As Hungary gets to grips with fighting the coronavirus pandemic, strongman Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is in the spotlight of another international scandal.
While the English-language press runs obituaries for democracy in Budapest and Anne Applebaum decries “creeping authoritarianism”, Orbán goes on state radio to blame financier George Soros for a “smear campaign”. So far, so familiar. But this time, the stakes are higher.
At the time of this article’s writing, Hungary had 744 positive coronavirus cases and 38 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University map.
On 11 March, the government declared a “state of danger” allowing it to rule by decree until the emergency abates. These decrees must usually be extended by a parliamentary majority every 15 days. But these are not politics as usual.
On 20 March, Orbán’s government proposed the abolition of the 15-day limitation on the validity of these decrees.
This “Empowerment Law” went even further, allowing the government to suspend any laws it pleased except for the constitution.
When Hungary’s parliament, which is controlled by Orbán’s Fidesz party, voted for the bill, it essentially suspended its ability to hold the government to account for the duration of the pandemic.
As this measure contains no “sunset clause,” nobody knows quite when it will end. It is worth remembering that the country’s last state of emergency, first introduced in 2016 citing fears of irregular migration, has regularly been extended for six month periods. It remains in force.
So recent years show that Orbán thrives in a crisis. Some of these are confected, but this one is deadly real. Or to put it more accurately — Orbán needs to be seen to thrive in a crisis.
That is key to understanding this response.
A Whimper, Not a Bang
The critics’ concerns about this emergency law are justified. But as Orbán’s defenders see it, these pundits are crying wolf — they’ve been calling “the end of democracy in Hungary” for years now.
And despite these real concerns, critics’ needs to identify a final Rubicon for the death of democracy in Hungary fatally undermines their messaging.
As legal wrangling over the law’s actual implication continues, even its soft supporters unwittingly buttress some of this criticism.
Gábor Török, a Hungarian political scientist who is by no means a strong critic of Fidesz, recently argued that Orbán would not necessarily require decrees like these if he wanted to run a dictatorship.
Furthermore, John O’Sullivan’s detailed response to Applebaum in The National Review, while voicing concern over its lack of a sunset clause, argues that Orbán already enjoys a two-thirds parliamentary majority and unquestioned formal power over Hungarian politics.
What these responses allude to, but never explicitly address, is the extent to which Hungarian democracy has been informally hollowed out in recent years.
In her detailed summary of her concerns about the law, the veteran analyst of Hungarian politics Kim Lane Scheppele considers the repercussions for lawmaking during the emergency period.
I won’t link to it. But if you want a real analysis of what just happened in Hungary, read this by the brilliant Kim Lane Scheppele. She carefully explains why so many of the bland reassurances about Orban’s emergency decree are hollow.https://t.co/o13IHfTzEy
— Jeffrey Sachs (@JeffreyASachs) April 7, 2020
Scheppele doubts whether government action taken under the aegis of this law could be challenged. Parliament would have to pass a repeal bill requiring a two-thirds’ parliamentary majority.
Hungary’s emergency provisions, she argues, amount to parliament “writing a blank cheque” as a pre-endorsement for any action Orbán takes during the pandemic.
And just what might Orbán do during this emergency? The charitable may, and do, say that the Hungarian government would be too focused on the pandemic to countenance any other business. So far, the prime minister has proposed financial and pension support for ordinary Hungarians struggling during the lockdown.
The most charitable of all, namely Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs, says that parliament hasn’t been suspended and that these extraordinary powers will not be used in day to day decision-making.
Similarly, Judit Varga, Hungarian Justice Minister, castigated the “leftist liberal media” for misinterpreting the law in her recent article for Politico Europe.
Stop lecturing HU Gov by spreading #fakenews! We must do everything to stop the spread of #coronavirus. Let me assure everyone that this is the aim of the bill, which fits in the HU constitutional framework. Read my op-ed on Politico: https://t.co/1XIQI1ihSz
— Judit Varga (@JuditVarga_EU) March 27, 2020
Parliament, she stressed, still has the right to revoke the emergency authorisation and government may only pass exceptional measures deemed necessary and proportionate to combating the pandemic.
Even if that is true, day to day decision-making benefits from something else — a country and a public with its mind understandably elsewhere.
A day after the emergency powers bill was passed, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén proposed a new “omnibus bill” whose contents are as far removed from fighting the pandemic as can be imagined.
It includes moves to prevent transgender people from legally changing their gender on identity documents, consolidating government control over theatres, and transferring state property to the historian Maria Schmidt, a close Fidesz ally and key figure in the Hungarian government’s commemorative policies.
Legal gender recognition in Hungary! Drop Article 33 of omnibus bill👎👎👎 https://t.co/31MH4nbQgE
— Cornelia Ernst (@ErnstCornelia) April 7, 2020
Furthermore, the government has also proposed restricting access to all information about a major Chinese railway investment in the Belgrade-Budapest railway and will classify all documents relating to it for ten years.
These proposals may be business as usual for Orbán’s Hungary in 2020. But why are they seemingly being rushed through at such an unusual time?
There have been some concessions. Last Wednesday, the government announced that it would retract the section of the omnibus bill which aimed to take away the decision-making power of local mayors during the crisis.
The proposal sparked widespread criticism, given a series of opposition victories in local elections last year.
Their decisions would have had to be run past “defence councils” in 20 provinces; 13 of which are or have been linked to Fidesz and its KDNP coalition partners.
This proposal was eventually put on ice. In the words of Orbán’s chief of staff Gergely Gulyás, the government needed the “widest possible cooperation” during the crisis.
Gulyás’s words were unexpected in light of Orbán’s declaration before parliament that the government would “solve this crisis without the opposition”.
They would also appear to clash with the most compelling explanation for the political logic of the emergency bill: To remove the opposition entirely from the Hungarian public’s experience of the crisis.
The Hungarian government has now “laid the foundation for scapegoating the opposition for any serious consequences of the epidemic”, writes Daniel Hegedüs is a recent analysis for the German Marshall Fund.
Thus Hungary’s beleaguered opposition was put into an impossible position. Either it could reject the government’s initiative and be portrayed in pro-Fidesz press as pro-pandemic, threatening Hungarians’ safety, or give Orbán unconstrained power without a firm time limit.
On 23 March, opposition parties actually offered to support prolonging the state of danger under which Orbán rules by decree. The government’s rejection of this offer suggests that its intentions lay elsewhere.
The implication is that this initiative should allow Orbán to take credit for saving the country from yet another invading “alien body,” be it “Sorosoids”, refugees, or viruses.
It also retrospectively justifies the advantages of a decisive national leader against the meddlesome vestiges of liberal democracy. Are you pro-pandemic or pro-Orbán?
At present, there is very little that Hungary’s beleaguered opposition can do to resist such messaging.
In fact, the government is now asking opposition parties, with shallow pockets, to transfer half their public funding to a state coronavirus relief fund.
Moreover, the ability of journalists to hold the government to account could be stymied by new amendments to the criminal code which make attempts to spread fake news or alarmist information about the pandemic punishable by five years’ imprisonment.
Despite the protests of Kovacs and other government functionaries, independent journalists in Hungary already report that the new rules set a precedent, and have practical implications for their work — namely, health officials refusing to give them quotes.
That puts the Hungarian government and its boosters in pro-Fidesz media in the perfect position to set the narrative — and the historical record – in public consciousness.
Orbán wants to be Hungary’s curer-in-chief. As long as he holds the reins of power, it is appropriate to wish him success in flattening the curve.
But this time, countering the political messaging in his latest gambit will be harder than ever.
On an even greater scale than 2016, the repercussions here will be not only to present the opposition as “meddlesome” but as actively threatening the body politic when they exercise their privileges, if not their responsibilities, under multiparty democracy.
The rote response of Kovacs and Varga to all criticism of the new emergency powers is that Budapest simply wants to keep its citizens safe — but is being held to double standards in doing so.
Their media campaign is highly charged and reveals something deeper about Orbánism than its conventional liberal democratic critics often accept. This is more than mere “whataboutism”, even if its expression is just as crude.
The recent emergency measures have caused concern in Brussels. Fidesz is currently suspended from the EPP, its European Parliamentary group, due to failures to respect the rule of law.
Recently, the leaders of 13 EPP members from 11 countries again called on Donald Tusk to formally expel Fidesz from the group. That may be a tall order.
So when the EU issued a mealy-mouthed declaration “voicing concern” at restrictions on freedoms during the coronavirus pandemic which was implicitly aimed at Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian government signed up to it itself.
Ursula von der Leyen may have eventually mentioned the Hungarian prime minister by name during a press conference, but by that point, the damage was done. As the Hungarian news portal 444.hu puts it, this was Budapest’s “troll diplomacy” at its finest.
But this was more than “troll diplomacy”. After all, the deep conviction of double standards is the cornerstone of Fidesz’s national populist political project.
As I have written, this sensibility came to the fore during the 2015-16 “refugee crisis” in Central Europe and has been voiced more explicitly ever since.
By relentlessly drawing comparisons of varying accuracy between its controversial measures and those taken by EU countries who will never be accused of “democratic backsliding,” the Hungarian government embeds its own assault on liberal democracy within a broader debate about Europe’s political and economic asymmetries.
Even Europe’s rightists in the continent’s west play with this rhetoric as they come to favour the EU’s eastern states as those supposedly the least “sullied” by liberalism and multiculturalism.
So when Fidesz parliamentarian Tamas Deutsch takes to Breitbart to justify Hungary’s law, he claims that it does not exceed the anti-terrorist measures passed by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2015.
When sociologist Frank Füredi, of Living Marxism fame, takes to Spiked Magazine to defend the law, he admonishes the former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for daring to criticise Fidesz given his own lack of popular support and perceived political illegitimacy.
So when Zoltan Kovacs responded to Ursula von der Leyen in a 2 April response on Twitter, writing that “not only are we being criticised, we are being subjected to a political witch-hunt”, he instinctively drew a comparison with Macron.
Orbán is “vested with no more rights and powers than the President of France in normal circumstances,” continued the Hungarian government spokesman.
Of course, for all his paternalism, Macron is no Orbán. The comparison has no merit. But it has the ghost of a point, which defines post-communist Central Europe’s national populist backlash. Namely, that the obsession with double standards shows a preoccupation with the “politics of imitation”.
In responce to an article by Prof J-W Müller, Zoltán Kovács argues that “the recent decline of Europe’s so-called mainstream conservatives is… a sign that voters don’t like their drift towards European leftists and greens” / #populism #farright #Orbanhttps://t.co/NiHPdKcpxV
— Ioannis E Kolovos (@ioannisekolovos) March 16, 2020
For decades, Hungary and its neighbours were instructed to transition towards an end of history represented by Western Europe’s liberal democracies. This is why, to a Hungarian audience, to reference those same states’ actions is the canniest response of all. The game is rigged, we’ll never win. And at least Orbán plays on our team.
To be sure, it is important not to get ensnared in this rhetorical trap. We know that criticism of Orbán’s rule is not solely about vested powers, just as the measure of a democracy is not merely what happens on election day. It is about the multitude of informal networks of influence and backscratching, the enrichment of family members and old friends, and the well-timed fate of critical opposition publications such as Nepszabadsag or Magyar Nemzet.
We can and should criticise Macron’s repeal of Hollande’s anti-terror emergency, to great fanfare, while silently encoding its provisions into law. Not because it would please Zoltan Kovacs to do so (there will be no pleasing Kovacs even with accurate criticism), but because it would have the merit of consistency of outrage, even while the consequences are less severe and the context less dismal.
In my opinion, Orbán is counting on the fact that as the pandemic intensifies, many more governments will be tempted to adopt measures superficially similar to his own, even if they are made in healthier and more contested democratic systems.
The Swedish parliament, for example, is currently debating letting the government rule by decree for the next three months. As these responses become the new norm, the outrage will fade into the scenery. The fears of democratic values will become the whining objections of “snowflakes” who can’t deal with decisive governance.
Allow me some speculation here. When the pandemic ends, and it will end, Fidesz will call its critics’ bluff and cancel the state of danger — no later than those which have been or are yet to be instituted by other European leaders.
Orbán will rescind his own ability to rule by decree with no horizon in sight — at which point, a chorus of pro-Fidesz voices will argue that domestic critics, foreign journalists, and human rights defenders had never treated him with good faith. Their cynicism is insatiable, they will say. You’ll never get a fair hearing, even during a pandemic, they will write.
This will then undermine all subsequent criticism of laws which are longer-lasting and potentially more legally consequential, which could conceivably have been passed with less fanfare during the pandemic.
Hungary’s government’s point is that it is the dark mirror to Europe’s own follies. As long as the reflection is ugly when it holds it to the West, the self-anointed yardstick and measurer of liberal democratic values, this simple rhetorical tactic will have resonance. Hungary, “the miracle,” can’t be lectured to anymore, as Orban burst out in last year’s interview with Bernard-Henry Levy.
To paraphrase Ivan Krastev, “We’re no better than you, but neither are you,” is the rallying cry of today’s illiberal rulers and autocrats.
Photograph courtesy of the European People’s Party. Published under a Creative Commons license.