From today on, Viktor Orbán governs Hungary by decree. There will no longer be any parliamentary debate: it has been suspended. The executive branch will now be able to make all the decisions it retains necessary and only the Constitutional Court will be able to judge their viability. Since its judges are believed to be tied to Fidesz, Orbán’s catch-all party, some indulgence is to be expected. This will go on until Orbán himself does not decide to reinstate the parliament.
The emergency legislative package approved yesterday by parliament and readily signed by the president of the Republic, János Áder, brings Orbán beyond the limitations of certain freedoms decided by all European governments facing the ongoing health and economic crisis. What happened in Budapest is a veritable suspension of democracy, the Hungarian opposition as well as liberal and left-wing forces around Europe report. Perhaps the most insidious measure involves prison sentences for those spreading false information on the virus, which threateningly swirls around the independent press, whose offices have now been hollowed out. Most newspapers, radios and television stations are now in the hands of the ruling executive.
The justice system, the press, and academia: since 2010 Fisdesz has won three elections in a row and little by little has domesticated every possible center of dissent, every counterbalance. It was a real pillaging of democracy by the State. After yesterday’s developments, is dictatorship around the corner? Until will the government keep the Parliament closed? Will the European Commission trigger an infringement procedure? Will the European People’s Party expel the already suspended Orbán? These are questions for which, for now, there are no answers. What we can do, however, is reconstruct how we have arrived at this point and what could be the logic that inspired Orbàn to venture up this slope.
Initially the government underestimated the impact of the pandemic, the same mistake made by many other EU countries. The attitude seemed to be to not consider the gravity of the virus, viewing it as a “foreign factor”.
At the beginning of March, for example, the government suspended, with the excuse of presumed ties between the virus and migrants, access to the border with Serbia for those few asylum seekers that still turn there for their access to Europe. Not long after, after the first cases of contagion emerged, it blamed foreign students in Hungarian universities, particularly Iranian students who had gone home after the start of the outbreak in Iran and then returned to Hungary. The government therefore closed universities but not schools and when teachers asked that scholastic activity be suspended the prime minister threatened them with a suspension of their salary, a position that ignited anger in the country and even created a rift inside Fidesz.
At that point, Orbán suddenly changed route and closed schools and declared a state of emergency. He closed the borders, cinemas, theatres, and libraries and imposed limits on the hours of pharmacies, supermarkets, tobacco shops, and gas stations. Measures that were very much in line with what had already been done in other places in Europe. But within just a few days his government went beyond presenting his request for special powers and fast-tracking it into Parliament on Monday the 23rd of March. For it to be approved he needed four-fifths of the votes (there are 199 members of parliament) but it was rejected. Not even Fidesz’s overwhelming majority was enought to secure the necessary votes, thus a secondary hearing was held in which only two-thirds of votes were needed.
The opposition parties were ready to uphold the special powers but asked that a time limit be imposed. Orbán did not compromise, accusing the opposition of “standing with the virus” and of betraying national unity, never before so necessary. In this way he was able to identify an enemy that he could accuse and attack. The consensus around him as well as his political actions have always been based on finding a physical, well-known adversary: the European elites, Soros, migrants or the global financial system. The coronavirus is an ethereal, unpredictable enemy and declaring war on it, with all the uncertainty around the number of possible victims, the impact of the economic crisis (the predicted 4% growth rate will most likely turn into a recession) and possible cuts to welfare – key elements of the governments ruling consensus – is a risky operation. Blaming the opposition for a lack of national unity in a moment of peril, laying eventual failures at its feet, is instead much simpler. A first poll taken in the moment seems to side with Orbán. 75 percent of the Hungarian electorate agrees with how he has faced the crisis until now.
Another possible motivation behind the move is of a partisan nature. A further centralization of power to bring order and discipline after the small earthquake that followed the threat to teachers.
The coming months only will reveal whether this will be regarded as Hungary’s final slide into dictatorship. What is certain is that Hungary and its prime minister are once again center-stage, and this could also be part of a strategy. In these weeks, the European Union has been fiercely criticized for a lack of internal solidarity (real or presumed) as well as for its inability to make rapid decisions to face the pandemic. “You see, I have been forced to go it alone because Brussels has shown once again that it is not up to it”: this is another key message that Orbán, always quick to criticize the EU in order to nourish his consensus, may have sent to his audience.