LONDON - The establishment of one-man rule in the heart of Europe has enraged civil libertarians and Hungary’s opposition leaders, who accuse Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of manipulating the coronavirus pandemic to establish what’s effectively an elective dictatorship.
Pressure is mounting on the European Union to take action against Hungary for passing sweeping emergency measures that will allow Orbán, a populist, to rule by decree indefinitely.
Orbán’ insists the measure is only temporary. And his foreign minister, Péter Szijjártó, told CNN last month that it was “unfair” to say the rule-by-decree measure amounts to a threat to the country's democracy. Although there’s no deadline on Orbán’s enhanced authority, he said, the parliament can remove his new powers when the virus subsides.
“There are many fake news and lies spread about Hungary based on this new law,” Szijjártó said.
Orbán’s foes doubt his good faith. They say his emergency measure fits into a disturbing pattern from Ankara to Beijing and Caracas to Moscow, with authoritarian-minded leaders using the pandemic to consolidate or expand their power.
In Hungary’s case, the emergency coronavirus measure cancels the country’s elections, allows eight-year prison sentences for anyone breaking quarantine and gives Orbán the power to shut down media outlets that spread what is deemed “fake news.”
“Parliament can, technically vote to end this extra power,” Umut Korkut, a politics professor at Scotland’s Glasgow Caledonian University wrote in a recent commentary. “But Orbán’s party Fidesz has a two-thirds majority. The Constitutional Court can investigate the legality of any governmental decrees Orbán produces, but again, he has made sure it is packed full of judges chosen by his party. It has been a long time since the court last voted against the government.”
“The legislation therefore effectively delivers the country to Orbán in full, without any checks and balances,” Korkut wrote.
Since Orbán’s re-election in 2010, civil libertarians have denounced him for initiating a concerted erosion of democratic checks and balances. They include curbing judicial independence, politicizing the civil service and interfering in media and civil society.
“He moved quickly to consolidate power now because the public health crisis provides the perfect opportunity to take advantage of Hungarians’ sense of vulnerability, fear, and anger,” according to Markos Kounalakis, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank on the campus of Stanford University in California.
The Hungarian leader has remained undeterred in his shaping of what he likes to call an “illiberal democracy.” His political message has been that national sovereignty is being undermined by globalization, and nation states and their traditional cultures and lifestyles are being weakened by bankers and Eurocrats.
Orbán has at various times cited Russia, Turkey and China as useful models for Hungary and opposed Western sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The European Commission, which has clashed with Orbán before over rule-of-law issues, said it was monitoring developments in Hungary and may need to take action against Hungary. A spokesman said last month the commission was carrying out a “mapping exercise” of member states to examine whether any laws adopted during the crisis comply with EU and international laws.
“There is particular concern about the case of Hungary, and I can tell you that we will not hesitate to take further action if this is deemed necessary,” said the spokesman, who requested anonymity to speak frankly at a briefing.
Donald Tusk, the former European Council president who now heads the largest political grouping in the European Parliament, the center-right European People's Party, said it should consider expelling Orbán’s Fidesz party as a member once the coronavirus crisis ends.
The Fidesz party was suspended last year from the main pan-European center-right alliance as controversy flared over alleged rule-of-law violations in Hungary.
“Making use of the pandemic to build a permanent state of emergency is politically dangerous, and morally unacceptable,” Tusk said.
As the vote passed on the emergency legislation, Orbán assured the national assembly: “When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception.” He added: “Changing our lives is now unavoidable. Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary.”
But Norbert Röttgen, head of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and a candidate in the race to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, also condemned the law, writing on Twitter that it “effectively eliminates opposition” and was a breach of basic principles the EU “cannot accept.”
Legally the EU could suspend Hungary’s membership of the bloc until it decides Hungary is in compliance. That would require the backing of all member states, however. The EU could also withhold funding and subsidies, which amount to 6 percent of Hungary’s gross domestic product. That, too, needs unanimous consent.
There are doubts whether the commission will act decisively, despite mounting pressure. The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, a center-left political group in the European Parliament, has condemned Orbán for crossed "all red lines.” The group has labelled Hungary as “the first dictatorship in the EU.”
The commission’s formal response has so far not gone beyond the rhetorical stage. The threats contain no suggestion of possible economic punishment. Brussels has ducked taking sharp action before against Hungary over rule-of-law breaches.
The European Commission is the executive arm of the EU and makes recommendations to the heads of national governments. All EU member states are supposed to observe rule-of-law standards and separation of powers. In 2017, for example, the commission brought a case in the European Court of Justice against Poland over laws that allegedly politicized the judiciary.
In the past, Orbán has had the support of like-minded nationalist leaders in neighboring states in Central Europe — although this time they have been expressing unease at what they see as over-reach. Othmar Karas, a lawmaker and member of Austria’s ruling conservative OVP party, which has been supportive of Orbán in the past, told reporters recently that the emergency measure “puts Orbán on the path” of authoritarianism.
But Orbán's defenders say actions under Hungary’s emergency legislation can be struck down both by parliament and the constitutional court, the country’s top tribunal.
John O’Sullivan, a former adviser to Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and the president of the Danube Institute, a pro-Orbán think tank based in the Hungarian capital Budapest, says Orbán’s action is no different from other Western leaders during the coronavirus crisis.
Writing in the National Review, the U.S. political magazine, last month he says: “Macron is already ruling by decree, and both Boris Johnson and Angela Merkel are doing the same in effect, through primary and secondary legislation.”
Orbán made his name as a young anti-Communist dissident delivering a fiery anti-Russian speech at the 1989 reburial of Imre Nagy, leader of the Hungarian revolt of 1956 against the Soviet Union. But since the 2008 financial crash he has morphed from a libertarian leader into a populist conservative.
Last year, Freedom House, a U.S.-based watchdog group, described Hungary as only “partly free,” the first time in history it withheld the designation “free” from an EU member state. It accused the Fidesz-led government of having “moved to institute policies that hamper the operations of opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations whose perspectives it finds unfavorable.”