On Monday, March 30th, the Hungarian Parliament voted to give the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, the right to rule by decree indefinitely. The decision, which was a response to the increasingly urgent situation regarding COVID-19, also entailed parliament canceling all elections and suspending its own ability to legislate. This development has caused many to fear that this may be the tipping point for Hungary’s democracy. When comparing the Hungarian case to historically similar situations, we are able to see startling comparisons between Orban’s power grab and the way that Hitler first gained power.
Hitler gained prominence through his unique ideas, but that’s not what put him into power. In the 1930s, Weimar Germany was amidst the crisis of the Great Depression, just as we are in the middle of a global crisis today due to COVID-19. Political gridlock was preventing action, and the acting president, Paul von Hindenburg, decided to appoint a chancellor with emergency powers. Hindenburg appointed Hitler as chancellor because even though he didn’t agree with his ideas, Hitler had a mass following, and the hope was that his appointment would cause movement and progress in politics. The core assumption behind this decision was that the German Parliament would be able to control him, as they could the previous chancellors .
Since he became Prime Minister in 2010, Orban, who has openly advocated for “illiberal democracy,” has not exactly been a champion of democracy. In the time since his installment, Orban’s government has misdirected EU money, dismantled democratic institutions, curtailed press freedoms, and limited the power of the judiciary. Orban’s actions tick off many of Levitsky and Ziblatt’s indicators for authoritarian behavior , including readiness to limit the rights of opponents and the press, and a weak commitment to democratic rules. Since the new measures taken by the government said to be in response to the coronavirus crisis, Orban has been using his new authority for much more than a response to the virus. Instead of expanding testing and prevention measures, Orban has scrapped Hungary’s gender transition recognition plan, slashed red tape around one of his construction projects, and passed a bill to conceal details about a Chinese-funded infrastructure project. In addition, hospitals have been restricted from sharing details about the impact of the virus.
With over 30,000 fatalities, Europe has been the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. A crisis such as this one is often a precursor to authoritarian grabs for power and control. Measures that look like red flags in ordinary times can be framed as necessary steps to control the situation at hand. The crisis has also shed light on the inaction of the EU in light of this blatant blow to democracy in the middle of Europe. The European Union so far has had no response to Orban’s new rule-by-decree powers in Hungary, which is the only EU member state to be considered “partly free” by the Freedom in the World Report. The EU has long been notorious for enforcing blanket policies for all member parliaments, but in times of crisis, the governing powers of the EU are being tested. If the example of the fall of Weimar Germany to Hitler is to teach us anything, it is that authoritarian threat has to be taken seriously. Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1.
 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 1.