The Hungarian parliament adopted controversial legislation late on March 30 granting Viktor Orbán, the country’s authoritarian prime minister, sweeping emergency powers. The legislation, nicknamed the Authorisation Act, allows Mr Orbán’s government to rule by decree for an indefinite period, suspend any election from taking place as long as there a health emergency, override any existing legislation, while a new amendment to the country’s criminal code punishes the spread of misinformation and fake news related to the coronavirus (and the government’s efforts to manage the crisis).
The legislation passed the requires two-thirds majority easily, supported by the ruling Fidesz party and MPs from the far-right Our Homeland party. Lawmakers from the democratic opposition parties – the social-liberal Democratic Coalition, the centre-left Hungarian Socialist Party, the Greens and the far-right-turned-conservative Jobbik party voted against. Hungary’s liberal Momentum party, which is one of the two largest opposition groups but has no MPs, also opposed the bill.
The vote comes after probably the most intense week of political debates in post-communist Hungary and will have far-reaching consequences for the state of Hungarian politics, with the potential to reshape the country’s political spectrum.
Immediately after the bill was first introduced by Hungary’s justice minister, Judit Varga, all major Hungarian opposition parties came out against it, saying that the Hungarian PM could not be allowed to rule by decree indefinitely since this poses threats to the country’s democracy. The law also drew harsh criticism from the Secretary General of the Council of Europe and the Human Rights Commissioner of the United Nations, as well as other civil rights organisations.
Since Mr Orbán has a long and proven track record of cosying up to authoritarian powers, abusing democratic institutions, attacking independent media outlets and building systemic corruption, one could argue that the criticism coming from the Hungarian opposition and international rights organisations was well-founded, not to mention the fact that there is no other European country where such extraordinary measures have been introduced.
“Any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate. They must not last indefinitely. Moreover, governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, pointing to the Hungarian government and the EU sanctions that could now follow.
Although Hungary is almost certain to see some democratic backsliding since there is no guarantee that the Hungarian PM will not take advantage of the legislation and push through controversial and undemocratic measures which are in no way related to the coronavirus crisis, my view is that this case is not about building a “dictatorship” as many suggest – it is about boosting the Hungarian leader’s reelection chances by using temporary, but worryingly undemocratic measures.
Mr Orbán is already preparing for his next parliamentary supermajority. He fully understands that the response he gives to the crisis will be the most important factor when people vote in the next parliamentary election, scheduled for 2022.
For this reason, he created a trap for the Hungarian opposition. His ruling Fidesz party came up with a law that raises great concerns about democracy and press freedom, knowing that the opposition would criticise it. And because they have criticised it, the ruling party and the pro-government media have been able to launch a political narrative according to which the opposition is once again failing to come together for Hungary’s national interest at a critical time (Mr Orbán pulled a similar trick during the 2015 migration crisis). Therefore, the opposition can be portrayed as an obstacle to effectively managing the crisis, while the government’s new legislation represents swift and firm action.
This narrative is also demonstrated by the fact that Mr Orbán did not make use of his super-majority the first time the legislation was put to parliament, on March 23. Instead, a procedure requiring a four-fifths majority was used, allowing the opposition to block it, and a number of other existing emergency decrees – such as tax holidays and other much-needed economic response measures – in the process. Again, this allowed Orbán to portray the opposition as not wanting to help ordinary Hungarians.
Mr Orbán has been in power for close to 10 years and he is perfectly aware that his current actions will be an essential part of his political legacy. And he has an example to learn from: the 2008 economic crisis was a critical factor in bringing down the country’s previous, socialist-liberal ruling party which at that time responded with vastly unpopular austerity measures. The party is now in opposition, its support is fading and it is becoming an irrelevance.
Some commentators argue that the government’s narrative, which also includes attacks on the EU for failing to offer Hungary immediate support, is already paying off for Mr Orbán. A recent poll conducted in the midst of the crisis by Hungary’s Publicus Institute finds that only 38 per cent believe that Hungary is headed in the wrong direction, which is the lowest number in five years. What’s more, 57 per cent are satisfied with the Hungarian government’s anti-crisis measures, while only 41 per cent find them insufficient. Other – mainly pro-government – pollsters also say that the vast majority of Hungarians are satisfied with the government’s “tough measures.”
The new law could target independent Hungarian journalists
“The person, who publicly spreads unsubstantiated facts or misrepresents substantiated facts, which could put an obstacle before or prevent the effectiveness of the response measures, is to be punished with a prison sentence of from one to five years,” reads an amendment of Hungary’s criminal code in the legislation passed on March 30.
Responding to the adoption of the bill, Miklós Hargitai, the president of the Association of Hungarian Journalists, said that the amendment would make the work of journalists reporting on the crisis more dangerous.
According to him, the authorities could also target independent journalists for publishing facts which are not in line with the Hungarian government’s agenda since the law does not clearly define what “misrepresenting facts in a way that prevents the effectiveness of response measures” means.
Critics say the amendment to the criminal code could easily see good, independent journalists who highlight the failings of the Hungarian government’s response – with actual facts – attacked, instead of targeting the vast number of shady, fake news sites in the country.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s pro-government media could be allowed to misrepresent facts in favour of Mr Orbán and his political ambitions.
Photo: MTI / Hungarian Press Service