Hungary’s Democracy Is Still Under Threat

Viktor Orban’s emergency rule by decree has ended for now, but the return to illiberal politics as usual incites fear and stifles dissent.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other representatives sing the national anthem at parliament in Budapest, Hungary, on June 4. Tibor Illyes/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed some of the fundamental problems with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s illiberal tools of governance, particularly the blurred distinction between a state of emergency and state of normalcy. On March 30, the National Assembly passed a special authorization law allowing the prime minister to rule by decree—enabling the government to pass any regulations without a parliamentary vote and even to suspend parliament. At the time, observers said that it had destroyed Hungary’s democracy. But the harm to democratic institutions caused by the pandemic and the state’s response is more nuanced.

The National Assembly later unanimously voted to end the sweeping powers, and the special authorization act was lifted on June 18 with new legislation. Under the new law, the government can reintroduce rule by decree whenever it declares a state of public health emergency without a parliamentary vote. That decision instead falls under the primary discretion of the Hungarian chief medical officer, who is appointed by the Ministry of Human Capacities.

Based on the recommendation of the medical officer, the government can again declare a state of public health emergency by decree. Under these circumstances, the distinction between a state of emergency and a state of normalcy is hazy. The governing coalition already dominates parliament—something that was the case in the years before the pandemic.

The new legal category of a state of public health emergency poses a threat to Hungarian democracy in a particular way. The legal and political framework for addressing an emergency laid out at the end of the special authorization act is fluid and unpredictable. These tools, based on the domination of the public sphere, mean the so-called return to normalcy enriches the illiberal government.

The special authorization law was rooted in the idea that, until the imminent danger of the coronavirus passed in Hungary, assembling the parliament for further decisions was unnecessary. The law passed at the end of the special authorization act brought about new anxieties. The opposition expressed concerns that the state of public health emergency could be used for further abuses of power. That is because there is no explicit time limit: The legislation only states that depending on the conditions in which the state of public health emergency was initially invoked—so the state of the pandemic—the government can extend its sweeping power without a vote. The unwillingness of the Hungarian government to set a deadline to review the law after the first six months suggests it could lead to abuses of power.

The special authorization law enabled immediate government overreach: It not only allowed Orban to rule by decree, but it also brought about new restrictions—such as potential jail time for those who did not follow state-ordered quarantines as well as for those who published reporting deemed to be “fake news” or disruptive to the government response. The legislation put state efficiency above public concerns regarding collective care, trust, and accountability.

The new legislation remains vague, giving the government the power to incite fear and deter citizens and journalists from speaking out. The part of the law targeting news reports could encourage self-censorship, particularly regarding coverage of the government’s pandemic response. Furthermore, the special authorization law emphasized that the state of public health emergency would enhance the government’s power against people disturbing the peace. Under the law, any activity that “actively prevents” state measures to fight the pandemic could be penalized as disturbing the peace.

The state of public health emergency category also enables Orban’s government to pass all sorts of unrelated measures. The day after the special authorization act was passed, a series of unrelated measures supporting the ruling coalition’s agenda were passed in an omnibus bill. The bill included regulations on sex classification at birth, making it nearly impossible for transgender people to change their legal gender on official documents, and measures that seemed to further assert the government’s influence in various cultural institutions.

These unrelated laws were passed during a public health crisis and the ensuing economic crisis, when people were preoccupied with the uncertainties of the pandemic—including lost income. With the opportunity for protest restricted, the government took advantage of the crisis to pass the laws. The omnibus bill showed how institutional processes reinforce the underlying power of the regime, which changes laws depending on the political circumstances and its own convenience. Even when the special authorization law was enacted, the distinction between rule by decree and regular lawmaking practices entered a fluid stage as well.

The state’s coronavirus response became dependent on justifying the special authorization act, as if the government did not already have sufficient legal and political power to manage the pandemic without ruling by decree. After the vote to lift the act, the government spokesperson Zoltan Kovacs tweeted about the government “maintaining the epidemiological preparedness” to again declare the state of public health emergency in the future—such as during a second coronavirus wave. This position revealed the government’s ongoing intent to bend its narratives of these legal categories based on its own political calculations.

The Hungarian political system is now in a period of fluidity in which the authorities may turn to rule by decree as easily as switching on a lightbulb. The legislation legitimizes Orban’s rule, whether it occurs by decree or not. The prime minister symbolically returning power to the National Assembly, which his party dominates, is part of his playbook: It counters the narrative of both the opposition and Western observers. It is yet another government tactic to normalize its so-called illiberal democracy. After the government ended the special authorization act, the opposition found itself accepting the lesser evil by voting in agreement to temporarily return to the regular state of affairs.

So far, Hungary has had significantly fewer COVID-19 cases than many Western European countries, but the legal and political situation—with illiberal democracy legitimized—could become dangerous if there is another surge. It could also have consequences for migration if there is another rise in refugees and migrants crossing Hungary’s borders. Senior government advisor Gyorgy Bakondi said in March that “there is a certain relationship between the coronavirus and illegal immigration.” And Orban recently echoed him, saying that the coronavirus pandemic “invaded us.” The government could use this public health argument to further tighten its border policies in the near future.

The fluidity of the government’s new legal tools makes Orban’s political enemies an even easier target. The authorities could deem anyone to be an obstacle to protecting the public, because there are no meaningful checks and balances under the new law. The political opposition is also constrained: Opposition lawmakers voted to end the special authorization—giving them a voice in Orban’s political theater—but their amendments to the subsequent regulations were voted down. A ruling party official called the opposition shameful for calling the current system a dictatorship or a nondemocracy, and Kovacs sent out messages to international researchers and media platforms demanding public apologies for their criticism.

In this political theater, the government is the tamer who decides when the lion can leave its cage—but does not acknowledge the danger it poses either way. By momentarily calling the lion back to its cage, he gives the audience the impression that it can influence the show—except this lion tamer already removed the door years ago.

Orsolya Lehotai is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Politics at the New School for Social Research in New York. Twitter: @lehotaio

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