The COVID-19 pandemic has killed 80,000 people and counting as of writing this piece. The international crisis has marred the beginning of 2020. The virus, originating from bats, is believed to have made the jump to humans at a wet market in Wuhan, China. In the months following the initial outbreak governments around the world have had to grapple with a deadly, highly contagious, and in some cases asymptomatic disease ravaging their countries. Some governments have handled this crisis effectively, drawing praise, such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkle or South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in. On the other hand, some governments have been less effective and drawn criticism, such as United States’ President Donald Trump or China’s President Xi Jinping. However, one government has faced criticism unrelated to keeping their citizens safe. Hungarian President Viktor Orban has used the threat of COVID-19 to erode democratic freedoms and become an effective dictatorship. While other governments are dedicating all of their resources to fighting a deadly pandemic, Orban has led a “coronavirus coup” to seize power he may never relinquish. Hungary’s parliament, controlled by the Fidesm, Obran’s political party, voted to grant him emergency powers, including rule by decree. These are the types of actions taken by a political demagogue and draw comparisons to the fall of Weimar Germany.
Democracy in Hungary is at risk now more than ever. Democracy was established in Hungary in 1989 during the end of communist rule in Eastern Europe. The first free and fair elections were held in 1990. However, the young democracy has been challenged consistently during the second rule of Orban. Orban was elected prime minister in 1998 and ruled until 2002. It was his second stint as Prime Minister that began in 2010, which has drawn the most ire from democratic watchdogs. Since 2010 Orban has introduced major constitutional and legislative reforms. According toThe VOX, the new constitution gerrymandered the parliamentary districts to give his Fidesz party leg upand expanded the size of the county’s constitutional court, which he promptly filled with Fidesz loyalists. Furthermore, according to the New York Times, Orban has control over the state and independent media. By applying financial pressure on the independent media owners, Orban has persuaded them to sell to his friends or party allies. Orban’s rule has been plagued a step by step dismantling of a once young but stable democracy.
The death of democracy is often sparked by a political demagogue taking office. According to Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die , political demagogues can be identified through four indicators: rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game, denial of the legitimacy of political opponents, toleration or encouragement of violence, and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including media. Orban has met several of these criteria. He has a weak commitment to the democratic rules of the game and he has abused his power to stuff courts and gerrymander districts, thus creating an uneven playing field. He has denied the legitimacy of his political opponents. According to The Times, Orban has used his emergency powers to strip opposing political parties of their public funding, this has undermined their legitimacy. Obran’s regime has lacked the use of force commonly associated with demagogues. However, one such instance was when state run media failed to broadcast anti-Orban demonstrations. A group of opposition lawmakers visited their headquarters and were refusedand later ejected by force, according to the New York Times. Finally, Orban has curtailed the civil liberties of opponents including the media. Also according to the New York Times,one of Orban’s rule by decree measures was to place restrictions on journalism that the government deems fake and harmful. This has a violation of the civil liberties of journalists. Orban has met all of the criteria to be considered a political demagogue. His history of abusing powers sends a grim warning to Hungarian democracy as Hungary is now under his indefinite rule by decree.
Orban’s “coronavirus coup” has led to comparisons to another young but stable democracy that fell towards authoritarianism during uncertain times, Weimar Germany. Both nations before their fall were expanding welfare states, and had parliamentary governments with a directly elected leader. According to Detlev Peukert, in his book “The Crisis of Classical Modernity” , an economic crisis in Germany following WWI as well as the Great Depression in the West led to an abandonment of a system that had already lost legitimacy. Needing changes due to an ineffective government, German leaders undermined parliament and strengthened the presidential authority. Following the elections of 1930, the Nazis gained a significant share of votes, which led to a loss of majority for non-radical parties, and made parliament incapable of taking decisive actions. In the 1933 elections the Nazis and allies won a majority and established rule by decree for Hitler to combat the national emergency. This path is similar to Hungary today. However, instead of an economic crisis Obran took advantage of a global pandemic. His party won a majority in parliament and strengthened his presidential authority. And now that there is a global crisis parliament has granted him rule by decree, essentially establishing a dictatorship. Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New Yourk: Crown.  Peukert, Detlev J.K. (1987). The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. New York: Macmillan. Chapters 12-14.