Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism since he and his party came to power in 2010. Humanitarian watchdogs, scholars, other states, and the EU have criticized his gradual erosion of Hungarian democracy. In 2020, when COVID-19 broke out, many were alarmed by the Hungarian Parliament’s decision to allow Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely, citing concerns about the authoritarian nature of the policy. Following the passage of this law, Orbán used COVID-19 to further damage Hungary’s democratic structures and ideals, with impacts lasting even after the eventual reversal of the law.
Since 2010, Orbán, head of the Fidesz party, has steadily weakened Hungarian democratic institutions and checks against his power. According to the Freedom House, in 2021, Hungary was rated as “Partly Free” with a global freedom status of 69/100, political rights rating at 26/40 and civil liberties at 43/60. These freedom ratings have decreased from the prior year. The Economist’s Global Democracy Index ranks Hungary as 58th out of 167 countries, falling further from its 56th place ranking in 2020. Hungary is a clear example of executive aggrandizement where heads of state erode controls on power via institutional changes, oftentimes through pre-existing legislatures and courts.
In 2010, Orbán and the Fidesz Party, which enjoys a supermajority in Parliament, did just that when they rewrote the Hungarian Constitution. The 2010 Constitution hampers legal checks on government authority, intervenes with media independence, and weakens human rights laws and protections. In addition, the new Constitution compromised the independence of the judiciary by forcing hundreds of judges to retire and placing restrictions on the Constitutional Court’s ability to review legislation. Furthermore, the government has passed several media laws that increase state control over media outlets, greatly limiting the media’s watchdog capacity. In regard to human rights, the Constitution discriminates against the LGBTQ+ community and restricts women’s rights. All these issues were compounded by the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.
Orbán used the pandemic to further erode democracy within Hungary and increase his government’s control. On March 30th, 2020, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law that allowed Orbán and the Fidesz government to rule by decree for an indefinite period. This approach differed greatly from the responses of other European countries, with many states adopting emergency powers with set time limits and restrictions. In Hungary, by contrast, the original legislation had no end date for Orbán’s emergency powers. Many scholars have critiqued this choice stating the steps Orbán eventually took to address the pandemic could have been accomplished under Hungary’s pre-existing emergency laws. Two new laws were created using these indefinite emergency powers, one that criminalizes the spreading of false or misleading information and another that punishes people that break isolation or challenge government action against COVID. Both laws are permanent changes to Hungarian criminal law, and many fear that they will be used to further censor individuals and impose curfews in the future. In addition, Orbán used COVID-19 and his newfound authority to restrict funding to opposition parties and districts. He withdrew significant amounts of financial aid to these oppositional municipalities and passed additional constitutional amendments that furthered his power.
After immense international criticism, the Hungarian Parliament voted to overturn this law and instead use temporary states of emergency to address the pandemic. However, many have argued that this is simply a smoke screen to uphold the illusion of a democratic Hungary that no longer exists. The Karoly Eotvos Institute, a democracy watchdog organization in Budapest, released an analysis which stated that even though the indefinite rule by decree has officially ended, the legislation actually created a legal structure that allows for extreme, unrestricted governmental powers. The degree of control Orbán and the Fidesz party were able to exert during COVID-19 has set a concerning precedent for further democratic backsliding in the future. It is imperative to continue monitoring the situation to see if the actions taken by the government during COVID have a lasting effect on Hungarian democracy as predicted.
Balogh, Eva S., and Eva S. Balogh. “Kim Lane Scheppele: Orbán’s Emergency.” Hungarian Spectrum, March 22, 2020. https://hungarianspectrum.org/2020/03/21/kim-lane-scheppele-orbans-emergency/.
“Coronavirus: Hungary Votes to End Viktor Orban Emergency Powers.” BBC News. BBC, June 16, 2020. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-53062177.
“How Does the Corona Virus Strengthen Authoritarianism in Hungary?” WZB. Accessed February 13, 2022. https://www.wzb.eu/en/research/corona-und-die-folgen/how-does-the-corona-virus-strengthen-authoritarianism-in-hungary.
“New Report: The Global Decline in Democracy Has Accelerated.” Freedom House. Accessed February 15, 2022. https://freedomhouse.org/article/new-report-global-decline-democracy-has-accelerated.
Novak, Benjamin. “Hungary Moves to End Rule by Decree, but Orban’s Powers May Stay.” The New York Times. The New York Times, June 16, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/world/europe/hungary-coronavirus-orban.html.