As western democracies scramble to contain the coronavirus crisis, authoritarian and populist leaders see the pandemic as a political opportunity. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is using the public health emergency to test new methods of mass surveillance. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has suspended the Knesset and the courts. In South America, Bolivia has postponed its presidential election, while in Asia, Thailand has imposed harsh censorship measures on journalists.
Now the EU may have its very own corona dictatorship, as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary passed a law Monday giving him unlimited and indefinite emergency powers.
The so-called coronavirus law has been called by many an “Enabling Act”, as it allows Orbán to rule by decree, suspend parliament, and postpone elections and national referendums. It also criminalises spreading disinformation about the epidemic, punishable with jail time, though the vague wording makes it unclear what qualifies as disinformation, or who will adjudicate such a process.
The former elements are problematic because they erode what little remained of the rule of law in Hungary, while the latter can easily be used as a tool to muzzle dissenting and critical voices. Perhaps most troubling of all is that the law includes no sunset clause, and thus any return to a normal state of affairs is completely at Orbán’s discretion.
It is natural that during a global pandemic, governments are granted powers that give them more room to impose measures to protect citizens’ lives. Yet such measures need to be proportional. Emergency powers should not be granted indefinitely, but for finite periods.
The Hungarian “Enabling Act” is neither proportional or finite. It entails the elimination of all checks and balances, giving Orbán carte blanche in forming emergency response policy, with no constitutional control for an unlimited time.
In the face of a deadly epidemic, Orbán is tightening his grip on power and using the emergency to attack opposition parties and independent media, making national unity in face of the crisis impossible. The opposition readily acknowledged the need for decisive measures during the parliamentary debate, and even attempted to compromise with the government, offering support for the law with a 30 to 60 day limit. However, Orbán is not one for compromises, and his MPs in parliament pushed through the original bill.
Us versus Them rhetoric is a common hallmark of populists, and indeed, the vote has since been used by Orbán’s mouthpieces to lambast the opposition parties. Pro-government propaganda sites accuse those who did not support the legislation of betraying the nation, while government figures have commented that it seems as though the opposition is “rooting for the virus”.
This is not the first time Orbán has been able to use a national crisis to position himself as the only true protector of Hungary. He also managed to turn the 2015 migration crisis to his advantage, and indeed, the state of emergency declared at that time by the government still remains in effect. The migration crisis gave Orbán’s sophisticated propaganda machine ample ammunition for the last five years, but its efficacy has been fading of late. After intellectuals, opposition parties, refugees, and George Soros, the coronavirus is the new invisible enemy which Orbán can use to rally popular support for his increasingly authoritarian regime.
Those who’ve followed Hungarian politics over the last decade may be asking why any of this is significant. With his consistent two-thirds majority in parliament, Orbán could already easily amend the Fundamental Law (originally written by a Fidesz apparatchik on an iPad and passed unilaterally). A legion of cronies placed in key public positions, like the Prosecutor General and the Constitutional Court, have given him the legal cover to do as he pleases. Economic and legal pressure on civil society and independent media have seriously constrained the ability of these actors to perform watchdog functions.
Hungary has by turns been classified by political scientists as a “flawed democracy”, a “competitive authoritarian regime”, and a “hybrid regime”. The Enabling Act goes one step further towards overt authoritarianism. We’ve witnessed in the last few years that like viruses, authoritarianism also has a way of spreading. Orbán’s brazen flaunting of European norms may embolden copycats to implement similar measures, particularly in Poland, where Jarosław Kaczyński has long been an apt pupil of the Orbán school of populist, hard-right nationalism. The Enabling Act also touches on fundamental questions about the relationship between safety and freedom, and on how far governments can go in constraining individual and constitutional rights in the name of public safety. These questions will no doubt inform political debate for some time in the post-corona world.
As is usually the case with Hungary, the ball is now in the European Union’s court. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed in a recent statement that “any emergency measures must be limited to what is necessary and strictly proportionate, [they] must not last indefinitely…[and] governments must make sure that such measures are subject to regular scrutiny.” The Commission has pledged to examine emergency measures passed by European governments, including the Hungarian law, for compliance with European treaties and values.
Yet Hungary is already embroiled in an Article 7 infringement proceeding, which has had little tangible result, aside from providing ammunition for Orbán’s frequent salvoes against the EU.
Instead of red tape, the European Union needs to lay down a red line. It must clearly state what emergency powers and measures fit with the European notion of democracy, and sanction those governments that step outside these boundaries. I stress here the need for sanctions against governments, not member states. Orbán has repeatedly presented any criticism from Brussels as a direct attack against the Hungarian people, and any punitive effects felt by Hungarian people themselves would be more fuel on the eurosceptic fire. The preservation of human life must also be our first priority, and the medical and scientific dimensions of the European response must be strictly separated from the political dimension.
If European leaders fail to act now, in a few months they may find that while they’ve succeeded in containing the pandemic, they’ve failed to account for the spread of the authoritarian virus. More insidious than its biological counterpart, it is a malady that can also have lethal effects for the state of democracy and the rule of law in the bloc.