The handling of the current COVID-19 global pandemic has had varying effects on nations across the globe, but in Hungary, it could spell the end of democracy.
The current ruling party in Hungary is a far right nationalist and populist party known as the Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance. With a supermajority in place in Parliament, the party has managed to pass an emergency bill to address the coronavirus. However, this bill goes much farther than any other European Union country, and has effectively suspended parliament and has given absolute power to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. In addition, elections are suspended and violating the national quarantine will be punished with up to 8 years in prison. The emergency bill grants Orbán this power for an unspecified amount of time. Amnesty International, a human rights centric NGO, issued a warning, stating that the bill gives Orbán “carte blanche to restrict human rights.”
While much of Orbán’s rhetoric has been divisive and anti-democratic in the past, his party’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in terms of undermining Hungarian democracy. In The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes, Juan José Linz asserts that crises are often manipulated by regimes in order to break down democracy. By declaring standard operating procedures as unable to appropriately address the crisis, the regime establishes an element of justification for their unprecedented behavior.1
The bill also aims to harshly punish journalists and news media outlets for spreading “fake news” relating to the coronavirus, which sets a dangerous precedent for the state stepping in to suppress and censor media that goes against their desired narrative. Studies have made it clear that freedom of the press plays an essential role in maintaining a healthy democracy2, so this makes it even more explicitly clear that Orbán’s aims are focused on establishing himself as a powerful authoritarian rather than legitimately acting with good faith to combat the pandemic.
It is clear that Prime Minister Orbán and the Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance have taken advantage of the global pandemic in order to restrict democracy and increase their own power. In the passing of this extreme coronavirus response bill, it is not hard to see echoes of Germany’s 1933 Enabling Act, which infamously gave Adolf Hitler absolute power in an effort to address the burning of the Reichstag. Needless to say, Orbán’s newfound absolute power casts a dark shadow over prospects of future democratic practices in Hungary.
- Linz, Juan J. & Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 2.
- Enikolopov, Ruben, Maria Petrova, and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya. 2011. “Media and Political Persuasion: Evidence from Russia.” American Economic Review, 101 (7): 3253-85.