A lurking dictator in the making, Viktor Orbán and his right-wing nationalist Fidesz party are dismantling Hungarian democracy. Through the obstruction of checks and balances, election interference, and constitutional manipulation, Orbán has made no secret of his intentions. In his most brazen power grab in recent memory, Viktor Orbán was granted unrestricted emergency powers in March following the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic in Hungary. Though these powers were later rescinded, a proposed law will enable the prime minister to rule by decree indefinitely in the future.
Viktor Orbán, a former outspoken democratic advocate during the communist era, has led the widely popular Fidesz party since 1993, barring a minor break from presidency in the early 2000s. Assuming the Prime Minister position for the first time in 1998 and serving 5 years before his party was ousted by opposition socialists, he regained power in 2010 in a dominant victory followed by sweeping constitutional and legislative reforms. The ruling Fidesz party worked to draft a new governing document increasing the size of Hungary’s constitutional court, which Orbán packed with his own loyalist judges. Judges over the age of 62 were forced to retire, ushering in more Fidesz-friendly jurists. Further action was taken by the party to consolidate their control and influence at the national level as civil servants were fired across the board, being replaced by Fidesz allies in crucial positions like election supervision where there have been notable allegations of election interference. They further worked to gerrymander voting districts to favor right-wing electorates and used state pressure to force private media groups to sell to the government or to Fidesz-supported oligarchs, resulting in de facto control over an overwhelming majority of Hungarian media.
On March 30, the nationalist-ruled government passed a law granting Viktor Orbán emergency powers to combat the Covid-19 epidemic. These powers allowed Orbán to govern by decree, without heeding the word of parliament. As the bill provided Orbán with the ability to extend the state of emergency, so too could he extend his newly expansive powers indefinitely. Under these emergency measures, more than 100 decrees had been issued, establishing sectoral taxes, draining opposition parties of their state subsidies, and enabling the persecution of journalists by dealing out jail sentences to those deemed spreading “misinformation”. Very little effort was put towards managing the public health crisis that created the pretense for the emergency. While the outbreak in Hungary is relatively modest in comparison to other European counterparts, the nation ranks far behind in testing, indicating that case counts are likely larger than reported. Though the state of emergency was later lifted in June, the nearly 250 page legislation ending the rule by decree allows for the reinvokement of these powers by the government at any time deemed necessary by Orbán and Fidesz. In a joint statement, three democracy watchdog groups: the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, and Amnesty International Hungary concluded that “the promise to revoke the Authorisation Act and to terminate the state of danger is nothing but an optical illusion: if the Bills are adopted in their present form, that will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards”.
So what has been the reaction of the European community? Hesitation and inaction.
Hungary is a European Union (EU) member state, but it’s transition in recent years towards authoritarianism characterizes it as a hybrid state, challenging the notion of the organisation as a union of democracies. The actions undertaken by Viktor Orbán and his right-nationalist party have no doubt drawn concern from officials in Brussels but their reluctance has been primarily political. Fidesz is a member of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament, the EU legislative body. The center-right group includes the likes of Angela Merkel as well as Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and benefits from the influence Orbán’s party provides. Alienation of Orbán or his party would threaten the power of the EPP, making any concerted effort to hold Hungary accountable politically infeasible. Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon permits the bloc to suspend certain rights of a member state if it is in breach of fundamental EU values such as democracy and rule of law. However, such enactment requires complete unanimity, a tall order considering the probable action of other sympathetic right-wing states like Poland. Brexit has characterised the European Union’s gradual decline in the last decade, but the Covid-19 pandemic response has fallen on the shoulders of individual states rather than the union, allowing for actors like Orbán to manipulate disease control measures to further consolidate his authoritarian regime.
Freedom House rates Hungary as “partly free”, the first and only EU nation to receive this distinction. Viktor Orbán’s gradual erosion of democracy has been underway for the better part of the last decade, beginning with his party’s dramatic constitutional overhaul that gave way to court packing and gerrymandering that will likely cement Fidesz control of Hungarian politics for the foreseeable future. However, the exploitation of a public health crisis as an expansive power grab represents the most overt attempt to expand his political supremacy. If nothing is done to curb his assault, the Heart of Europe will soon be a democracy only in name.