Coronavirus and the Dawn of Post-Democratic Europe

Hungary has used the pandemic to abandon its last vestiges of democracy—and to dare the EU to do anything about it.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomes Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomes Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban, prior to their meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 3. FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS/AFP via Getty Images

The dismantling of Hungary’s democracy by the country’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, and his Fidesz party has occurred piece by piece over the past 10 years. Orban began by sidelining opposition media and undermining the independence of Hungary’s judiciary, before pressing further by circumscribing the work of watchdog organizations and waging a nasty propaganda and legal war against Central European University, founded by the philanthropist George Soros. The European Union reprimanded Orban along the way, but his party proceeded to design election laws ensuring that in the country’s most recent general election in 2018, Fidesz’s 49 percent of the vote translated into nearly 70 percent of the seats in parliament—a supermajority that completely disempowers the paltry, divided opposition.

With nearly every check on power eliminated or co-opted, Fidesz rule in Hungary—in the form of a heavily fortified “illiberal democracy,” to quote Orban—appeared probable for many years to come. Then the coronavirus arrived, and Orban decided to make a likelihood into a certainty. With the pandemic crisis as an alibi, he is pouncing on the opportunity to secure his power in the long run, even at the expense of Hungary’s remaining vestiges of democracy. The question now is whether Europe will treat this as the crossing of a red line—and, if it does, what it can do about it.

On March 30, the Fidesz parliament passed an emergency law granting the government indefinite, sweeping powers. The new statute goes well beyond those emergency statutes passed just about everywhere in Europe during the present crisis or indeed in any EU country ever. Amid the pandemic, leaders across the continent have delimited standard civil liberties, but they are checked by critical legislatures and have explicit, short-term timeframes. The Hungarian law enables Orban to rule by decree, bypassing the legislature on any law, as long as the crisis lasts. All elections until then will be suspended. Moreover, the statute allows the government wide-ranging discretion to censure media that it claims obstructs the state’s response to the pandemic. Journalists found guilty of spreading supposedly false information can face jail sentences of up to five years.

“Now Orban can do whatever he wants,” said Paul Lendvai, a Hungarian-born Austrian author of a 2018 biography of Orban. “No other democratic government in Europe has gone this far. And polls show most Hungarians aren’t dissatisfied with him.” There wouldn’t be a groundswell of protest even if Hungarians could mass on the streets, he said.

“This is another step toward Hungarian becoming an authoritarian regime,” said Andras Biro-Nagy, a Hungarian political analyst. “If the content of this new law becomes the new normal—and not just a temporary measure—then we’re talking about a form of dictatorship.” But, said Biro-Nagy, “We’ll have to see how Orban uses it.”

In a rare act of unity, Hungary’s opposition parties all voted against the bill. Their primary objection was the absence of a sunset clause. The Orban government itself will determine when the crisis is over and the special powers should be suspended.

This bodes ill for Hungary, as Orban has exploited crisis after crisis to expand his power. The 2015-2016 refugee crisis was a seminal moment for Orban: The emergency powers invoked for that crisis have been renewed every six months since then, right up to today, even though Hungary’s number of refugees is negligible.

Biro-Nagy worries that the meaning of “crisis” could be extended to, say, a financial crisis, one that could unfold after the heath crisis has passed. “My fear is that Orban will find a reason, as he always has, to maintain such crisis measures,” he said.

Orban’s power grab may seem confusing in light of the extent of power he already wielded and the public popularity he enjoyed. But the seemingly disproportionate steps can be explained by the cracks that have begun to sprout in Fidesz’s armor. In local elections in 2019, opposition politicos captured the mayoral race in Budapest as well as in 10 other large cities—a stinging defeat for Fidesz. Also, opinion polls show that the dilapidated health care system is Hungarians’ No. 1 gripe. The low wages of doctors and nurses, as well as chronic underfunding of hospitals, has caused droves of health care professionals to leave the country. Should Hungary, which currently claims only around 400 detected cases of the new coronavirus and 15 deaths, experience an outbreak like that in northern Italy, the government might come under intense pressure from the population. The government might then require all of its munition to contain angry demonstrations and win in elections in 2022.

Until now, the EU’s reproaches of infringements of democracy in Hungary, as well as in Poland, have been quite mild. It took years before the European People’s Party, the main conservative alliance in the European Parliament, suspended Fidesz from its ranks last year. But the EU as such might finally be compelled to act more authoritatively. The Council of Europe and the European Parliament have expressed concern but without proposing a concrete strategy of how to make Orban back down. The president of the EU’s executive, Ursula von der Leyen, released a statement that did not mention Hungary by name but was obviously aimed at Orban: “Democracy cannot work without free and independent media. … Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely,” she said.

On March 30, Italy’s former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi tweeted that “after what Orban has done today, the European Union MUST act and make him change his mind. Or, simply, expel Hungary from the Union.” There is, however, no clause in the EU treaties for expelling a member.

One of the reasons for the EU’s hesitant approach to date is that its options to sanction members require a unanimous vote in the 27-member European Council. According to Article 7 of the European Union treaty, the council has the power to suspend some of a country’s membership rights, such as voting rights in the council itself. In 2018, the European Parliament voted to pursue disciplinary action against Hungary for being “at clear risk of a serious breach of EU values,” but the measure died in the council, where it was certain that Poland would vote against it.

Orban has shot back, typically, by lashing out at the criticism—and the EU. In a blog post, his spokesperson wrote: “Just as in wartime, a state of emergency could extend until the end of hostilities. Today, we confront not a military power but are in a warlike state to defend our people against a pandemic the likes of which we have not seen in a century.” Orban has claimed that, with medical supply deliveries, Turkey and China have done more to help Hungary in the crisis than the EU—although Hungary receives about $7 billion annually from EU pots.

“Orban and his people tell the EU to mind its own business,” Lendvai said. “He never talks about EU aid to Hungary, just that the EU should be grateful that Hungary stays in the EU.”

Orban clearly saw the coronavirus crisis as a political opportunity—but it may also be his undoing. Lendvai and other experts concur that Budapest is lying about the low number of infections and deaths in Hungary. The media has reported on numerous individuals who have begged hospitals to test them for the virus but were denied. The government has proceeded very slowly with testing, fudging the real number of infections, which could be many times what has thus far been acknowledged, according to some experts. If these failings eventually lead to mass public unrest, Orban’s emergency laws will only be able to provide him with so much protection.

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).