The COVID-19 pandemic has bulldozed its way through even the most powerful nations leaving countless millions unemployed and healthcare systems around the world bursting at the seams. However, to a shrewd opportunist like Viktor Orban, the chaotic status quo comes with a silver lining. During his ten-year tenure as prime minister of Hungary, Orban and his party, Fidesz, have steadily consolidated power as far-right populists. Charlemagne The Orban way, published in the April 4 edition of The Economist discusses Orban’s method of rule. Citing the incumbent Hungarian premier’s latest power-grabbing antic, a law that allows him to rule by decree – bypassing parliament – the article analyzes the history of the politician’s devolution into a populist autocrat.
Viktor Orban’s “illiberal state” fulfills all the prerequisites for the erosion of democracy that Nancy Bermeo explains in On Democratic Backsliding. With the excuse of a need for efficiency during the pandemic, Orban managed to promulgate a law that allows him limitless executive power for an indefinite period of time. This blatant and extreme act of executive aggrandizement – a hallmark of democratic backsliding according to Bermeo – has alarmed rights advocates around the world. Many argue that Mr. Orban’s new powers have made his government a full-fledged dictatorship since he is now able to create laws and rule his country sans parliamentary process. What is most dangerous about a law like this becomes apparent when thinking about the reason a head of state would need to pass such a law. Looking at Orban’s track record, is it at all unlikely that laws he intends to pass may be the type that would get struck down in parliament under normal circumstances? Under the guise of an urgent need to circumnavigate the red tape and common inefficiencies of bureaucracy, Orban will likely pass laws and change the legal framework by which his nation operates in ways that will certainly not have been permitted if left up to parliamentary vote. Unfortunately, relentless pursuit of power is not the only trait of the Hungarian prime minister’s shift towards autocracy.
A key point in The Economist’s article is the role of Viktor Orban’s luck. The article explains that Hungary effectively flies under the radar due to its relatively small size in comparison to other nations in the EU. Countries like Poland are more likely to draw attention from the EU during efforts to maintain regional stability. Thanks to the corona virus, the bloc now has even bigger fish to fry so Orban is even less likely to face repercussions. A leaked recording of Orban’s predecessor admitting to lying for the sake of winning elections played a crucial role in putting Orban in power. Orban’s harsh response to the migrant crisis in 2015 (complete with Trump-esque border walls and crowded detention centers), despite an EU mandate requiring Hungary to accept more immigrants, only allowed him to gain the support of an increasingly nationalist Hungary.
Fidesz was eventually suspended from the European Parliament in 2019, for such blatant disregard for the rule of law but to Orban’s luck, EPP stopped short of expelling Fidesz. Such disregard for the rule of law is characterized by Paul Howe as a key feature of a populist, in his article Eroding Norms and Democratic Deconsolidation. Additionally, Orban’s other traits like his almost explicit anti-Semitism and encouragement of military violence against asylum seekers are also telltale signs of a populist. Unfortunately, the cost of the results of Orban’s chance victories were borne by the democratic resiliency of the Hungarian polity.
Viktor Orban’s rise to power is also part of a global trend of favoring right-wing populists. Liberal Democracy’s Crisis of Confidence by Wike and Fetterolf shows reasons for an affinity for autocrats citing research conducted by Pew Research Center. One key finding was that conservative voters are often less opposed to authoritarian governments and even military rule. Hungary was already built on a foundation of authoritarianism. For example, although Orban truly takes the cake when it comes to media restriction laws in Hungary, restrictions had already been placed on free speech under other leaders before Orban returned to power in 2010 after ending his first term in 2002. For Orban, far-right constituents that were in favor of such laws made for easy pickings whenever elections came around. Orban was lucky that his predecessors had created an increasingly right-wing environment for him and paved the way for his victory in the 2010 elections by means of the leaked tape.
Orban seems to be unstoppable and increasingly dangerous in his accumulation of power. However, in 2015, during the peak of the European migrant crisis, Orban’s government used violence against and locked up countless asylum seekers despite being mandated by the EU to take in more. This and other acts of defiance against EU laws resulted in Orban receiving a barrage of criticism from the international community. The resulting stripping of Fidesz’s voting powers in the European Parliament serves as a glimmer of hope for the fast-fading democratic norms in Hungary. This punitive measure is proof that the EU is capable of reining Orban in. Hungary relies heavily on EU funding and recently even accepted a hefty penalty for mismanaged EU funding. The EU has also previously made attempts to tie Hungary’s funding to the upholding of democratic principles. Although such measures may be drastic and increase clash between Orban and the EU, taking such actions may be the only way to stop Orban’s authoritarianism. A lack of term limits, increasingly nationalist citizens and a populist autocrat is a recipe for disaster. Regimes like Orban’s need to be suppressed before they accumulate too much power. If the EU acts swiftly and threatens the restriction of the funding that Orban so heavily relies on, odds are, Orban will think twice before taking his next step towards dictatorship. Unfortunately, with his new powers to rule by decree, the EU may be too late to prevent a full-blown dictatorship by the “bully of Budapest”, who is unabashedly hungry for power.
 Charlemagne The Orban way The Economist; London Vol. 435, Iss. 9188, (Apr 4, 2020): 29.
 C. Toth, Full text of Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) of 26 July 2014 The Budapest Beacon (Jul 29, 2014)
 F. Schlagwein, New school curriculum raises eyebrows in Orban’s Hungary, Deutsche Welle, (March 31, 2020).
 M. Dunai, T. Heritage, Hungary accepts big penalty for mismanaging EU funds, Reuters, (November 12, 2019).
Featured Image: Viktor Orbán, Wikimedia Commons