A creeping #Coronavirus coup

| March 30, 2020

Exceptional times require exceptional measures. Governments across Europe are introducing unprecedented policies to minimize the spread of COVID-19. In the middle of political uncertainties, some authoritarian governments are using the pandemic to advance their own political goals and massively expand state powers. Despite the unprecedented nature of the crisis, autocrats cannot be left alone to further tighten their grip on power – especially when this is happening in an EU country, writes Epicenter European Policy Information Center Director Adam Bartha. 

Hungary – alongside with Poland – has long been the black sheep of the EU when it comes to the respect of the rule of law and liberal-democratic foundations. The shaky grounds have been further eroded, as a result of a bill the Parliament passed on the 30th March. The bill is meant to outline the measures that aim to slow the spread of coronavirus. In reality, the legislation goes much further than that, potentially giving unlimited powers to the prime minister for the foreseeable future.

The bill suspends the Hungarian Parliament indefinitely and governance would be replaced with a direct ‘rule by decree’ by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán. In effect, this means that the Prime Minister will be able to introduce and disregard any type of legislation for an unlimited period of time. The Speaker of the National Assembly and the leaders of the political parties sitting in the parliament ‘will be informed’ about these decisions, but they will not have the power to influence them. The Constitutional Court will remain functional and have oversight on the decrees introduced by the Prime Minister, but Orbán had 10 years to fill the court with friendly judges, therefore they will likely continue assisting the Prime Minister in his endeavours.

The fears about the future misuse of power are further exacerbated by the rest of the bill. The proposed legislative changes would enable the “suspension of certain laws and take extraordinary measures in the interest of guaranteeing the stabilisation of the lives, health, personal and material security of citizens, as well as the economy.” These extraordinary measures include three crucial points.

First, an outright ban on all elections and referendums, including by-elections, in case a member of a parliament dies or is unable to fulfil their function. Second, anyone who disrespects the quarantine orders can be punished with a 5 year-long prison sentence – 8 years if the actions can be linked to someone’s death. Third, anyone who spreads lies or ‘true statements in a distorted manner’ that might interfere with the ‘successful protection’ of the public – or that alarm or agitate that public – could be punished by up to five years in prison.

These extraordinary measures would be a worrying sign in a well-functioning democracy as well, but Hungary is very far from being one. Under the premiership of Viktor Orbán, Hungary dropped faster in the Freedom House Index than any other country on the globe besides seven, a group that included Venezuela, Turkey, and the Central African Republic.

Orbán’s premiership was well-known in the last decade for effectively rolling back the liberal-democratic foundations of his country. The public broadcaster is a 24/7 party propaganda for the governing party, private media organisations are in the hands of government-friendly oligarchs, therefore dissenting voices are scarce, except for a few online media outlets. The ruling party adopted a one-party constitution in 2012 which has been modified seven times since, based on the momentary political interests of Orbán. The Constitutional Court, filled by friendly judges of the government, has never posed any serious threat to the power of the ruling party, nor have the opposition parties whose options of action are severely curtailed.

The government’s reaction to the pandemic was bound to be centred around gesture politics, instead of real measures. The latter is much more difficult to realise in a country with an overcentralised healthcare system that was already gradually collapsing before the pandemic. Maintaining the image of competent governance will require even more fake news, even harsher measures to oppress dissenting voices and even more centralised power than Orbán had in the last decade.

Some of these measures will not seem as extraordinary, as they would have two months ago. Other European countries are also introducing policies that severely curtail individual freedoms in order to fight the pandemic. Although time-limited, strictly supervised extraordinary measures are understandable in times of unprecedented crisis, the proposals of the Hungarian government go far beyond that.

Orbán already had a much tighter grip on power before the corona crisis than any of his fellow European prime ministers. But as any good authoritarian, he saw an unmissable opportunity to further consolidate his power. As European governments are battling the pandemic and EU institutions are preoccupied with maintaining the flow of goods and some solidarity between their members, a small country with a problematic leader is the least of their worries. They might be right, but the actions of Hungary have set a dangerous precedence for any EU member state.

The unwillingness and inability of EU leaders to stop financing the authoritarian government of Hungary in good times, will come back and bite much harder now during an unprecedented crisis. As the Hungarian government made the next step towards further deepening its autocratic governance, European leaders should rethink their relationship with Hungary and the financial assistance they provide for authoritarian leaders within their members.

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Category: A Frontpage, coronavirus, EU, Health, Hungary

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