Hungary’s prime minister is using the virus to make an authoritarian power grab

Covid-19 is about to claim a new victim: Hungary’s democracy.

The country’s parliament is set to adopt a new law that will give the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban a legal mandate to rule by decree, without any sunset clause and without parliamentary oversight. The government initially sought to fast-track the legislation and adopt it already on March 24, but it lacked the supermajority needed to accelerate the proceedings. The party, however, does not lack the votes to ensure that the legislation is passed through the normal legislative process a few days later.

The brazenness of Orban’s power grab is without any parallel in recent European history.

Like Hungary, other European countries have declared a state of emergency and are resorting to draconian measures. They include shutting down air travel, closing borders, restricting personal freedom and even nationalizing sectors of the economy. While all European governments need flexibility in order to respond to the lethal pandemic in real time, any new powers they acquire are subject to parliamentary review and are planned to remain in effect only for limited periods.

Similarly, the Hungarian constitution allows the government to maintain a state of emergency (in place since March 11) only for an initial period of 15 days, after which it must seek parliamentary approval.

Yet instead of asking parliament for an extension for a fixed period, to be followed by another round of parliamentary deliberation if necessary, the new Hungarian legislation would ensure that the state of emergency remains in force as long as the government deems necessary, while normal parliamentary oversight is suspended. Throughout that time, the government would be free to legislate by decree. No snap elections or referendums could be held, and even the rules of procedure of the country’s Constitutional Court could be altered by its president.

The proposed legislation also creates two new crimes. Interfering with the quarantine would lead to a prison sentence of up to five years (eight if anyone dies as a result). More strikingly, to “claim or spread a falsehood or claim or spread a distorted truth in relation to the emergency in a way that is suitable for alarming or agitating a large group of people” would be punishable by up to three years of imprisonment (Section 10 of the law). A government-run news outlet has already called for the prosecution of opposition politicians under the new statute — simply for pointing out the lack of readiness of the country’s public health system.

Everyone should think twice before giving Orban the benefit of the doubt. His decade-long premiership has been marked by a continual assault on any constraints on his power — whether by courts, civil society or the media. Hungary’s previous moves toward authoritarianism were disguised as a necessary reaction to outside threats: foreign corporate interests during the financial crisis, “cosmopolitan elites” during the refugee crisis of 2016, or, whenever the occasion demands, the philanthropist George Soros (a staple of Orban’s nativist playbook).

True to his past, Orban did not hesitate to connect the virus to migration: “We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two, as both spread with movement”.

Indeed, the first patient with covid-19 in Hungary appears to be an Iranian student. The government responded by imposing a travel ban on Iran (among other countries) and expelling 15 Iranian students. Yet, the 2,500-strong Iranian student population in Hungary is not a result of uncontrolled immigration imposed from Brussels but of Orban’s conscious policy choices, especially the gradual warming of Hungarian-Iranian and Hungarian-Syrian relations, visible also in the lenient treatment of wealthy Syrians applying for residency in Hungary.

Hungary’s new Law on Protecting Against the Coronavirus demonstrates that Orban will never let a serious crisis go to waste in the quest to entrench himself as prime minister for life. As of now, there are few reasons to believe that his wager will fail, as the combination of nativism and fear of a deadly yet invisible threat makes for a potent political mix. Unless there is strong pushback from Brussels and Washington — which are both understandably preoccupied by more urgent matters — Hungary is bound to emerge from the current crisis as a full-fledged dictatorship.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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