Hungarian Prime Minister Orban Uses COVID-19 To Enhance His Authoritarian Power

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban was awarded sweeping powers on Monday, with their parliament handing him unprecedented emergency powers, defeating opposition parties by 137 votes to 53. The laws will give Orban the power to rule by decree, meaning that he doesn’t need the approval of the legislative branch in order to create policy. Furthermore, the new bill means Orban can arrest anyone seen as spreading what they consider to be false or distorted information. For this so-called crime, for which independent journalists are at the most immediate risk, there could be a maximum sentence of up to five years in prison. The new laws, therefore, lurch Hungary further down the path towards authoritarianism or dictatorship; a path that Orban’s Fidesz Party has been pushing for over the past decade.

Bloomberg describes the new bill as “the right to bypass the assembly on any law” whilst Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN commissioner on human rights stated the new laws could have “a potentially chilling effect on freedom of expression in Hungary”. The dramatic nature of these laws can hardly be overstated, with Human Rights Watch explains that “with this law, Hungary becomes the first country in the European Union to virtually abolish all democratic checks-and-balances”. The Hungarian government say that this sort of criticism is unwarranted, with State Secretary Bence Retvari insisting that Orban’s power is “limited in both time and scope”, although that claim appears to be false.

What Fidesz has done is unconscionable in a modern, supposedly democratic country. The right to free speech and a free media is of paramount importance to the functioning of a proper civil society, something that Orban’s record since he took power in 2010 shows that he isn’t a fan of whatsoever. At a time when potentially tens of thousands of lives are at stake from COVID-19 and disseminating useful, health focussed information is necessary to prevent loss of life, Orban has destroyed the chance for anyone to ask questions of why certain actions are necessary or constructive. With its indefinite nature, these emergency powers could spell the end of Hungary’s post-cold war period of democracy.

Since 2010, it is no secret that Viktor Orban has made Hungary more authoritarian. He even describes himself as a proud “illiberal”. In 2010, Orban’s newly elected government gained a supermajority of over two thirds and were then able to alter the constitution unilaterally. One of their early actions was to nearly halve the number of parliamentary seats, which makes it easier for them to win re-election in the proportional system. Human Rights Watch (HRW) say the constitutional changes allowed Fidesz to “weaken legal checks on its authority, interfere with media freedom, and otherwise undermine human rights protection in the country”. Measures have included a 25% tax on any funds that go to what HRW calls “supporters of immigration” whilst laws have been passed that make it “a crime to help refugees, asylum seekers or other migrants”. There was already a state of emergency due to illegal immigration that is now entering its sixth year as Orban has frequently run on hard-line, anti-immigrant rhetoric. Furthermore, German media outlet DW reported earlier this year that “anti-Semitic authors will soon be compulsory reading in Hungarian schools, and history books will be rewritten to promote pride in the nation”.

The history of the past decade illustrates why the rest of Europe and the world should be watching very cautiously over the direction of Hungary. Not only does this latest power grab continue the trajectory of the Orban regime, but there is no credible reason to believe they will relinquish the power that they are desperate to tell their citizens and the world is only a temporary measure. To echo the suggestion of Human Rights Watch; the EU has to revitalize their Article 7 proceedings against Hungary. Article 7 is “the mechanism dealing with EU governments putting EU’s values at risk”. Fidesz has to know there will be serious consequences to their abuse of power that was occurring long before COVID-19. The EU’s funding and the threat of its withdrawal will have to be used as well. The future of the EU’s ability to maintain peace, order and human rights within its borders might depend on this critical moment.

Matthew Gold