A “dictatorship” at the heart of the EU? A draft law to grant anti-coronavirus emergency measures set for adoption by Budapest has alarmed observers who fear it will hand Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unlimited power.
“Hungary is a special case, nowhere in the Eastern EU members you have such measures proposed,” said Milan Nic, an expert with the Berlin-based German Council for Foreign Relations.
After declaring a state of emergency on 11 March, Orbán expects parliament to vote on Tuesday (30 March) to allow him to extend it indefinitely and rule by decree in order to better fight COVID-19 and its impacts.
If parliament, dominated by his right-wing Fidesz party, approves the “coronavirus law” with the necessary two-thirds majority, Orbán’s cabinet could in theory enjoy effectively unchecked power.
“His government is already in a stronger position than anywhere else in the EU. Hungary is no longer a country of democratic checks and balances,” said Nic.
The law would also enable heavy jail terms for publishers of “false information” about the virus and the government’s measures, stoking new worries for Hungarian press freedoms that have dwindled under Orbán.
‘EU’s first dictatorship’?
A former anti-communist turned self-styled “illiberal” nationalist, 56-year-old Orbán has also transformed Hungary’s political, judicial, and constitutional landscape since he came to power in 2010.
His many clashes with the European institutions, NGOs and rights groups over migration, democracy, and the rule of law have seen Budapest sued by Brussels for “breaching” EU values.
“Until now, the system installed by Orbán was seen as a ‘hybrid state’, neither democracy nor dictatorship,” said former journalist Paul Lendvai in an editorial this week in Austria’s Der Standard.
But Lendvai, a Hungarian who fled to Austria after the failed anti-Soviet 1956 uprising, wondered if the proposed powers could turn Hungary into “the EU’s first dictatorship”.
Orbán’s latest move will also pick at already raw relations between Fidesz and the European Parliament’s conservative EPP grouping who have dithered over expelling the party from their ranks.
For EPP MEP Othmar Karas of Austria’s conservative ÖVP party, the latest furore firmly “puts Orbán on the path” of authoritarian Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an ally of the Hungarian.
For his part Orbán unabashedly continues to portray himself as a traditional conservative.
Responding to Council of Europe criticism of the draft law this week, Orbán curtly told the body in a letter to “read the exact text of the law”.
Supporters of the government argue that extending the special powers is widely supported by the population and decisive rule is necessary during the current crisis.
The government has accused the opposition of “scaremongering” and even being on the side of the virus by potentially preventing essential measures to fight it.
But according to Zoltan Fleck, a law professor at Budapest’s ELTE university, the Hungarian context of a decade of strongarm rule by Orbán makes rule-by-decree more perilous than elsewhere.
“In a weakened constitutional state, special powers are always very risky,” he said in a recent interview.
Attempted ‘coup d’état’ claim
Hungary is not the only state with a fragile democracy where the beefing up of government powers aimed at battling the coronavirus has led to fears of states abusing their emergency powers.
Against the advice of several experts Poland’s ultra-conservative government looks set to hold a presidential election in May, seen as a bid to capitalise on its handling of the coronavirus crisis.
In Bulgaria, the government of Boyko Borissov, an admirer of Orbán, has proposed a controversial law akin to Hungary’s, mandating jail terms for those spreading fake news about infectious diseases. Following pressure by the President Rumen Radev, the controversial texts were retracted.
Last week, United Nations experts urged states not to “abuse” security and safety measures taken in response to the pandemic.
As one opposition party slammed Orbán’s proposal as an attempted “coup d’état” others urged him to compromise by fixing a time-limit on the state-of-emergency powers.
But Orbán, typically, has refused to budge. “We don’t need the opposition to solve this crisis,” he said Monday, confident in his parliamentary majority.
According to Budapest-based think-tank Political Capital the main problem in the pandemic crisis is “not that the government does not have enough power to act.
“It is rather the restricted capacities of the healthcare sector due to having been underfunded for years,” it said.