Stealth authoritarianism, as explained by Ozan Varol, is a relatively new concept in international affairs discourse (Varol 2015). Before the cold war authoritarianism was obvious; few efforts were made to conceal it. After the Cold War, the international community began paying more attention to global authoritarian practices, and the cost for blatantly repressive regimes rose. Varol described stealth authoritarianism in practice as, “the new generation of authoritarians learned to perpetuate their power through the same legal mechanisms that exist in democratic regimes. In so doing, they cloak repressive practices under the mask of law, imbue them with the veneer of legitimacy, and render anti-democratic practices much more difficult to detect and eliminate”, essentially, “the use of legal mechanisms that exist in regimes with favorable democratic credentials for anti-democratic ends” (Varol 2015, 1684).
Hungary is a textbook example of this phenomenon. Hungary was a burgeoning democracy after the fall of communism in the 1990s, a standout and success story amongst its neighbors. Viktor Orbán served as prime minister during this time, but in 2002 his Fidesz party lost the parliamentary elections and immediately started calling into question the results legitimacy. Orbán was reinstated as Prime Minister in 2010 when Fidesz won with just enough of a majority to legally rewrite Hungary’s constitution. A power they promptly deployed to solidify their majority and give more power to the executive. This marked the start of Hungary’s democratic backsliding, and since then Viktor Orbán has made a name for himself in the international community as one of the foremost architects of stealth authoritarianism. As Vox reporter Zack Beauchamp describes, Orbán has instituted, “a series of changes to electoral rules and laws imposed over time that might individually be defensible but in combination with corruption and demagogic populism creates a new system — one that appears democratic but functionally is not.” Essentially, he can veil and defend his anti-democratic legal maneuvers by pointing to similar laws on the books in liberal democracies. As explained by Cas Mudde in his lecture on populism, “Every individual law is democratic, but the combination of laws cannot be found in any liberal democracy and is not democratic” (Mudde 2021).
This phenomenon was put clearly on display with Hungary’s Covid response. Many liberal western democracies have utilized emergency powers during the Covid-19 pandemic. France for instance; declared a state of emergency, delayed municipal elections, instituted a mandatory lockdown, and amended the legislative process to give the government a larger role in the economy. More specifically, France’s emergency bill allowed “the government to adopt, through ordinances (ordonnances) as opposed to laws passed by Parliament, measures aimed at limiting business failures and layoffs.” Germany similarly flexed its emergency powers, though somewhat more hesitantly than France due to its history. They instituted rules limiting public gatherings, closing nonessential businesses, and allowed the health ministries to pass executive orders to curb the virus’s spread. The German government also expanded its role in the economy. On March 23rd, 2020 the cabinet approved a supplementary budget and economic stabilization fund, which, “went toward immediate grant assistance to SMEs, increased welfare payments, additional funding for hospitals and medical providers, and expanding Germany’s wage subsidy program (Kurzarbeitergeld), which reimburses employers for the wages of furloughed employees.” The United States under both Presidents Trump and Biden had a substantially more hands off approach to handling the pandemic than their European counterparts. Both men avoided national lockdowns, choosing instead to let states make their own rules governing disease control. The U.S. did attempt to ease the economic burden of the pandemic; with the passage of 3 stimulus bills, a child tax credit, and small business loans.
There’s clear democratic precedent for governments deploying pandemic emergency powers and intervening economically to alleviate covid financial anxieties. Hungary under Viktor Orbán took things a step farther. In late March 2020, after the declaration of a state of emergency, Orbán passed a law. Using combatting coronavirus as a guise, it essentially allowed him to govern by decree. This effectively ended the need for any parliamentary approval (though the Hungarian Parliament usually just functions as a rubber stamp for Orbán), and the law had no expiration. The bill additionally punishes any individuals who, “claim or spread a falsehood or claim or spread a distorted truth in relation to the emergency in a way that is suitable for alarming or agitating a large group of people”. This purposefully vague wording allows the Hungarian government to imprison anyone they deem to be interfering with their efforts to combat the pandemic. As Vox reporter Zack Beauchamp points out, “entirely accurate reporting and whistleblowing on the government’s manifest failures in responding to the coronavirus pandemic”, could be punishable under this law. In June 2020, parliament voted to end Orbán’s emergency powers. Fearful opposition groups say that despite lifting the state of emergency, Orbán retained more power than he had before, and it’s now easier for the government to rule by decree than it was prior to the pandemic.
As discussed before, there are clear examples of liberal democracies intervening economically to mitigate financial damage suffered during the global coronavirus outbreak. Like many of its democratic neighbors, Hungary passed a stimulus bill. Their’s, however, was funded by taking federal funds away from political parties. This blatantly targets opposition parties, as they rely almost exclusively on this money whereas the ruling Fidesz party has a variety of other funding sources. This effort to choke out political opposition under the veil of a commonplace Covid stimulus is clear cut stealth authoritarianism.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary presents undeniable evidence that authoritarianism is mutating and adapting to fit into the modern world. Through the practice of stealth authoritarianism, Orbán can defend his antidemocratic regime by referencing similar practices in democratic governments. Such is the case with his coronavirus response, which he used to further choke out dissent and to defund opposition parties.