Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban was given immense power to rule by decree during the initial outbreak of COVID-19, and while the power to rule by decree has been repealed, Orban still retains unprecedented executive power and was once again given broad authority as the virus resurged. This concentration of power led to concerns about authoritarianism, but for Hungary, such an act was the culmination of democratic backsliding decades in the making under the rule of Fidesz. It is crucial to understand the context behind Fidesz’s rise to gauge the health of the country’s democracy and what, if any, chance there is for a healthier Hungarian democracy. Orban’s path to power consisted of three major developments: the new constitution, the consolidation of media power under party loyalists, and the COVID-19 crisis.
A New Order
Following corruption scandals in the ruling socialist party, Orban’s Fidesz party returned to power in the 2010 election with a vengeance. Having secured an absolute majority of seats in the Diet, Fidesz began the steps necessary to create a new constitution, one that structurally favored Fidesz, in four key ways: “limiting the Constitutional Court, dooming the referendum process, asserting control over the media, and putting a Fidesz loyalist in the presidency.” They did this by changing the nomination process and jurisdiction of the court, placing a Fidesz-run Election Commission in charge of referendums to ensure the failure of unapproved policies, forming ties with local oligarchs in the media industry, and simply electing an agreeable president to nullify the presidential check on the Diet’s authority. With that accomplished, Fidesz’s new constitution passed through the Diet resulting in sweeping changes to the political system. These changes slashed the number of seats in parliament, weakened judicial oversight, gerrymandered and altered the electoral system to add more majoritarian aspects that would strategically benefit Fidesz and result in their ability to win a simple majority of the popular vote, but a supermajority of the seats in the Diet. This constitution was then enshrined through judicial review to maintain Fidesz’s hegemony in perpetuity–a known tactic of stealth authoritarianism.
Lights, Camera, Authoritarianism!
While Hungary was once considered one of the fairer states for media in Eastern Europe, the election of Fidesz marked a decline in their fairness and freedom. This is in part due to the fact that Fidesz-friendly oligarchs formed a conglomeration of more than 400 media companies, both state-owned and private, as a massive propaganda outlet. Additionally, the new government created a Media Council to regulate media–conveniently stacked with Fidesz members. This gave Orban immense power to trump up allegations and punitive measures against dissenters. This also gave Fidesz the ability to minimize their own scandals, such as a noted homophobic MP breaking covid guidelines for a gay orgy. More concerningly, however, Fidesz’s control of the media blends public broadcasting with overt propaganda and fake news. This acts as a mouthpiece for Fidesz to spew some of the more outlandish antisemitic and xenophobic theories against George Soros that fueled their 2018 bill suppressing civil society groups. This media power seems entrenched as the European Union has seemed almost powerless to stop it.
Along Comes COVID
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic saw numerous states take stringent measures against the virus, but in Hungary, as the cases rose so did Orban’s executive authority–to unprecedented levels. The prime minister was given power to rule by decree and extended the expiration date of his powers. The open-ended time frame was unanimously repealed, but as a second wave descended upon Europe, he was once again given broad executive power. The application of such power extends far beyond typical COVID-19 procedures, offering Orban power to jail those who spread fake news–an allegation Fidesz typically levies at dissenters in a Trumpian fashion. Protesters, journalists, and average citizens have seen fines or legal action on these grounds for criticizing the way the pandemic has been handled. While his authority to rule by decree this time has been limited in timespan, Orban has set a precedent for strong executive power during a crisis, releasing a proverbial genie from the bottle.
Where Will Hungary Go From Here?
Fidesz used textbook tactics of democratic backsliding to use the tools provided by democratic institutions to slant the playing field in their favor. They can win only roughly 50% of the electorate and still maintain a full supermajority in the Diet, and owing to the constitutional changes, attempts at structural change will be not only ineffective but unconstitutional through judicial review. The hybrid regime set up by Orban and Fidesz has the gilded exterior of a modern European democracy, but the institutions themselves ensure a de facto one-party state. With their control of the media, they ensure that this structure will be supported by Hungarians across the country. With the crisis of COVID-19, Orban’s power is stronger than ever. The situation of democracy is grim in Hungary for the foreseeable future.