On March 31, the Hungarian parliament voted to grant extraordinary emergency powers to its government, enabling the Orbán administration to rule by decree, and to jail anyone accused of distorting the truth for up to five years. The law passed without a sunset clause — it will remain in effect until the end of the pandemic, which will be up to the government to decide. With this, Hungary became the first country where a government used the pandemic as an excuse to infinitely expand its powers. The specifics of how these powers are used are important, because Hungary has been a testing lab for post-truth authoritarian regimes for years. Here is a review of what happened since then.
Orbán did not turn off democracy in Hungary, because there was no democracy.
In the ensuing days, the world declared the end of democracy in Hungary. The Washington Post announced that Coronavirus had killed its first democracy. The Guardian condemned the law in an editorial and called it a power grab. In reality, the Orbán government didn’t just flip a switch to turn off democracy in Hungary, because there was no democracy. They just dropped the facade and let the world in on this secret. The government didn’t assume new powers, because they didn’t really need them.
So why pass the law at all? Most likely, some items on Orbán’s agenda were too important to be stalled by a democratic charade. Parliamentary debate was a bottleneck in the way of Fidesz’s policy making. In the early days of the pandemic, there was also a risk of interruption in the parliament’s ability to function. The Enabling Act allowed the Orbán regime to upgrade to a leaner way of authoritarianism, to be more efficient in their rule making — to scale their operations. In the face of mounting criticism, that is what the government’s spokesperson argued too: there was a health crisis going on, after all, and the government needed to rule more efficiently.
One question remained: what was Orbán going to do with this newfound efficiency? Independent media was buried long ago by an avalanche of propaganda; civil society silenced; the judicial system decapitated; arts and education starved and submitted to Fidesz control. What was next on the agenda that needed to be fast tracked? We didn’t have to wait long to find out.
In quick succession, a series of policies were passed, most of them with no connection to the pandemic.
- The government seized control of a publicly traded company, a move reminiscent of Communist times. Asserting that the cardboard factory was of strategic importance in the fight against the virus, the government put a state representative in charge, and entrusted her to make decisions for the CEO. Of course, her first action was to replace the CEO, together with the entire leadership team and board, as well as the accountant. Accountant-less, the company missed an important filing deadline, prompting the National Bank to suspend the firm in the Budapest Stock Exchange. The company’s activities include the manufacturing and decorating of cardboard boxes, in no way an essential or life saving activity, and at no risk of interruption, as reported by index. Earlier in March the government’s new coronavirus task force compiled a list of 140 companies of critical national interest in the fight against the pandemic, but to date the cardboard factory remains the only one where they assumed control.
- The government moved a Samsung factory out of a small town’s jurisdiction with a decree introducing a Special Economic Zone in the area. Now, the Fidesz-led county will be collecting Samsung’s commercial taxes, leaving Göd, a small town by the Danube, without 20 percent of its projected revenues for this year according to the mayor, “to protect jobs where massive job loss is at stake”. The implication seems to be that counties (all of them under Fidesz rule right now) are somehow inherently better at protecting jobs than towns (many of who voted for the opposition in the last municipal elections). The fact that 250 Korean technicians were flown to Hungary against the government’s own travel ban and ongoing anti-migrant campaign suggests that at least 250 of these jobs are not locally staffed, nor permanent.
- The government classified information about the largest infrastructure project in the history of Hungary, a Chinese-Hungarian partnership to renovate the Budapest-Belgrade railway route. The contract is valued between 2 and 3 billion USD, about 2 percent of the Hungarian GDP — twice as much as what the government spent on actual economic relief in the pandemic. The stated reason to classify the details of the contract: it is an infrastructure project of overriding national importance. The connection to the pandemic is supposed to be that “a recession should be an argument in favor of pushing forward with the plans, not against”.
- The government passed a law to grant security agencies extraordinary powers to collect and retain background information on Hungarian citizens including individual health records and tax records. The law also includes an amendment to the criminal code to instruct authorities to retain data about criminal suspects for at least 20 years if it is relevant “from a criminalistic standpoint” — even for people who are later proven innocent. And, for the first time since Communism ended, authorities have arrested people for expressing discontent in a Facebook group. It’s hard to keep up, but we are not done yet.
- The government passed a mishmash of legislation to eat away at the power of municipalities, and gift expensive property to Fidesz allies. Recipients included a historical society, an elite education institution for young conservatives, and in 41 cases, religious institutions. Then, a series of arbitrary measures that had nothing to do with public safety, but must have fit some agenda, like a ban on changing one’s sex (“as determined by chromosomes”) in official records.
Apparently, a lot of things needed to be fast tracked. None of them are strictly relevant to the crisis, but there is a pattern here: a lot of the new measures are shifting resources from Fidesz enemies to Fidesz allies. Meanwhile, the administration tripled the time authorities can take to respond to Freedom of Information Requests during the crisis. As long as the pandemic lasts, the government can operate in darkness.
The Enabling Act was not a turning point in Hungary’s road to authoritarianism. But it is an assault on democracies elsewhere.
Democratic institutions are vulnerable everywhere right now. Israel enacted an emergency decree to allow Benjamin Netanyahu to postpone his own criminal trial, and expand the government’s rights for surveillance.The British Coronavirus Bill gave sweeping powers to the police to arrest people suspected of carrying the virus. China passed sweeping legislation to move Hong Kong under firmer rule. All over the world, less clear cut cases emerged on restrictions on religion and the freedom of assembly. And, as we know from life and air travel post 9/11, emergency measures can be sticky. Some new policies may be here to stay.
Hungary has been a testing lab for post-truth authoritarian regimes for a long time. Orbán has a lot of admirers all over the world: not only in Poland, but also in Spain, Italy, France, Israel, and the United States, as evidenced by his popularity at the Conference of National Conservatives in Rome this February, where he reportedly joked that it is much easier to maintain power if you don’t have opposition in the press. And just because most of Orbán’s admirers are not in power today, it doesn’t mean that they won’t be tomorrow.
Orbán’s brilliance has always been to disguise important assaults on democracy in a lethal combination of very boring and extremely complex measures that are hard to follow for anyone who does not speak Hungarian or cares deeply about Hungary. Because of this, he was able to smuggle illiberalism into the EU in broad daylight, and then spread it across the region, like a patient zero of democratic backsliding.
You can’t flip a switch on a vibrant democracy, but you can dim the light systematically over ten years.
That process has just become significantly easier because of the pandemic. It happens slowly and then all at once. It takes boring initiatives like introducing a retirement age for all the judges in the country, and reallocating municipal parking and small business taxes. Or firing the inspector general for the intelligence community. Your democracy may not be at risk of shutting down today, but in ten years, in another pandemic, it might be.
Aspiring autocrats watch Hungary for inspiration. So should you.
Cover image by István Gábor Takács. Original picture by MTI.
Lili Török | @LiliTorok
Editor, Rights Reporter Blog
Lili Török is a freelance writer and economist who focuses on emerging market economies. She has an MPA in Advanced Policy and Economic Analysis from Columbia University and an MA in Political Economy from Central European University. She is the author of a thesis on the perceptions of the 1989 Transition among young people in Hungary. Born and raised in Budapest and Moscow, she lives in New York City.