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Is Hungary’s Orbán Using the Pandemic to Impose Dictatorial Rule?

His new authoritarian policies are worrying those who had up to now defended his conservative-nationalist approach.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban gives a joint press conference with Czech Republic's Prime Minister, Poland's Prime Minister and Slovakia's Prime Minister after a meeting of representatives of the Visegrad Group (V4), focusing on measures in response to the new coronavirus COVID-19, on March 4, 2020 in Prague. (Photo by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP via Getty Images)

Of all the dire predictions made at the outset of the Trump presidency, the idea that the United States had just elected a would-be dictator was always the most implausible. Corruption, mismanagement, and sycophantism were predictable features of a Trump administration, but a man who cannot stop himself from tweeting is an unlikely tyrant.

Not so for Trump’s Eastern European doppelganger, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been a political force since the fall of the Soviet Union. Predictions of an authoritarian takeover in Hungary have always been more plausible simply because the man at the top has the instinct—and the ability—to command.

Two days ago, Orbán’s critics’ worst fears were seemingly confirmed when the Hungarian Parliament passed sweeping new legislation to combat the coronavirus. The bill empowers Orbán to rule by decree for the duration of the crisis without any sunset provisions or time limits and suspends elections until the emergency has ended. The legislation also allows the government to jail people for spreading false or misleading information. Parliament can revoke these extraordinary measures at any time, but Orbán’s Fidesz party enjoys a commanding parliamentary majority.  

Orbán’s opponents have long said he harbors dictatorial ambitions. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, many of these critics were overheated or unduly influenced by their distaste for Orbán’s politics. Nationalist and conservative sympathies are not evidence of incipient fascism. Before the pandemic, Hungary was still home to a vocal, albeit fractious, opposition. In recent mayoral elections, anti-Fidesz candidates took control of 10 major towns and cities, including Budapest. Large demonstrations rocked the capital last winter without provoking a government crackdown, and the climate of fear that characterizes authoritarian regimes was simply absent from everyday Hungarian life. In pubs, restaurants, and cafes, you would often hear jokes at Orbán ’s expense, usually about his predilection for building lavish soccer stadiums with taxpayer money. This was not the behavior of a cowed, fearful populace. 

There is also a case for strong preventive measures to avoid a major outbreak within Hungary’s borders. Northern Italy was overwhelmed by the coronavirus and Spain seems to be on a similar trajectory. Both countries are wealthier and have better healthcare infrastructure than their Eastern European counterparts. Hungary is an aging society. A major coronavirus outbreak could overwhelm hospitals and devastate rural communities.  

The government’s initial reaction to the spread of coronavirus was robust. Two weeks ago, after less than 100 cases had been confirmed within Hungary’s borders, Orbán closed schools, limited public gatherings, and placed a curfew on non-essential businesses. Late last week, non-essential businesses were shut down completely. All of these measures were severe but justifiable responses to an unprecedented emergency.  

The new legislation, however, is different. The absence of any time limit on Orbán’s sweeping new authority raises several thorny questions. It is genuinely unclear how long the present emergency will last. China’s recent decision to close movie theaters suggests that it is experiencing secondary outbreaks, a grim warning to European countries that controlling the initial spread may not be enough to stop the disease. Some public health experts speculate that the coronavirus will subside in warm weather only to return in the fall. Will Orbán continue to rule by decree through next winter as a precautionary measure? Theoretically, Parliament can revoke Orbán’s emergency powers at any time, but Parliament is controlled by the prime minister’s political allies. 

Allowing the regime to jail people for spreading “false or misleading” information is also worrisome. Even epidemiologists don’t fully understand the coronavirus. Only a few weeks ago, public health experts were telling Americans not to wear masks. This “expert consensus” reversed itself almost overnight. Policing a fluid public debate with the threat of jail time is an invitation to abuse. 

It is possible that Orbán’s critics have once again missed the mark and the Hungarian government will return to business as usual after the crisis is over. The scope of the coronavirus outbreak has led to a number of policies in Western democracies that would be unthinkable under any other circumstances. But there is another outcome that even those who sympathize with Fidesz’s populist-nationalist conservatism should consider.

If Orbán does mean to break with the liberal democratic West, now is the time to do so. Trump is distracted by domestic quarrels and has never shown much interest in promoting democracy abroad. The European Union is beset by internal divisions and compromised by its failure to help Italy. The EU’s generous subsidies, the biggest carrot for staying on good terms with Western Europe, are likely to be curtailed by a post-coronavirus recession. While the EU fumbles and the United States turns inward, China’s superficially impressive response to the virus has cast autocracy in a favorable light. After a brief hiatus, history has suddenly returned to Eastern Europe, along with the authoritarian temptation that has plagued the region for so much of the modern era. 

Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.

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