Current Affairs Opinion

Coronavirus in Hungary: Pandemic or political tool to kill democracy?

Across the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the rapid inflation of government power. Executives are seeking to bail out industries and are forcing citizens to follow social distancing measures.

In the UK, this has taken the form of banning people from socialising outside their households, while the US is preparing a $2 trillion stimulus package. It is not an overstatement to say our lives have turned upside down in under a month.

However it is in Hungary, a member of both NATO and the EU, that coronavirus has had the most profound political effects. On the 30th of March, the Hungarian parliament voted to give Prime Minister Viktor Orban near-dictatorial powers to rule by decree, censor media, and cancel elections, ostensibly to curb the spread of coronavirus. 

While this may seem to mirror the actions taken by other governments during the crisis, in reality it represents another nail in the coffin of Hungarian democracy following years of growing authoritarianism on the part of the Orban government. 

To fully comprehend the consequences of this authoritarian coup de grâce, it is important to first look back on the past decade of Hungarian politics, starting with the victory of Orban’s Fidesz party in the 2010 general election.

This victory came on the back of anger at the ruling Socialist Party’s mishandling of the 2008 economic crisis and revelations of corruption in its leadership. Consequently it could be interpreted more as a protest vote against the establishment than an endorsement of Fidesz’s policies.

Orban though, who had first won power in 1998 after studying at Pembroke College Oxford, was determined not to again lose power having blamed his previous defeats on media bias and rigged elections. Therefore he set about using the force of the Hungarian state to create a political monopoly.

His party Fidesz oversaw blatant gerrymandering, diluting the electoral power of liberal cities like Budapest in favour of conservative rural areas. It also set up fake parties with deliberately similar names to the actual opposition parties in order to split the vote; and gave citizenship to 1 million ethnic Hungarian living outside the country, most of whom have never set foot in Hungary and who regularly vote for Orban en masse.

On top of this the Fidesz state has launched an assault on the free press, buying out news companies or pressuring them into dissolution so that now 90% of all media outlets are controlled by the government or allies. The results of this attack on civil society are evidenced by the outcome of the 2018 election which saw Fidesz win ⅔ of the seats (enough to amend the constitution) with just 49% of the vote. 

Until now Orban’s state has always maintained the veneer of legitimacy. Individuals in Hungary are not jailed for voicing anti-government opinion and there is no evidence of outright electoral fraud.

The outbreak of coronavirus has changed this equation. Despite Hungary only having 678 cases (compared to 125,000 in Spain), Orban has used the pandemic to accrue blatantly totalitarian powers to rule by decree with both parliament and elections being suspended indefinitely.

It is also important to note that Orban still wields emergency powers given to him during the 2015 refugee crisis, despite Hungary now only receiving on average two asylum claims per day.

Furthermore the Hungarian legislation lacks a “sunset clause”, which would see the law automatically suspended after a set period, as has been included in Britain’s legal responses to the pandemic. It should go without saying that that however bad this pandemic is, it does not require the monopolisation of power in the hands of one man , as the examples of Spain, Italy, and Germany show.

It is also arguable that Orban’s previous anti-democratic actions and neglect of health services led to the exodus of doctors and other educated professionals from Hungary, actively hampering their response to the crisis. In fact Orban’s first use of his emergency power has been to promote a bill which would end legal recognition of transgender people, making it impossible for individuals to change their recorded sex at birth. 

As shown by his transphobic actions Orban’s attitudes are almost the antithesis of the founding principles of the EU, with Orban himself declaring in 2018 that “liberal Europe is devoid of all meaning” and that Hungarian “Christian democracy” is by definition illiberal.

Therefore, one might expect the EU to be taking action to punish his seizure of power. Yet at the moment the organisation appears to lack both the motivation and means to do so.

Fidesz is a key member of the EU Parliament’s European People’s Party, an organisation which includes the CDU party of Angela Merkel and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Even if the EPP was willing to move against Orban the only mechanism the EU has of punishing members is Article 7, which could strip Hungary of its voting rights. However, this requires unanimous agreement among states and Poland will surely veto it as long as the equally authoritarian Law and Justice Party is in power there. 

While we are all at risk of overdramatisation in these trying times, it may not be too much of an exaggeration to see Orban’s most recent actions as Hungary’s “Reichstag Fire” moment. The total burning down of democracy may soon follow.