritarian ends.
The last time Orbán declared a state of emergency was in 2015, at the onset of the refugee crisis. Today, five years onwards, the state of emergency laws are still operating. At that time, emergency legislation was used to deny rights to migrants. It allowed the army to use rubber bullets and tear gas against migrants and it made illegal border crossings punishable with several years in prison. Displaced migrants were routinely demonized by the government as criminal threats to national security.
In 2020, the enemy is a faceless virus, which gave the opportunity to couple two crises. Today, in fact, Orbán draws on established grammars of exclusion when he blames foreigners and migrants for the contagion. In a statement in mid-March, Orbán argued "We are fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration and the other belongs to the coronavirus: there is a logical connection between the two for both spread with movement".
The coronavirus crisis is thus yet another opportunity for Orbán to fashion himself as the strongman who will protect Hungary against foreign contamination.
Competing for nationalist votes
In 2015, the state of emergency was supported by Fidesz’s main far-right opponent in parliament, the Jobbik party. This week, instead, Jobbik was fiercely against the emergency law, with the leader Péter Jakab claiming that it placed the “whole of Hungarian democracy in quarantine”.
Although Jobbik has a track record of framing liberal media as enemies of the nation, perhaps the Jobbik leader got inspired by a comment in the liberal German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung with the title Democracy under quarantine. While echoing concerns raised by liberal commentators in Western Europe, Jobbik is certainly not a defender of liberal democracy. The party is known for its anti-Roma and anti-Semitic views, an ultranationalist style of doing politics. The change in their position towards emergency legislation, therefore, reflects the competition between two far-right parties over nationalist votes. In recent years, Jobbik has strived to move to the centre and mainstream to appeal to a wider electorate, challenging Orbán's long-held position. Integral to Jobbik's defence of the separation of powers is the party's goal to replace Orbán's populist authoritarianism with their own radical nationalist version of "illiberal democracy".
The response of the EU
Democratic backsliding in Hungary has for long been a cause of concern for the European Union. An electoral authoritarian regime within the Union is incompatible with the very principles on which the EU is founded.
In 2018, The European Parliament voted in favour of launching the so-called Article 7 procedure against Hungary - for the «systematic threat to democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights». The severest punishment of the article entails stripping the country of its voting rights in the EU. Poland, which was subject to a similar process, pledged to veto any attempt to impose such sanctions. In both Hungary and Poland, the situation has deteriorated since the triggering of Article 7.
Today, democratic death starts more often at the ballot box than through military coups and demonstrations. The palliative phase occurs gradually, through elections, legislative changes and contempt for democratic norms and opponents. Orbán's latest power-move, or “corona-coup”, has been fiercely criticised by opposition parties, civil society groups, lawyers and researchers. Thirteen national leaders in the European People's Party (EPP), the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, have now called for Fidesz to be expelled from a group that had been so far reluctant to push for sanctions.
The block might not be capable of reversing the illiberal turn in Hungary, particularly not while states are struggling to save shattered lives and economies. But a reaction is better than silence. The EU cannot passively observe Hungary using the greatest pandemic since the Spanish flu to quarantine democracy.
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