A drift toward authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland during the Covid-19 crisis is raising alarms across the European Union.
By Cain Burdeau
Published on Courthouse News Service, Apr 16, 2020
In Hungary, the prime minister now rules by decree to fight the coronavirus pandemic. But he’s using his new unfettered powers to divert funds away from rival politicians, ban elections, impose military supervision over hospitals and companies, threaten people deemed to be spreading falsehoods about the coronavirus crisis with prison, push through pet projects and ban transgender people from changing their sex on birth certificates.
Does that sound like a dictatorship has arisen in the middle of the European Union? Many believe that’s exactly what Hungary has become under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a far-right politician who was controversial well before the coronavirus pandemic.
At the end of March, the Hungarian parliament, controlled by Orbán’s Fidesz party, passed a law – with no end date – that gives the prime minister sweeping powers to fight the pandemic. Newspaper columnists, academics and watchdog groups warned that Orbán – whom some refer to as “Viktator” – truly had become a dictator.
“Now, with the emergency measures, I would say Hungary is not a democracy anymore,” said Sophie Pornschlegel, a senior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, in a telephone interview. “You have a parliament dominated by the ruling party and a leader that rules by decree; at the same time, freedom of the press or academic freedoms are hugely curtailed.”
In Europe, it’s not just Hungary where democracy is under assault. Poland’s right-wing nationalist government is using the pandemic to pass controversial laws and consolidate power too, analysts say.
This week, the Polish parliament tried to pass laws to completely ban abortions and bar sex education in schools. In the past, attempts to pass similar laws sparked large-scale protests, but under the country’s lockdown large gatherings are banned. Regardless, protesters have taken to the streets in Warsaw, all the while trying to respect “physical distancing” requirements even as police warned they could be arrested. Parliament chose to defer a final vote on the divisive abortion bill Thursday.
Poland is also pushing ahead with a May 10 presidential election despite the pandemic and critics argue the ruling Law and Justice party hopes to win by taking advantage of the crisis. For instance, voters over the age of 60 will be allowed to cast mail-in ballots while younger people will need to vote in person, which may suppress turnout if people are afraid of getting infected at the polls.
Conveniently for Law and Justice, the party enjoys a lot of support among older voters. On Thursday, the government also proposed extending President Andrzej Duda’s term by two years to avoid holding the election.
Hungary, though, is the most troubling example of how the pandemic is being used to consolidate power and undermine democracy, experts say.
“The [emergency] law gives Orbán the power to overturn any law, reverse any legal principle and change any regulation as long as the (indefinite) emergency continues,” wrote Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University and an expert on Hungary. “No other EU country has anything remotely like this.”
“The power is unlimited in time – it is, in practice, indefinite until either Orbán calls off the emergency or the Parliament enacts another law to withdraw the power,” she said in an email to Courthouse News. “Given that Orbán controls the Parliament, the reversal of this grant of power is unlikely – and even more unlikely if his support starts to fade because he only needs 1/3 of the Parliament behind him to block any new law.”
The Hungarian government rejects the criticism.
“Those voicing unfounded claims about our management of this crisis threatening democracy and the rule of law in Hungary are fighting an imaginary enemy,” the government said in an email to Courthouse News. “False claims of a power grab in Hungary are just that. Such insinuations are not only incorrect but defamatory, and impede the government’s efforts in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus.”
The government said the emergency law was needed to fight the pandemic and save lives. It said the law allows the government to keep functioning even if the Hungarian National Assembly has to be suspended because of the pandemic. The government also claimed that the powers enjoyed by the prime minister “are much narrower than the rights that are given, for example, to the president of France under normal circumstances.”
“So portraying this situation as if it were a threat to democracy is simply unfair,” the government said.
But Orbán wasted no time using his sweeping new powers against his rivals, Scheppele said.
“Orbán is using the excuse of the virus to defund anyone who is opposed to his continued rule,” she said.
He is diverting state funds that go to political parties and seizing funds going to several large Hungarian cities run by mayors from opposition parties, the professor said.
In October, Orbán suffered a major setback when opponents were victorious in municipal elections, including in the mayoral race in Budapest, the capital.
“Suddenly the money going to cities has been commandeered by the national government,” Scheppele said.
The government said efforts to contain the virus requires it to do “large-scale fiscal re-allocation” and that it asked “political parties, multinational retail chains, banks and local governments to share common burdens.”
“This is the only way to ensure that funds required for containment and the rebooting of the economy become available,” it said.
The government said half of all party funding – about $3.7 million in all – is going to a fund for the epidemic. Funds from Orbán’s Fidesz party are also going into the war chest, the government said.
Using his new powers, Orbán classified information related to a railway project financed by China that connects Budapest and Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Orbán’s rivals allege he’s keeping details about the project secret to hide corruption.
The rail line is part of China’s strategy to extend its reach and clout across Asia and Europe through a series of transport projects called the Belt and Road Initiative. China’s strategy is controversial and detractors warn China is seeking to gain an economic, technological and political foothold in Europe through its transcontinental enterprise. Corruption allegations swirl around several infrastructure projects in the initiative.
The Hungarian government said the country’s foreign policy and trade interests would be jeopardized if it allowed access to information about the railway project, government decision-making and contracts related to its construction. It added that information will remain classified for 10 years.
In Budapest, Orbán is using his new powers to push ahead with a project known as Liget, which involves building a new museum, national gallery and theater in a central city park. The city’s mayor had opposed moving ahead with the work. But Orbán declared the work of “overriding national interest.”
Orbán’s opponents charge he is also using his new powers to further enrich his friends and family. His regime has been dogged by corruption allegations.
The emergency law also makes it a criminal offense to hinder measures to stop the virus and spread information about the pandemic deemed false or a distortion of the truth.
Violating containment measures can bring up to three years in prison and up to five years if perpetrated by a group of people. Moreover, the law provides for eight years in prison if an offense results in death.
People who spread information deemed false by the government face three years in prison. But if that information affects the general public, the crime can carry prison sentences of up to five years.
Critics charge these provisions are aimed at silencing journalists, doctors, nurses and others from criticizing Hungary during the pandemic and highlighting problems the government may want to keep quiet. Hungary’s health care system, some experts say, is dangerously underfunded and unprepared for this crisis.
Much of Hungary’s media is owned and managed by allies of the government, but there are critical outlets too and they fear the law will make it harder to report.
“This law creates a lot of uncertainty because you do not know how decisions will be made,” Zoltan Batka, a journalist for the small daily newspaper Nepszava, told Deutsche Welle, a German news agency. “Even if you spread true information in a distorted way which could curb the protection of Hungary, you face jail time. But who defines what ‘distortion’ means?”
Some outlets, such as Pester Lloyd, an online German-language Hungarian newspaper, allege the government is downplaying the severity of the pandemic in Hungary and that its data on infections and deaths are not trustworthy. Hungary has reported among the lowest rates of infection in Europe with 1,652 confirmed cases and 142 deaths.
“The military, which has occupied most of the state hospitals, has reported the deaths to the government,” a Pester Lloyd article said. “However, it is known that most hospitals still lack of a great deal of basic equipment to protect employees and patients while the official MTI news agency delights us with images of well-equipped workers spraying disinfectants in spring-time parks.”
Pornschlegel, the policy analyst, said: “The definition of fake news is down to what the government wants. So, they can say, ‘We have a low number of deaths,’ but you will never be sure that it’s the truth.”
She said a free press is crucial, especially during a crisis.
“Democracy is still the best way to ensure that you have good living conditions for citizens and that you have truth,” Pornschlegel said. “Especially in crisis situations like these, it is important that citizens are enlightened and know about the facts.”
The government said the law does not curtail reporting.
“Nothing in the legislation suggests punishment for critical reporting, of which there is plenty every day in the Hungarian media,” it said. “The criminal sanctions are clearly targeted at spreading false information or distortions that could interfere with or thwart efforts to protect the population from the spread of the virus.”
The government said there are legal precedents in many countries for limiting this kind of speech. “The classic example from the United States uses the analogy that you cannot falsely shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded movie theater because it’s false and dangerous,” it said.
In an attack on transsexuals, Orbán, who likes to say he is on a crusade to save Christianity, also passed a law barring people from changing their gender on birth registers.
“This last provision directly violates case law of the European Court of Human Rights,” Scheppele said.
“The Hungarian government is not just a Christian conservative government as it claims, but instead a government that the citizens of Hungary can no longer change through peaceful means,” the professor said. “When the world delivered a pandemic to the Hungarian government’s door, it has used the excuse to finally obliterate the last remaining independent voices in the country and extinguish the last pretense that Hungary is a democracy.”
European leaders are debating how to rein in Hungary. One option includes tying future EU funds that Hungary receives to ensuring democratic principles are upheld. In other words, any money the EU doles out must go into safe hands. Before the coronavirus outbreak, European leaders were in tough discussions to hammer out the EU’s next seven-year budget and those talks continue.
“The terrible part is that the European Union hasn’t done much” to stop Orban in the past, Pornschlegel said.
She said the EU is limited in how it can force a member state to uphold democratic principles and values. Both Poland and Hungary are facing proceedings that could lead to sanctions and even the suspension of their voting rights in the EU. But under EU law, sanctions need to be approved unanimously by EU states and Poland and Hungary are likely to shield each other from being punished.
“It is an avenue that cannot be used,” Pornschlegel said.
Controversial laws passed in Poland and Hungary have been successfully challenged at the European Court of Justice, the EU’s highest court. But even that route has not proven effective at stopping the authoritarian drift in both countries.
“The EU is a project that doesn’t have the same rights as the Supreme Court in the U.S. for instance,” Pornschlegel said. “It is very difficult to say EU law is more important than national law. You have this tension there.”
She added: “The EU was also based on a political understanding and a political consensus that EU law was something we did together and therefore we had to accept it. But when you have countries like Hungary and Poland saying, ‘I’m not being dictated to by Brussels,’ it is very difficult.”
Some European leaders are calling for Hungary to be booted from the bloc, but there is no legal avenue for doing that. There also are calls for Orbán to be expelled from the European People’s Party, the group of conservative political parties that German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union belongs to in the European Parliament. It is the dominant group in the European Parliament, but so far the EPP has balked at taking that step.
Orbán, meanwhile, continues to enjoy widespread support at home.
“He’s done many things for Hungarians that probably made him win popular support, but it doesn’t mean he’s a democratic leader,” Pornschlegel said. “Democracy is not just elections.”