When a global pandemic is sweeping through one’s country, it is expected that someone in power would do everything they could to save the most amount of their people possible. Throughout much of the COVID-19 pandemic though, many countries have struggled to act as quickly and decisively as they wanted due to the slow and arduous process that is democracy. Despite this, during Viktor Orban’s third (now fourth) term as prime minister of Hungary he was able to accomplish everything he wanted. All it took was passing his “Bill on Protection against Coronavirus’‘ which gave him the power of Rule by Decree. At first this may seem like a necessary thing that could save many lives, but when it is viewed under the context of Orban’s history as prime minister, the ulterior motives become clear. This bill was not passed in order to more efficiently deal with COVID-19, but to grab power. This bill demonstrates several indications of authoritarian behavior as can be seen with how it silenced media opposition, and allowed him to pass any legislation he wanted without any horizontal checks.
A good measure to tell if a democratically elected leader is acting anti democratically is by viewing them under Levitsky and Ziblatt’s “Indicators of Authoritarian Behavior.” One of the main tenets of their system is the “readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents, including the media.” Viktor Orban and the Fidesz party have had their aspirations set on control via the media for years now. In the past, he has put up very restrictive laws that govern what the media can do, he took away government funding from ones that spoke out against him, the Fidesz party bought/acquired 90 percent of the news outlets in Hungary, and with this recent bill he is threatening to detain journalists. Orban’s coronavirus bill allows him to jail anyone spreading “misinformation” for up to 5 years. His supporters claim that this is a good thing as it is just to help stop COVID falsehoods from being spread. The problem with that though is that he permanently codified the law, not just for the state of emergency. Additionally, when a politician with dominant control over all of the media is the one with discretion over what is or is not truthful, that is when people should worry. Detaining journalists is a very traditionally authoritarian play for Orban, which is unusual because his previous tactics of controlling the media have all been following the principles of stealth authoritarianism. However, he is still trying to arrest the media opposition via legal methods, despite him making the rules in the first place. Orban is not doing this by accident, nor does he think he is acting democratically. He understands the advantage that controlling the media gives him. Now, he does not even have to worry about what his opposition has to say about him because the people will not even see it. An example of this is when opposition party leader Péter Márki-Zay got five minutes of airtime in an important speech about Ukraine; the prime minister got 30 minutes on the same topic and it aired nine times.
Another tenet of Levitsky and Ziblatt that can be seen in Orban’s bill is the “rejection of (or weak commitment to) Democratic rules of the game”. By giving himself Rule by Decree, he is not only able to pass any law whenever he deems fit, but also suspend any laws already in place. Normally, a democracy does not allow for one person to have too much power by having a system of checks and balances, in Hungary’s case the Parliament is a horizontal check on the Prime Minister. But by passing this bill he is completely subverting himself and going against the “Democratic rules of the game” even if it is legally passed. Again, the counter argument to this would be in a state of emergency like this, he must take drastic measures to do all he can for his people. One big issue with this is that he did not only use this power to help against COVID. During the pandemic his focus was not just on saving lives but also making life harder for trans people by not allowing people to legally change their gender. This was a very partisan issue that he was able to push through without anyone checking him. Another big reason that the supporters claim that it is a necessary measure is flawed is that Orban initially fought to have the bill to last indefinitely. This was very intentionally done to take advantage of a horrible situation. Even if it did end several months later, it was another tactical use of stealth authoritarianism. He wanted to posture to his critics at home and abroad that he was willing to step down and let go of the “unlimited” power they said he had, but again there were other intentions. The law passed saying to end his rule by decree also gave him the ability to do the same thing again in the future. And today Hungary is stuck under another rule by decree brought on by the economic crisis caused by the Ukraine and Russia war.
Viktor Orban may be a Democratically elected leader, but according to many definitions of the word, he exhibits many authoritarian behaviors. Although he was given the power to rule by decree during a very dangerous situation that needed immediate attention, this was not the best way to help the people of Hungary. Once a politician like Orban has been given a little bit of power, they will never let it go.
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“The Problem with Censorship is XXXXXXXXX, Budapest, Hungary” by gruntzooki is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/?ref=openverse.
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