COVID-19 has plagued the world over the past year and a half. The pandemic caused countries to impose border closures and the utilization of mass digital surveillance, moves that may have once been classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded as necessary steps in the global effort to curb a pandemic; extraordinary times have called for extraordinary measures. The height of the COVID-19 Pandemic proved a great boon to the world’s authoritarians however Hungary’s democratic erosion began long before COVID.
With the passage of a law effectively removing any oversight and silencing any criticism of the Hungarian government, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán now rules by decree for an indefinite period. His country is the first and only EU member state to be considered a “partly free” state by Freedom House. This erosion of democracy happening openly in the heart of Europe has caused an uproar, with many questioning what, if anything, the European Union can do to stop a member from undermining the values of the EU. Hungary was hardly a beacon of democracy prior to the pandemic. Orbán has overseen steady dismantling of the country’s democratic institutions, eroding its press freedoms, undermining its education system, and limiting the power of its judiciary. In How Democracies Die, authors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain that elected leaders are facilitating a gradual destabilizing of the democratic process by many means to increase their power (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). Levitsky and Ziblatt introduce many key points including that modern democratic erosion is now happening in barely visible steps, that blatant dictatorship has disappeared, and that the norms of mutual toleration and forbearance are critical to preserving democracy (Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018). However, in this circumstance, Orbán is openly executing his autocratic aims and has justified them by invoking national sovereignty and national security. The way in which Orbán has reconstructed institutions and the lack of drive for the preservation of Hungarian democracy, it is clear that democratic norms and practices for Hungary are fading.
Because of the outbreak, Orbán has found an ideal pretext for his latest power grab. Under the new emergency legislation, his far-right Fidesz party can effectively govern unchallenged, bypassing both Parliament and existing laws. It also permits the government to hand out jail terms for those deemed to be spreading misinformation and even though other countries have imposed their own emergency measures to combat the crisis, Hungary’s are among the most far reaching and the most permanent. In How to Lose a Constitutional Democracy, authors Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg mainly focus on the US however, by drawing on comparative law and politics experience, they detail that there are two model paths of democratic decay: authoritarian reversion and constitutional retrogression. A reversion is a rapid and near-complete collapse of democratic institutions where retrogression is a more subtle, incremental erosion that happens simultaneously to competitive elections, the rights of political speech and association, and the administrative and adjudicative rule of law (Huq and Ginsburg 2018). They found and detail in their findings that that the risk of reversion has declined, while the risk of retrogression has spiked. This can be applied to the events in Hungary. Orbán is facilitating an obvious retrogression of democratic institutions and implementing increasingly autocratic ones to fill its place. The evidence of Hungary slipping into democratic erosion in the past decade falls into the path of constitutional retrogressions and, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this retrogression has begun to accelerate.
While facing the severe public-health disaster, the EU must now contend with one of its members taking advantage of the pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed concern about the situation in Hungary having told reporters that emergency measures must be proportionate to the pandemic and subject to scrutiny. Additionally, a statement by 13 EU countries warned that such measures would risk undermining rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights.
With Orbán blatantly steering Hungary toward authoritarianism and contradicting the democratic values of the EU, many are asking what this means for Hungary and their membership within the EU. Contrary to the belief of some European politicians, the bloc cannot unilaterally expel a member state. However, it can suspend certain rights of a country under Article 7 of the Treaty of Lisbon if there is “a clear risk” that a member state is breaching the EU’s fundamental values, including freedom, democracy, equality, and the rule of law. This poses the question of what the EU should be doing to prevent Hungary undermining democracy, furthermore, is the bloc is even capable of doing so? Petra Bárd, a law professor and researcher at the Central European University said, “What we’ve seen in the past 10 years in Hungary is that there has been a continuous decline … I think the EU has already given up on Hungary a long time ago.”