Viktor Orbán answers questions at the press conference at the federal chancellery in Berlin in July 2018.
On Monday, March 30th, Hungary’s Parliament passed a bill to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban an indefinite rule by decree in response to the coronavirus pandemic. From an authoritarian country, the move was a rather blatant power grab meant to prolong the rule of a man who’s been in power since 2010. Its repercussions, however, will extend far beyond Hungary to create shockwaves throughout the European political scene.
According to John Hopkins University, which tracks global coronavirus cases in real-time using different sources, there are currently 1410 cases and 99 deaths in Hungary. As a comparison, Hungary’s European neighbors to the west, Spain and Italy, both individually have more than 100,000 cases and at least 10,00 deaths. None of these countries have passed anything remotely similar to the Hungarian Assembly’s new bill. Regardless, though, Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party holds a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament, so 137 out of 199 members voted in favor of it on Monday.
Orban has now been granted emergency powers that include the suspension of Parliament. His government has been allowed to stop enforcing certain aspects of the law, and individuals who publish anything government officials deem untrue can face up to five years of jail time. Most importantly, though, no elections or referendums can be held and the bill cannot be reversed until another two-thirds vote passes and Orban himself delivers a presidential signature.
Perhaps the measure serves to override parliamentary procedures that unnecessarily extend the decision-making process for the coronavirus pandemic. In multiple statements, government officials have claimed that Orban’s primary concern is the protection of human lives. However, a closer examination of some of Orban’s edicts, passed after Hungary’s parliamentary bill, reveal a self-serving or conservative agenda more than they do any coherent government strategy to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. As case in point, legislation has called for construction of museums at the expensee of national parks and a ban on sex changes.
This is not the first time Orban administration has capitalized upon crises for political gain. Since 2015, for example, the Hungarian government has repeatedly declared states of emergency for the European refugee crisis. Most refugees either avoid or only pass through Hungary, but, even today, the country still operates under a state of emergency that grants administration officials usually inaccessible powers that include using the Hungarian military to support border patrols and police dealings with refugees. A similar pattern exists for the Hungarian response to European terrorist incidents.
The most recent bill also does not mark the first time Orban and his Fidesz party has restricted free speech. Heavy censoring of newspapers and journalism can be expected in the coming days. Most of Hungary’s daily news outlets already operate under the state-owned Central European Press and Media Foundation. In 2016, the shut-down and partial acquisition of leading opposition paper Nepszabadsag by one of Orban’s public allies, Lorinc Meszaros, made headlines. In 2018, at least 500 more media outlets established ties to the Orban administration.
All things considered, Hungary’s been building up to an authoritarian measure like its newest bill for a while. The EU has been relatively uninvolved in the nation’s actions as it moved towards authoritarianism. The EU has already been struggling to re-define itself as a political entity after Brexit. Coronavirus already put negotiations with United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson on pause. Further questions about the bloc’s legitimacy are surfacing as no coherent European strategy can be observed, even more than two months after the first coronavirus case appeared in Europe. Countries like Sweden defy lockdown patterns as leaders in the EU argue over relief bills or “indecently ideological” borrowing practices while the rest of the world looks on in puzzlement.
If the EU ignores the Fidesz party’s latest totalitarian measures, they’ll be writing a blank check for authoritarianism and signing away what’s left of EU legitimacy. The Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights is supposed to guarantee citizens “civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.” Democracy begins with the right to vote, but—if nothing else—Hungary’s newest bill posits itself fundamentally against choice.
Officials from the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all criticized the bill. But the EU has done little else against Hungary, aside from starting the Article 7 Proceedings to deal with a country that breaches the bloc’s core values. Notably, the Article, which requires a unanimous vote, has been used against Poland and Hungary in the past, and the two countries are widely expected to veto for one another.
We are currently undergoing the worst public health crisis of our generation. More than anything, we need from our governments a commitment to better health care systems and transparency. Orban is currently using the virus as a means to implement further authoritarian ideology throughout Hungary, taking advantage of his citizens’ vulnerability during this time of uncertainty.
*Note: the numbers cited in this article were last updated on April 12th, 2020 and may have changed since then.
Photo from Shutterstock.