Orbán’s pandemic authoritarian grab


Viktor Orbán has been successfully playing a big power game in the last decade, punching far above his weight. But his image as a negative hero in the Western World has clearly backfired now, with Orbán using the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext to complete his authoritarian regime. Orbán’s moves are not purely the domestic political problems of Hungary – an authoritarian state within the EU could be deadly dangerous for the entire project. Germany has a very important role to play in the current situation. 

Budapest, Hungarian Parliament Building, Kossuth Lajos tér, Hungary

A state of danger – to democracy 

On 30 March 2020, the Hungarian parliament passed legislation that prolonged the so-called “state of danger” – practically a state of emergency – that gives the government the right to rule by decree without any time constraints. The law was passed with the support of more than two-thirds – predominantly Members of Parliament (MP) from the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Opposition MPs (except a group of extreme right-wing deputies loyal to Orbán) voted against. 

The problem with the legislation is twofold

Firstly, the lack of a sunset clause enables the government to keep the state of danger in place as long as they want. Officially, the parliament can decide to lift the state of danger. But the parliament has zero independence: the MPs have all been carefully selected by Orbán himself since 2010, and his MPs have never gone against his will in the last decade. It means that it will be Orbán’s decision alone when to give up this special legal status. And there are already signs that it might remain longer than the pandemic itself. Justice Minister Judit Varga emphasised in an interview with Die Welt that Hungary might abandon the extraordinary legal status later than other EU countries, keeping this door open. Also, the fact that the sectoral extra taxes the Hungarian government has slapped on big companies to tackle the virus will also be in place for as long as the state of danger may serve as a justification for their prolongation. Hungarian governmental officials insist that the emergency will be over when the pandemic is over by “objective” indicators; they do not define these indicators. Given the warnings of some virologists that the pandemic will not end soon or come back later, it will be easy to find arguments to keep it in place. 

Secondly, there is a lack of checks and balances that should keep this extra power at bay. Fidesz members of parliament are button-pushing machines, opposition members of parliament do not even have a third of the seats in the parliament and the Constitutional Court that could intervene and overrule the government’s decisions if they go against the Fundamental Law, has been weakened and filled up with governmental loyalists over the last decade. We can find vague wording in the law saying that the government may exercise its extra competences only "to the extent necessary and in proportion to the desired objective – for the purpose of preventing, managing, and eliminating the human epidemic set forth in the Decree as well as for preventing and mitigating its harmful effects”. But with no independent institutions safeguarding this principle, these principles of proportionality and necessity lack any significance. As Orbán’s governments have proven in the last ten years that they take every opportunity to abuse their power, we have no reason to assume they won’t do so this time. 

Content matters, not the procedure

Facing a huge wave of criticism that the government seemingly didn’t expect – from the European People’s Party, the Presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament, and more than a dozen Member States – governmental politicians are pushing back allegations of abuse of power as “fake news” – pointing to the fact that the Parliament is still operating, with tense debates and a packed agenda. 

The truth is that while the government has published many decrees in the last two weeks (e.g. tackling the economic consequences of the crisis), some decisions are still being pushed through the parliament. This is why we should not be obsessed only with the “enabling act” – this is only one tool in Orbán’s toolkit to exercise power in a setting in which he controls most of the institutions. What really matters is the content of the legal changes, either by decree or law, that they are pushing through at a pace that is almost impossible to follow. 

While representatives of the Hungarian government keep raising the rhetorical question as to how Western politicians have the time to deal with Hungarian rule of law instead of tackling the virus and saving the lives of their citizens, there is an omnibus bill in the Hungarian Parliament full of measures that have nothing to do with the pandemic. This bill, most likely to be passed next week, will ban gender-changing surgeries, give some state properties to pro-government oligarchs and classify the details of a huge gigaproject from a Chinese loan that aims to benefit oligarchs close to Orbán, worth €5 billion (!): the Budapest-Belgrade railway line.

In another move of further centralisation and weakening the opposition (that managed to win a lot of municipalities in the autumn), the government took away some incomes of the municipalities and curbed some of their rights. A Samsung project in Göd was simply re-defined by a decree as “special economic territory”, which means the revenues from Samsung will go to the Fidesz-led county council instead of the opposition-led municipality council. 

Also, in an alleged attempt to get “politicians to save money on themselves”, the government cut the state support for political parties in half. It will not affect Fidesz, as they have never had any inhibitions about using government money for party purposes, but will be painful for the opposition. 

The parliament has also amended criminal law: spreading hoaxes or “distorted facts” about the coronavirus can be punished by up to five years in prison. Using this law as a sword of Damocles, pro-governmental pundits, government-organised think-tanks and the “public” media started condemning independent media reports as “fake news”, in an attempt to intimidate and silence critical voices about governmental measures during the virus. 

Hungary is not alone, still special 

Of course, abusing extra powers during the state of emergency, either in the centralisation of decision-making or silencing critical voices, is not specific to Hungary: we can see it in different, but highly similar manifestations all over the world, from Thailand to Cambodia to Russia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. Nor is abuse of power unknown within the European Union: in Poland, for example, the political party “Law and Justice” is using the pandemic to put further restrictions on abortion, while it is not self-evident at first sight how this might help to stop the epidemic. But it is obviously easier to centralise power in a country with a decade-long history of authoritarian backsliding, very weak checks and balances, a huge centralised propaganda empire consisting of more than 500 media outlets used for state-sponsored disinformation and a government backing a constitutional majority. 

Hungary’s problem is the EU’s problem

Hungary’s problem has consequences for the whole European Union, for many reasons. Firstly, Hungarian democratic backsliding could destroy the image of the European Union as the club of champions of democracy. Secondly, Hungary could serve as a role model for other EU Member States, and as we have seen in the last years, there are countries that are willing to follow a similar path if Orbán plays the pioneer. Thirdly, Hungary is doing its best to destroy the image of the European Union, both on the domestic and international level. The Hungarian government and its “government-organised media”are spreading the false message domestically, and its diplomats internationally, that the government receives zero support from the European Union, and all the help is coming from the East – China, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmentistan and Uzbekistan. The fact is that Hungary receives more support from the European Union than Italy does. Fourthly, investments will be in trouble, not only because of the extra taxes imposed on multinational companies, but also due to the increasing appetite of the pro-governmental business interests, afraid of the lean times ahead for the economy. As a sign of this tendency, the Hungarian state recently took over the control of a packaging company that it had had its eye on for a long time, and immediately replaced its leadership with Fidesz loyalists. Hungary is destructive for the EU’s image, both as an illiberal role model and as an active and visible foreign policy player that is polishing the image of Eastern dictatorships while bashing the European Union. 

Reactions of EU institutions and member states

The strong reactions from the European Union surprised Orbán and the Hungarian government. Not only did the the European Parliament condemn the moves, but the leadership of the European People’s Party and some of its member parties did so as well – with notable new players among centre-right parties that are calling for Fidesz’s expulsion – such as Platforma, the Polish centre-right party that brings the second highest number of MEPs to the group after the Germans. After some hesitation, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also condemned the moves of the Hungarian government. 15 EU Member states have done likewise – unfortunately, they did so without naming Hungary, which allowed Hungary to choose the track of troll-diplomacy and join the initiative. Generally, spokespersons of the Hungarian government now seem to have given up their intention of winning over the international public, and are indulging instead in personal attacks against leaders of EU institutions (e.g. heating up false accusations that Donald Tusk’s grandfather was a Nazi collaborator), and using open threats to veto the EU’s budget if treated unfairly or if rule of law conditionality is applied in the next cycle. 

Some conclude that because there is no visible consequence of EU pressure on the behaviour of Hungary, different approaches are needed, and if Hungarian leaders are treated with respect, without open criticism, they may be handled better. But this approach is totally wrong. In fact, external pressure matters a lot in defining the limits – even if the Hungarian government will always try to transgress them. The fact that the Hungarian parliament is still active and operating, despite the enabling act, is mostly due to the attention Hungary has received in the last weeks. Government spokespersons are busy responding to international criticism – and even if they are doing so in an arrogant tone, this is still the proof that they are paying attention. The less attention Hungary receives, the stronger the democratic backsliding will be. Orbán is playing a game of chicken, and he is doing so with supreme confidence – but he will have to to turn the wheel in the end, if he has reason to fear serious consequences, e.g. cuts in EU payments to Hungary. Hungary is simply much more dependent on the EU and its political and financial support than the other way around. But so far, Orbán does not really feel that he has to do a quick manouevre. His cynical game againt the European Union so far has been to stage a freedom fight against the EU while taking the money and using it to finance its regime and clientele. Changing this practice would mean changing the financial mechanisms within the EU. It has to be done anyway because of the MFF, with the big question being the future of rule of law conditionality. 

Germany, as one of the most important countries within the European Union, has a special role in determining which way Hungary will go, and how toxic democratic backsliding could be for the EU as a whole. One of the reasons Orbán has been able to get away with his authoritarian politics without too many consequences was the approach of the German economic players and the centre-right – emphasising the cohesion of the EU and good business relations as the most important priorities. And while this principle is important, sacrificing the core values of the European project (such as democracy) on its altar would be too high a price to pay. While German-Hungarian bilateral relations were long frozen, there were two high-level meetings between Merkel and Orbán in the last year. Also, the hesitance of the German MEPs within the European People’s Party has been a primary reason for the indecisiveness of the EPP about keeping Orbán’s Fidesz in or pushing it out. It is important to note, though, that we could see a shift in the last vote in the EP on rule of law issues, in which all MEPs from the CSU (!) and all but four from CDU supported a resolution that was critical of abuse of power during the pandemic. 

The latest authoritarian moves of the Hungarian government clearly show that gestures won’t help. Authoritarian politicians such as Orbán smell weakness and indecisiveness, but they understand the language of power, and clear signs should come from the very top. While German politicians, including Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, have raised their tone in recent weeks, Chancellor Merkel remained notably silent. She should not, as the future of the European Union, about which she is genuinely concerned, is at stake. Also, it is pivotal that Germany, as the next presiding country of the European Council, keeps the issue of rule of law conditionality on the agenda and does its best to make the most out of it. The reason Orbán has got this far is that he has become used to the criticism coming from the European Union. His experience is, however, that this criticism is never followed by any real, serious consequences. As he wants to stay within the EU, he might reluctantly change course if he feels he has to.