Hungary Is on the Brink of Institutional Authoritarianism

How coronavirus is bringing out the worst in some leaders.

European nations have responded to coronavirus in varied ways. 

Italy and Spain put their countries on lockdown to help deal with having the highest number of cases on the continent. Others like Germany and France have followed suit, even though Berlin seems to have a better approach, seeing fewer deaths than in other nations. The United Kingdom first attempted “herd immunity” before easing into social distancing, and finally announced a lockdown. In Central Europe, the Czech Republic was the first to impose a complete closure of all external borders, allowing no foreigners to enter and no locals to leave.

Those countries all sought balance, at least early on, between protecting their citizens and restricting freedom of movement. But even the most draconian measures don’t match what’s going on in Hungary, which is led by the right-wing party Fidesz. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has long been controversial in the European political sphere. A vocal opponent of open-door immigration policies, Orbán has stifled free speech and academic freedom, for instance by imposing a 25 percent tax on NGOs working in favor of non-EU migration (migration of EU-citizens is open and cannot be reduced or blocked by the Hungarian parliament). 

Over the years, the current government has also increasingly ramped up active discrimination, for instance by only allowing Christian refugees, while refusing Muslims. The rhetoric follows suit, with statements that remind of the dark times of anti-Semitism in Europe—with regards to funding his ideological opponents, notably through George Soros, Orbán said this:

“We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”

Yet we should not picture Orbán as a military dictator, because his party and policies are popular. In fact, Hungary is one of the three European countries where authoritarian populism is the most widespread (according to an index released by the European Policy Information Center last year), and Fidesz has a two-thirds majority in parliament. If Hungary is led the way it is at the moment, it is because there is public support for the regime.

That said, a vote in parliament next week could turn strong-handed political leadership into outright authoritarianism. Fidesz has proposed an open-ended extension of the current state of emergency, which would authorize the government to rule by decree until further notice. This means that parliament is suspended, that the executive rules without checks and balances, that no referendums or elections will be allowed, and that the government can censor anyone believed to spread “fake news” about the virus. With a government as paranoid as Orbán’s, we can only imagine how the interpretation of “fake news” will play out in reality. Budapest has been dismissive about any international criticism, with Zoltán Kovács, Orbán’s secretary of state for public diplomacy saying that “lives are at stake.”

Fidesz and its two-thirds majority is set to approve the measure, and the Hungarian President János Áder (also from the Fidesz party) is unlikely to oppose this extension.

Picture a vote in the U.S. Senate next week that would grant President Trump the power to rule by executive order only, suspend the 2020 election, and shut down negative reporting on him or his dealing with the crisis. Adding to that, only the Senate could lift these powers, with the interpretations over when it really ends varying, making it possible that the state of emergency becomes an emergency of the state.

With Europe in chaos over the coronavirus, the political minds are far from set on Hungary. The European Union is trying to handle its own failures of keeping its open borders policy alive, while big countries such as France and Germany are imposing draconian restrictions on movement and assembly to slow the spread of the disease. If there will eventually be a slow-down of this crisis, there might be a problematic awakening regarding the redistribution of power that has gone on in Hungary. It is likely that Orbán won’t fail to use these special long-term privileges to stifle free speech and reduce the remaining judicial checks on his now immense power.

Maybe it won’t be the Empire of Austria-Hungary once again, but it will become increasingly hard to tell the difference.

Bill Wirtz is a political commentator from Luxembourg, covering EU politics and policy. He tweets in German, French, and English at @wirtzbill.

Photo of Viktor Orbán by Getty Images.