There are clear signs already that the ruling party has begun to use the special legal order for political revenge.

The coronavirus is another reason for the Hungarian government to grab more power.

None of the European countries has gone as far as the Hungarian government in drafting new measures as part of an emergency law, in response to the unprecedented global crisis.

The government submitted a Bill on Protection against the Coronavirus, seeking parliamentary authorisation to extend the “state of danger” invoked on 11 March that would give the government the power to rule by decree, without parliamentary oversight as well as institutionalises censorship.

The bill would allow the government to rule by decree even if the Parliament is in session.

It also introduces two new types of criminal offences concerning the publication of “false or distorted facts that interfere with the successful protection of the public” or “that alarm or agitate the public” as well as and for interference with operations regarding quarantine or isolation.

The former would be punishable up to five years of prison, the latter could result in up to 8 years in prison.

Institutional restraint has never been in the nature of this government – it has rewritten the constitution eight times, to further restrict civil society, the opposition and the independent media.

Now, it is entirely legitimised to declare a state of danger in times of pandemics but it is also one more tool for further democratic backsliding.

Democratic institutions hollowed out

The current regime has not tolerated any constitutional limitations on the exercise of its powers in the last decade.

With a supermajority, Viktor Orbán’s government systematically took over and emptied out the agency of all democratic intuitions – serving as checks and balances.

The State Audit Office, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Fiscal Council and the Constitutional Court all have become instrumental tools of the ruling elite, turning a blind eye on government-related systemic corruption and political issues sensitive for the government.

Therefore, replacing a constitutionally prescribed state of danger with unlimited power, without any sunset clause, would undermine the very basic idea of the rule of law.

It shed lights on the true authoritarian nature of the Hungarian government aiming to grab more power.

Authoritarian populism in a nutshell

While there was a debate about the proposed bill in the National Assembly on 24 March, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s words – “we will solve this problem even without you” – are indicative of the next step.

They will push new law through on 30 March with constitutional majority by force, regardless of the concerns raised by the opposition.

The very essence of authoritarian populism is to delegitimise all political opponents by labelling them as an existential threat.

In this spirit, the Hungarian government is depicting the opposition critical of the bill as those “rooting for the coronavirus”, allegedly being against the interest of the pure people. 

This is a tried and tested strategy. The same logic was applied during the refugee crisis when all critical views were depicted as “pro-illegal migration” (sic), embedded into a broader conspiracy theory about the NGO network of George Soros.

At the outbreak of COVID19, pro-governmental pundits were stressing that the coronavirus is a distraction from the real problem of Europe, namely, “illegal migration”.

Currently, they still blame migrants for bringing coronavirus to Hungary since the first cases were detected among Iranian students in Budapest – regardless of the fact that they were studying in the country legally.

Critical voices are demonised

The aim is to polarise society by amplifying fears that go beyond party cleavages.

The spokesperson of Viktor Orbán Zoltán Kovács was attacking the Hungarian Medical Chamber for “politicising the crisis” when the organisation uniting all Hungarian doctors came up with recommendations for the safe of effective protection against COVID-19.

Among others, the Medical Chamber warned that the masks available to medical workers do not protect the wearer, recommended the government to order all non-essential stores to close and ban people from unnecessarily leaving their homes.

Especially in times of such crisis, the government should not demonise critical voices but rather perceive them as a constructive contribution for the sake of an effective government-led approach.

Nonetheless, Hungarian government attacks also other usual scapegoats: the European Union, and all international bodies that are somewhat concerned about the respective bills.

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán just responded to the Secretary-General of the Council of Europe, claiming that “if he is not able to help, he should let at least refrain from hider their defensive efforts”. 

A pretext for a power grab and political revenge

Obviously, COVID-19 is another pretext to consolidate power.

There were premonitions before this new bill came into force: Fidesz mayors in Komló and Szekszárd were implementing measures suitable for political revenge.

The state of danger has provided local mayors with a broader range of powers.

Laszlo Balogh major of Nagykanizsa has circumvented the collegiate body dominated by the opposition on many issues.

He has taken over the exercise of rights of municipal companies, drastically cut the wages of the representatives of the local government and withdrawn 5 municipal councillors from the opposition.

The major of Komló, József Kolics has gone even further. He entirely killed off the wages of all elected representatives and adopted the budget of the municipality on his own.

Arguably, the current special legal order should not serve the role of political revenge but as an effective defence against the pandemic crisis.

Opening pandora’s box on institutionalised censorship

The bill also provides an opportunity to silence dissident voices, namely journalists.

Media pluralism has been declining for years and the relationship between the government and the independent press is hostile.

Orban labelled main independent site Index.hu as Hungary’s biggest fake news portal

Viktor Orbán – similarly to the American President Donald Trump – labelled the biggest Hungarian news portal as fake news and pro-government mouthpieces have listed unflavoured journalists as “Soros propagandists”.

In the last few years, it was common for the chief prosecutor to launch an investigation against investigative journalists who were simply doing their jobs.

The Hungarian space for the media independent of the government has been shrinking in unprecedented ways, and any discretionary powers in the hands of the public prosecutor would lead to a further deterioration of the situation.

Additionally, editorial boards could be locked down during an investigation.

Even if the court announces later on that the respective press did not violate any law, the media will be hindered to operate in the meantime, which could take even months.

At the same time, public media have long been utilised and will be employed to attack opponents and help the spread of conspiracy theories.

In the 2019 edition of the Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, the Oxford Internet Institute points out that the Hungarian media space is a venue of domestic state-led manipulation.

After Fidesz came to power in 2010, content was being produced in public television with one main goal: to hinder the opposition to be elected.

Currently, it is in a manual override mood: government instructed staff need permission to report most of the issues that are sensitive to Fidesz.

By creating a new crime against “fake news” – what is fake conceptualised by the ruling party – would result in further deterioration of freedom of speech and the freedom of the press.

Not to mention a chilling effect, since the restriction could simply serve as an accelerated drive towards self-censorship.

Getting things done for the people

The overall systemic risk is that autocrats like the Hungarian Prime Minister are successfully riding the wave of impatience with liberal constraints on governments.

They are depicting checks and balances as obstacles of getting things done for the people.

An opinion poll conducted in March, before this bill was introduced, showed that the majority of the Hungarian respondents considered the measures taken proportional and claimed that they would be open to even stricter measures.

Historically, citizens were more likely to tolerate or support authoritarian measures during security crises, when they fear their own safety.

The systematic risk is that antidemocratic measures taken during crisis situations could remain in force easier, simply because societies become tolerable with time – argued once an Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben.

This is why it is particularly dangerous to embed this global pandemic crisis into a false, misleading dichotomy that stipulates that people have to choose between their health and safety and democracy. 

On the contrary, democracy, the rule of law and the human rights are what help us best to coordinate in this global crisis.

Since the Hungarian government has spent more than 200 million euros for anti-EU campaigns in a decade, another potential fallout of the coronavirus crisis is that the government will further exploit Eurosceptic sentiments. 

Viktor Orbán has long been channelling his Euroscepticism through a discourse on migration, stressing that Europe is decadent and arrogant, and suicidal in its embrace of Islam.

A prolonged global crisis combined with multiple anxieties and an extrapolated sense that the EU institutions are not helping could indeed result in centrifugal forces.

The European Commission cannot tolerate a further power grab and has to monitor the withdrawal of the state of danger once the pandemic crisis is over.

 

This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. On the basis of this article, an interview with Edit Zgut is available in Danish on Altinget.dk.

#DemocraCE Fellow. Political scientist and visiting lecturer at the Center for Europe at the University of Warsaw. PhD student at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the Polish Academy of Science. Focusing on illiberalism in Hungary and Poland and the constraining role of the European Union


Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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