No by-elections can be held while the emergency powers
remain in place. Anyone the government views as spreading “falsehoods” or
“distorted truths” that obstruct efforts to protect the public from the
pandemic can be jailed for up to five years. In theory, Parliament could
overturn the law with a two-thirds vote. In practice, Orbán’s
Fidesz party dominates the body, and will probably allow Orbán to rule by
fiat as long as he wants to.
experts describe Hungary as a “competitive authoritarian” regime or “electoral
autocracy.” The international ratings body Freedom House no longer
considers Hungary a free country, while V-Dem no
longer considers it a democracy (making it the first European Union member
without these ratings).
However, even if Hungary were already an electoral
autocracy, the coronavirus law marks a profound change.
Orbán wants to
control the debate over coronavirus
Using an emergency to seize
extraordinary powers is a standard authoritarian move. However, Orbán
already had a two-thirds majority in Parliament, a constitutional court packed
with partisan loyalists, and tight control over all levers of government power.
So why risk rocking the boat with E.U. leaders, given his grip on power in
Hungary already seemed so secure?
In part, it
may be because he fears difficult political times are ahead. Orbán’s
government has preferred
to spend money on sports stadiums rather than on Hungary’s health care system,
which is relatively poorly funded. That may mean the system buckles under the
stress of the coronavirus crisis. More control over public debate could help
him mute public opposition to his regime.
Furthermore, the regime’s legitimacy largely depends on its
(claimed) economic success. That might disappear in a coronavirus-induced
recession, and collapse of foreign direct investment. Even before the current
crisis, the E.U. was talking about making
it harder for Orbán to siphon off generous E.U. subsidies for the benefit
of his backers.
As political analyst Péter
Krekó has pointed out, the Orbán government has already used emergency
powers to establish “a military task force to oversee the operation of 140
companies providing critical services.” The regime has plans in place for the
government to take ownership stakes in companies that it bails out, suggesting
Orbán may use this opportunity to increase his control of the economy.
may want to use the coronavirus crisis to legitimize his own brand of
authoritarian governance and to discredit the E.U. as a union of liberal
democracies. Orbán has publicly stated his ambition to remake the E.U.
along lines that better reflect his “illiberal”
political philosophy. Grabbing power like this may demonstrate his impunity and
encourage other aspiring authoritarians to build autocracies inside the E.U.
The E.U. is not rushing to condemn him
(self-coup) may inflame tensions with the E.U. and endanger his party’s comfortable
position as a member of Angela Merkel’s European People’s Party. However,
over the past decade, Orbán has repeatedly counted on the E.U. being too
distracted by other crises — the euro-zone crisis, the migration crisis and
Brexit — to take action against him.
He may be
betting again that other national and E.U. leaders are too preoccupied with
addressing the pandemic and economic crisis to expend political capital
standing up to him. Furthermore, it would be politically difficult for
the E.U. to use its power to suspend the flows of E.U. subsidies to Hungary
now, during a crisis in which Hungarians will already be suffering.
The initial reactions from E.U. leaders over the past two
days suggest Orbán may win his bet. European Commission President Ursula von
der Leyen, who relied on Orbán’s support to win office and who has been
impeding efforts to crack down on his regime, issued an anodyne
statement of disapproval, which failed to mention Orbán or Hungary by name
— and only promised to “monitor, in a spirit of cooperation, the application of
emergency measures in all Member States.”
A group of 13 E.U. governments issued a more strongly worded
statement, but they too refused to call out Orbán by name and endorsed no
specific actions other than calling on the European Commission to “monitor” the
emergency measures of all E.U. members and for the Council of Ministers to
discuss the issue “when appropriate.”
The EPP has supported and enabled Orbán for years, but his
brazen power grab might finally get him thrown out of the center right bloc.
However, Orbán has cultivated close ties with the PiS government in Poland and
with other far-right parties such as Italy’s Lega, so he has new allies to turn
to. As long as the E.U. does
not suspend the flow of funds that props up his regime, he can probably
continue to trample on the democratic values the E.U. claims to stand for, with
little fear of meaningful sanction. April 2, 2020
Kelemen is Professor of Political Science and Law at Rutgers University. Follow
him on Twitter @rdanielkelemen.
Hungary ‘No Longer a
Democracy’ After Coronavirus Law
emergency powers granted to Prime Minister Viktor Orban have taken Hungary a
step closer to dictatorship, critics say. How low can Orban go? :