For most people, it is virtually impossible to view the Coronavirus pandemic as anything but catastrophic, but for Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, the Coronavirus provides him with a unique opportunity to make an authoritarian power grab. From travel restrictions and border closures to closely monitored lockdowns and media suppression, citizens all over the world must now accept the extreme measures put in place that we once considered a threatening abuse of state power. For the last ten years, Hungary has not been the epitome of democracy. Orban and his conservative, right- wing populist party, Fidesz, have slowly been chipping away at democracy and democratic norms. While vocalizing his dislike for liberalism, Orban has pushed Hungary in the direction of what he calls an illiberal democracy; a system where citizens lack civil liberties and, therefore, are left uneducated about what is going on in their government or who is in power. During this transition into an illiberal democracy, Orban has undercut Hungary’s education system, dismantled democratic institutions, limited the freedoms of the press, and minimalized the power of the courts. A pandemic is exactly what Orban needed to happen to take his agenda of authoritarian rule one step further.
On March 30, 2020, the Hungarian Parliament passed an emergency bill, a so- called “Coronavirus Law.” In response to the Coronavirus, this new law extraordinarily expands the government’s power during the declared state of danger. It gives Orban a chance to appear as a democracy while quietly failing to act like one. A declaration of a state of danger can only be introduced and withdrawn by the government. Typically, there is a Sunset Clause associated with a state of danger to enforce a time limit on the declaration, usually 15 days. Hungary’s declaration terminates the 15-day limit. This means decrees adopted by the government will continue until the government decides to expire them. This is particularly concerning because it dismisses the checks and balances that are essential to democracy. While it is expected that in a pandemic there would be a declaration of a state of danger, in this case it is merely a factor in the continued democratic erosion taking place in Hungary.
Not only does the Coronavirus Law allow Orban to rule by decree, it also gives the government power to suppress the media. A healthy democracy cannot function without freedom of the press. Orban has taken the media crackdown one step further by imposing 5- year prison terms for any journalist he thinks is spreading “false” information about the virus. It is the ruling party who gets to determine what they consider to be false information. Orban has also echoed American President Donald Trump by deeming one of Hungary’s largest news outlets as “fake news.” It is just one more way Orban is using the Coronavirus to gain full authoritarian control.
By now, most countries have taken reasonable measures to protect their citizens during the Coronavirus pandemic. What happens when the pandemic is over? For Hungary, it would seem Orban will keep the extreme measures in place and thus turning Hungary into an authoritarian regime. Hungary has been reducing freedoms and democratic norms for years. As long as citizens feel they are in danger with the Coronavirus then they will tolerate these new laws, because it is believed in a time of danger that only the government can save them. Only when the pandemic has passed will the citizens of Hungary have an unfettered view of their government.