Since being elected as Prime Minister in 2010, Viktor Orbán has led Hungary down a road toward authoritarianism, but recently, in the wake of the coronavirus, Orbán has received powers indefinitely that pose an even graver threat to Hungarian democracy.
Orbán is a populist through-and-through. Since his entry into Hungarian politics in the 1990s, Orbán has moved his party, Fidesz, to the far right, and he has done so with rhetoric of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism, as Jan-Werner Müller in her book What is Populism?. Orbán has trumped up fear of Muslim immigrants and refugees in order to pass laws and gain power. He claims that his regime is the only thing stopping a complete Muslim takeover of Hungary. In fact, Orbán even had a fence built along the Serbian border (which requires a permit, which are rarely issued to report on) to keep out “Muslim invaders,” then had the bill sent to the EU. All of this despite the fact that Muslim immigration does not seem to be a problem in Hungary.
This rhetoric of Orbán’s government being the only regime who can stop a Muslim takeover of Hungary is very typical populist rhetoric, according to Müller. In this way, Orbán is making an argument that he is the only person who can truly represent Hungary’s interests while also undermining the legitimacy of the opposition.
Though there is no evidence of pure fraud in Hungary’s elections, international monitors declared that in the 2018 elections, the opposition had no real chance. Firstly, there are so many regulations and restrictions on civil society that it is hard for pro-democracy groups to organize. Secondly, most of the media in Hungary is either nationalised or owned by Orbán’s allies, so most media is pro-Orbán propaganda. Lastly, Fidesz stands up bogus opposition parties in order to divide the anti-Fidesz vote. For all of these reasons, it is nearly impossible for there to be fair elections in Hungary as the opposition is not playing on a level playing field as Fidesz refuses to view them as legitimate.
Orbán has also raised concern in the past because he advocates for “illiberal democracy,” a term he uses himself. During his first term as Prime Minister, Fidesz controlled ⅔ majority in Parliament which allowed him to change the Constitution, which he said needed to be done since the last constitution was written in Communist Hungary. Changes included adding a retirement age to judges, which was seen as a way to weed out judges appointed by the opposition, curbing of free media protections, and an electoral reform which lowered the number of Parliament seats from 386 to 199.
If this all weren’t bad enough, Orbán seems to be using the current coronavirus outbreak to further seize power. On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament voted to cancel all elections, suspend the Parliament itself (and also its ability to legislate) and give Orbán the right to rule by decree indefinitely. Though several other countries have ceded emergency powers to their leader, none have gone as far as Hungary, which has essentially given Orbán the keys to the castle with nothing to ensure he will ever give them back. Furthermore, Parliament also voted to criminalize anyone who spreads false information about coronavirus or the government’s response to it.
Almost immediately, these new powers were taken advantage of as Orbán passed controversial non-coronavirus decrees. For example, he passed a ban on transgender people from being able to legally change their sex and restrictions on museums and theaters (which he has previously railed against as too liberal). Orbán also tried to strip mayors, many of whom belong to the opposition, of their political power and autonomy, but was met with such fierce outrage that he backed off the idea within a day. This is perhaps a positive sign for the health of Hungary’s democracy as many mayors from opposition parties were elected in October of 2019 elections, which marked Orbán’s largest electoral defeat since gaining power. Furthermore, this might mark real resistance from both inside and outside the system. Local leaders can serve as an important buffer to democratic backsliding (Kestenbaum) especially when citizens rally in opposition to the policies of the federal government alongside them (Stephan and Chenoweth).
These new powers are extremely alarming to the health and protection of Hungary’s democracy. Orbán’s ability to rule by decree indefinitely likely means that he will tighten his hold on power, which is extremely dangerous. Furthermore, his current ability to completely circumvent all democratic institutions has raised alarms as he has been willing in the past to curtail civil rights and liberties of citizens, especially of his opponents.
Kestenbaum, Dave. “Act Six: A Change in the Office Climate,” in “608: The Revolution Starts at Noon.” This American Life. January 20, 2017: 53:28 –1:04:15.
M ̈uller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. pp. 75-104.
Stephan, Maria & Erica Chenoweth. 2008. “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.” International Security 33(1): pp. 7-44.