In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, with every country preoccupied with protecting its citizens and maintaining order, Hungary has silently become a dictatorship. This calculated move by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came at a time where little can be done to stop him. At the end of March, the National Assembly (controlled by Orbán’s Fidesz party) passed an emergency bill allowing him to rule by decree, indefinitely. Only the National Assembly has the power to suspend the bill, however, there has been no point in history where a Fidesz member has gone against the will of its leader. Parliament and elections have also been suspended. With the opposition being tightly controlled and any critics censored or prosecuted, there are few voices of resistance.
On an official level, multiple EU leaders have signed a letter demanding action to be taken against Orbán. With former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi calling for the expulsion of Hungary from the Union in a tweet, Orbán reacted to the pressure by stating “I can hardly imagine any of us having time for fantasies about the intentions of other countries.” Prominent government supporter, party member and journalist Zsolt Bayer has spoken out against Orbán’s critics – specifically, on how the pandemic has been handled, Bayer has accused outspoken hospital staff of “generating panic.” Meanwhile, his co-host insisted that “Some of these fear-mongers should be put in a police car,” the Financial Times report.
While it is commendable that multiple people from all positions and backgrounds have spoken out, it does not appear as if there will be an appropriate reaction by the European Union. It goes without saying that Hungary stepping backwards in their fight for democracy is especially worrying and saddening. Particularly when remarkable steps are being taken in the unification of Europe and the minimisation of borders, it is incredibly upsetting to see this effort being sabotaged. At the same time, the underwhelming reactions from Brussels, reminiscent of those when Poland’s judiciary was stripped of its independence, is highly concerning. This situation is not being handled with the appropriate urgency, and if this trend continues, it seems that the consequences will not be of suitable magnitude. It seems that the distraction of the outbreak has worked as intended, with nobody being in a position to step in and pursue the matter.
Viktor Orbán has served 14 years as the Prime Minister of Hungary, with a long career in politics. His time in office has seen multiple traditionalist and conservative reforms, including bills in support of traditional marriage, going against EU policy and refusing to accept refugees and more recently, seeking to end legal recognition of transgender people. Through various constitutional amendments and laws allowing for censorship and control of the media, Orbán’s consolidation of power was a no surprise. The process dates back at least to the 2010 election, and has been ongoing since. Considering how gradual the process has been, it is not shocking that there has been no international intervention or even a condemnation. However, the time has clearly come for both of these to happen.
Under the pretense of managing a health crisis, Hungary has slowly slipped into the beginnings of a dictatorship. Once the coronavirus crisis subsides, it is unlikely that things will go back to as they were before. The European Union, as well as their people, will be deeply affected by this situation. Nonetheless, we can hope and aim for official and serious action to be taken to effectively tackle this threat to security and democracy. The solution will be complicated and difficult to implement, but it is certainly an achievable feat.