The COVID-19 pandemic is holding up a magnifying glass to the fragility of not only Hungary’s healthcare system but its already besieged democracy. In 2008, far-right populist Viktor Orban captured public sympathy, and Hungary’s highest political office, by exploiting the perfect storm of economic malaise, a frail civil society, and cultural republic memory of an occupation-strewn history to deepen fissures within Hungarian society. Political scientist Milan A. Svolik laments that the phenomenon of polarization “presents aspiring authoritarians with a structural opportunity: They can undermine democracy and get away with it.” The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic intensifies polarization by inflaming public anxiety, creating a political vacuum exploitable by populist figures such as Orban. The Hungarian government can thus capitalize upon the pandemic as an emotional and political pretext for removing already-meager democratic constraints on his administration’s power.
On March 30th, the Hungarian Parliament voted to extend the existing “state of emergency.” The “state of emergency” entails canceling all elections and granting Prime Minister Viktor Orban an indefinite right to rule by decree. This dismantling of checks on executive authority paved procedural backroads for the passage of contentious policies unrelated to the pandemic it was purportedly intended to alleviate, such as museum construction. The broadened emergency powers also increased the robustness of legal consequences for peddling COVID-19 misinformation. Citizens can now be jailed for spreading misinformation, allowing Orban to suppress dissidence with an opportunistic embrace of a malleable interpretation of “misinformation.” This transforms the law into a self-serving instrument for ostracizing sopponents from the sociopolitical mainstream as liars and threats to national security. Orban’s capacity to rule by decree tightens the government’s vice-like grip on Hungarian civil society and the press, starving the public discourse of any oxygen for a transparent, open debate. Orban’s measures placed the bureaucracy in an ideological straightjacket, crippling its capacity to effectively respond to the ever-evolving nature of the pandemic. Designing and implementing an effective response to such an unprecedented threat demands innovation, creativity, and open flow of ideas. By funnelling resources into the consolidation of his power and sacrificing the country’s economic and sociological development, Orban extinguished the dynamic, freewheeling social and intellectual climate necessary to facilitate a progressive and adaptable response.
Orban’s indefinite right to rule by decree effectively dismantles mechanisms that ensure electoral accountability and encourage government responsiveness to the people. The vote, citizens’ first line of defense against democratic backsliding, no longer matters. Francis Fukuyuma demarcates between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes by asserting the former “balances state power with institutions of constraint—that is, the rule of law, and democratic accountability.” The “rule by decree” paralyzes Hungary’s institutions of constraint that maintain democratic accountability. The courts can’t deem a law unconstitutional, the legislature cannot debate or modify ineffective sections of policy, and Orban can handicap civil society’s capacity to openly protest or dissent under the guise of “doing what is necessary” to protect Hungarian national security.
The indefinite rule by decree also broadens Orban’s capacity to monopolize the official public narrative of who is helping and hurting Hungary as it contends with the pandemic. Orban’s far-right allies conflate criticisms of the government’s blatant power grab with an assault on Hungarian efforts to contain the virus. These accusations are an iteration of the exclusionary rhetoric that resonated with jaded citizens and paved Orban’s road to securing and maintaining control over the Hungarian political machinery. Leading publications form a chorus of official voices lambasting the government’s domestic and foreign critics as tacit endorsers of the virus. By concocting an artificial, contrived symmetry between those opposing Orban and Hungarian welfare, the government robs the opposition of a basis upon which to debate Orban’s policy or defend civil liberties. COVID-19’s threat to public health is an excuse to invalidate all political and social narratives that deviates from Orban’s as dangerous.
Orban’s exploitation of the virus to broaden his executive powers and monopolize the pandemic’s political narrative reinforces his core strategy: amplifying public resentments and mistrust of anyone in opposition to his leadership. More democratic opposition parties, migrants, and even the European Union, which he castigated as the “new Moscow” in a thinly veiled reference to the country’s coerced membership in the Soviet bloc, are the victims of his divisive rhetoric. Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev identified democracy’s structural soft spot in practice that makes Hungary vulnerable to Orban’s power grab, musing that the public health crisis “makes people ready to tolerate everything, because when the danger is everywhere, you believe only the government can help you.” Orban’s posturing of his government as Hungary’s sole savior highlights populists’ capacity to exploit the pandemic to elaborate upon their personal mythology and enhance their cult of personality. Juan J. Linz and Alfred Stepan cautioned that crises are more likely to emerge in political systems “characterized by limited consensus, deep cleavages, and suspicion between leading participants.” Orban’s presses into and deepens “deep cleavages,” encouraging citizens’ embrace of fixed, partisan identities that appear to demand more immediate attention than the overall safeguarding of democracy. The COVID-19 threat creates an ideal breeding ground for populism by inflaming pre-existing societal anxieties that carve out niches for populism in the sociopolitical mainstream by validating these feelings and creating a framework through which to process and understand this emotionally overwhelming pandemic, even if that framework is one-dimensional and exclusionary.
Viktor Orban exploitation of the current global health crisis’ intensification of domestic tensions to expedite democratic backsliding is also a potential patient-zero for “viral authoritarianism,” or authoritarianism’s spread to other countries governed by hybrid or weakened democratic regimes. Orban’s successful exploitation of the current crisis to dramatically expand the bounds of his power and suppress opposition points to a continued degeneration of Hungary’s already-compromised democratic procedures and norms. A leading pioneer of contemporary far-right populism in the Western world, it remains to be seen whether Orban’s rhetorical and procedural blueprint for a power grab inspires other authoritarian entrepreneurs across Europe and globally. Regardless, the pace of Hungary’s democratic erosion is steadily increasing, a testament to democracy’s structural vulnerability to crisis and populism’s capacity to exploit the societal divisions and anxieties it stokes.
Applebaum, Anne. “Creeping Authoritarianism Has Finally Prevailed.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 3 Apr. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/04/hungary-coronavirus-just-excuse/609331/.
Fukuyama, Francis. “The Thing That Determines a Country’s Resistance to the Coronavirus.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 31 Mar. 2020, www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/thing-determines-how-well-countries-respond-coronavirus/609025/.
Linz, Juan J. & Stepan, Alfred. 1978. The Breakdown of Democratic Regimes. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. Chapter 2.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Shattuck, John. “Viktor Orban’s Viral Authoritarianism.” The American Prospect, 6 Apr. 2020, prospect.org/coronavirus/viktor-orban-viral-authoritarianism-hungary/.
Svolik, Milan W. 2019. “Polarization Versus Democracy.” Journal of Democracy 30(3): pp. 20-32.