The Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has used the pandemic of coronavirus to turn Hungary into an authoritarian system. This undermines the fundamental principles of democracy and rule of law in a way that is hard to reconcile as necessary for public health. On 30th March 2020, the Hungarian government passed a bill in the parliament which approved granting his government emergency powers.
Critics have said that the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic has turned Hungarian democracy into a dictatorship. This bill, which turned into a law, diminishes the Parliament’s check on the executive power. This means that elections and referendums will be delayed indefinitely.
Political commentator Zoltan Cegledi told BIRN, “Hungary’s already run as an illiberal democracy, the government’s will to destroy, limit and exhaust democracy is permanent. Its future victims will be the remnants of autonomy. Even before the pandemic threat, they [the government] tried to besiege cultural institutions and representatives while attacking judicial independence.”
The legislation under the law also allows up to five years of imprisonment for anyone who publishes false or misleading information that alarm or agitate the public or undermine the government’s “successful protection”. This also means that it is easy for the executive powers to jail the journalists for doing their job. Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank also wrote “The remaining checks and balances in Hungary will cease to exist and the country will likely witness a new wave of attacks against the free press,” while analysing the bill.
Crucially, the Bill on Protection Against Coronavirus, now a law, does not have any sunset clause. This means the law allows the government to decide when (or if) to end the state of emergency. Hungary’s democratic opposition said that even though they had concerns over a number of elements in the bill, they were willing to overlook it in the emergency situation as long as the sunset clause was introduced. However, the ruling party had made it clear that it was not willing to back down over the sunset clause.
Lydia Gall, a senior researcher at the Human Rights Watch said that Orban had already “weaponized coronavirus to stoke xenophobia” after claiming that coronavirus was imported to Hungary by Iranian students.
The question now arises is why Orban is doing this? There are two reasons. One, this labels the opposition as the “supporters of the coronavirus”, instead of supporters of the people, which will win his government the political debate in advance. Two, Orban sees this as the perfect time for a power grab. Every country is dealing with how to save the lives of its citizens and avoid a total economic collapse- this makes the country more inward-looking, which means that the foreign policy, in general, becomes less important and human rights and the rule of law in other countries become issues of less importance for most politicians and citizens, even though that should not be the case. When there is a death threat, the citizens of a country have a more narrow view. This is how Orban’s strategy of a power grab would work perfectly in the time of an emergency like a pandemic. Rights groups and government critics have said that while it is clear that coronavirus brings extraordinary challenges, there need to be checks and balances in place for the government, especially given Orban trying to challenge the democracy of Hungary since the past ten years since he has been in power.
Orban is not alone in seeing the pandemic as an opportunity to invoke emergency powers and turn a democratic state into an authoritarian one. But this enabling act represents his latest step along the autocratic path he embarked on a decade ago.