In authoritarian-populist Hungary, concerns over democratic regression amid the coronavirus pandemic are a whole level higher than in other EU member states. On March 30, the Hungarian government introduced an emergency law that gave extraordinary powers with no time limit to the prime minister. Although Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government withdrew the emergency law on June 16, most of its provisions have been carried over into new regulations. Increasingly, the prime minister can run the country without any meaningful constitutional control over his decisions.
The first law was the most draconian introduced in Europe in response to the coronavirus—even though the pandemic has not hit Hungary as hard as most other states in the region. Even before the new law was introduced, Freedom House had downgraded the country’s democratic status: Hungary can no longer be called a democracy and is the first “hybrid regime” in the EU.
Under the provisions enacted in response to coronavirus, the government has withdrawn financial resources from local administrations and placed important state companies under partial military supervision. Pro-government public television has tightly controlled information about the disease. Questions at government press conferences are preselected and censored.
More widely, propaganda campaigns against feminism and what right-wing politicians have called “gender ideology” have moved into a higher gear. Members of the ruling Fidesz party have found time to carry on their culture wars even in the context of a global pandemic. Government vitriol against Brussels and many mainstream European politicians has also moved up a level.
This dire situation has been well covered internationally. A more difficult emerging question is whether Orbán has now overstepped the mark so far that his latest power grab may begin to backfire.
The government’s mismanagement of the state healthcare system has become more apparent. There was an outcry when the health minister ordered elderly patients who were grievously sick with conditions other than the coronavirus to be sent home from hospitals. Another backlash ensued against a vicious and orchestrated propaganda campaign by the government that claimed that Gergely Karácsony, an opposition politician and the mayor of Budapest, was responsible for deaths in a guesthouse.
Misusing a new law that penalizes the spreading of fake news, a Fidesz mayor denounced one of his rivals, who was detained in the early morning by police after criticizing the government’s management of the crisis. Although the opposition party activist was released later the same day and the Hungarian justice minister called the detention a mistake, nobody apologized. The chilling effect of citizens’ growing fear might be an increasing level of self-censorship on the internet.
Polarization and antiregime feelings in Hungary are intensifying. On May 2, the opposition boycotted the official celebration for the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the country’s postcommunist democratic parliament. Realizing the shock he had provoked, the prime minister felt compelled to keep the legislature functioning, at least in formal terms. In the European Parliament, an increasing number of members of the European People’s Party—the European umbrella group that includes Fidesz—are pushing for the Hungarian party to be ejected.
Hungary is not yet a full-fledged dictatorship: there is still room for dissent. This is evident in the wake of the coronavirus and the provisions that replace the emergency law. The political system has not only hard authoritarian elements but also more fluid political practices. The regime holds back from using the full array of formal laws it now has at its disposal to crush opposition voices and civil society.
In a best-case scenario, a more united Hungarian opposition might take advantage of the new context. The main battlefield in Hungary remains that of identity politics. This is probably a more important factor than the coronavirus and will unfold in ways that are somewhat independent of the pandemic. Nonpopulist politicians still need to seduce the electorate with rational policy proposals and a more positive, pro-European alternative to Orbán. So far, they have been successful with elections in cities but have failed to convince the majority of citizens in the countryside. Sharp polarization is probably a greater enemy to democracy in Hungary than the coronavirus.
István Hegedűs is the chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society.