Unlimited emergency powers granted to Prime Minister Viktor Orban have taken Hungary a step closer to dictatorship, critics say. How low can Orban go?
By Edward Szekeres
And with a single vote in parliament, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has won the right to rule by decree for as long as he deems fit. Emergency legislation to battle COVID-19 has turned an EU democracy into something like a dictatorship, critics say.
Dubbed the “omnipotence law” by opponents, the bill approved on Monday diminishes parliament’s checks on executive power and makes it easy to jail journalists for doing their jobs, according to opposition parties and rights groups.
Elections and referendums will be postponed indefinitely. Crucially, the Bill on Protection Against Coronavirus has no sunset clause, meaning it is up to the government to decide when — or if — to end the state of emergency.
“Hungary’s already run as an illiberal democracy,” political commentator Zoltan Cegledi told BIRN. “The government’s will to destroy, limit and exhaust democracy is permanent. Its future victims will be the remnants of autonomy.
“Even before the pandemic threat, they [the government] tried to besiege cultural institutions and representatives while attacking judicial independence.”
The government rejects the criticism, saying parliament can revoke the emergency powers and arguing the law allows it to take decisive action to fight coronavirus, which has killed 16 people in Hungary.
But in a parliament dominated by Orban’s nationalist-populist Fidesz party, analysts say it is fanciful to think opposition lawmakers can overturn the legislation or push back on decrees unrelated to coronavirus.
The legislation allows up to five years of imprisonment for anyone who publishes false or distorted facts that alarm or agitate the public, or undermine its “successful protection”. Critics say this wording opens the door to censorship.
“The remaining checks and balances in Hungary will cease to exist and the country will likely witness a new wave of attacks against the free press,” Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank, wrote in analysis of the bill.
Mertek, a media watchdog, called the law “the end of days for independent media in Hungary”.
The International Commission of Jurists has denounced the emergency bill while the United Nations has warned of abusing emergency measures to suppress human rights.
According to Lydia Gall, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, Orban has already “weaponised coronavirus to stoke xenophobia” after claiming COVID-19 was imported to Hungary by Iranian students.
Prior to the outbreak, Orban’s government took flak for its controversial decision to ignore court-ordered compensation of millions of euros for Roma victims of segregated schooling and prisoners holed up in dire conditions.
“It smacks of anti-Roma sentiment and contempt for rule of law,” Gall wrote recently.
Decade of descent
Analysts say Hungary’s descent into autocracy has been a long time coming.
In the latest annual report by Freedom House, a New York-based rights watchdog, Hungary held onto its dubious distinction of being the only EU member state to be ranked “partly free” for the second year running.
The report cited concerns over a “pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources”, mounting violations of human rights and the usurpation of freedoms from academic institutions, non-governmental organisations and independent media outlets.
“After taking power in the 2010 elections, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Alliance of Young Democrats-Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz) party pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed it to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions,” the report said.
Orban has been quick to dismiss such claims.
“He doesn’t care for these studies or indexes and always finds excuses to show what’s wrong with them through his media propaganda machine,” Robert Laszlo, an election expert at the Political Capital Institute, told BIRN.
“The only thing he cares about is to keep his voters warm. The rest is out of his interest.”
Orban’s rogue style of governance has fundamentally reshaped the nature of Hungary’s statehood, said Andras Bozoki, professor of political science at the Central European University who served as the country’s minister of culture in 2005-2006.
“Hungary is no more a democracy,” he told BIRN. “Instead, we have a hybrid regime. Some call it electoral autocracy, others competitive authoritarianism. So not a democracy nor a dictatorship, but something in between. We can expect more serious developments, as there is no political control over Viktor Orban.”
For analyst Laszlo, control of media is the fuel powering Fidesz’s anti-democratic engine.
“We thought we saw the worst of media concentration in 2016,” he said. Back then, leading opposition newspaper Nepszabadsag was shut down by publisher Mediaworks, which was soon after partially acquired by Orban ally and public contract oligarch Lorinc Meszaros.
“Then came 2018, and 500 more private media outlets went under a pro-Orban consortium,” Laszlo added.
Known as the Central European Press and Media Foundation, this state holding of newspapers, cable TV channels, radio stations and news sites controls almost all of Hungary’s regional dailies and is of “strategic national importance in the public interest”, according to the government.
In reality, it is a means to prevent competing media outlets from opposing public officials, Reporters Without Borders says.
In the media watchdog’s World Press Freedom Index last year, Hungary fell 14 places to 87th position, just below Kyrgyzstan and Sierra Leone.
A report on factors stifling the work of journalists published in late February by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union concluded that “independent media face organised and systematic state obstructions”.
And according to leaked emails intercepted by Brussels-based website Politico, even Hungary’s state media grapple with censorship, with bosses requiring special permission from “higher above” to report on “sensitive” topics — including Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg.
While some critics argue the country lacks information sovereignty, others describe an information vacuum.
“In the past 10 years, Orban took democracy apart, piece by piece,” Viktor Mak, a political communications specialist, told BIRN. “First went the checks and balances, then he targeted independent media. Many parts of the country suffer from a severe lack of information.”
Mak, who is also part of the Free University activist group that advocates freedom of education, is convinced that the shortage of reliable information “allows Orban to push a narrative that deepens the crackdown on Hungarian civil society. They are constantly attacking us, trying to prevent our gatherings and causing trouble with financing.”
Orban’s defiance of the courts, the rule of law and democratic norms is unlikely to be met head-on by the EU or international bodies, political scientist Bozoki said.
“Experience shows that there’s no use in waiting for a solution from foreign interference. The future of Hungary’s democracy depends on whether the voters decide to restore it and oust Viktor Orban.”
Bozoki argues that Hungarian democracy’s do-or-die moment will play out in 2022 parliamentary elections — “if they are held and the opposition is united. If Fidesz steals the vote, we can expect protests similar to those in Ukraine [in 2014].”
Election expert Laszlo predicts a similarly rocky path for Hungarian politics.
“As long as Orban is in power, I see no chance of change,” he said. “He is definitely not going to alter his governing politics. In fact, we cannot determine how deep Hungary’s democracy can sink.
“In the past 10 years, many people kept saying that it could not get worse, and it always did. We might not be able to exactly delineate the border between democracy and dictatorship. But we sure are heading towards the latter.”