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The coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a pretext for power grabs by authoritarian leaders all over the world. In Hungary, a new emergency law has granted Prime Minister Viktor Orbán unlimited power to rule by decree. For political scientist András Bozóki, Hungary is now the first dictatorship inside the European Union. This interview delves into what this latest set of emergency measures means for Hungary’s path away from democracy.

The emergency law, known as the “authorisation act” and passed by the Hungarian government on March 30, is not time limited and suspends elections until the end of the emergency. How the end of the emergency is determined is unclear. Although the parliament is still active, the governing Fidesz party has a constitutional majority and the new measures effectively eliminate the scope for the opposition to act. Following this new law, a number of unexpected measures were taken – all of them officially justified as measures serving the fight against the pandemic. Transgender people can no longer legally change their gender, spreading fake news is a jailable offence (as is not respecting or undermining quarantine), and local government revenues have been redirected to central government, often away from opposition mayors. Heads of EU institutions have criticised the developments, to little effect.

Green European Journal: How do you read the response to the pandemic in Hungary?

András Bozóki: Many people consider that the emergency law is nothing new. After all, democracy has been breaking down since 2010 and many commentators struggle to see how a peaceful change in government would be possible. But the emergency law has brought the degradation to a new level: now there is not even the legal possibility to hold by-elections or initiate referendums.

Researchers working on Hungary have been saying for some time that the country is in an intermediary grey zone, somewhere halfway between dictatorship and democracy. In this hybrid, competitive authoritarian system, the playing field is skewed towards the ruling party but the victory of the opposition cannot be completely ruled out. However, Hungary has passed this stage now. If someone is empowered by parliament to govern without restriction, to make decisions by decree on any subject, without a time limit, that is a textbook case of dictatorship.

Green European Journal: Where do you see the emergency law in relation to the wider erosion of the state of democracy in Hungary in recent years?

András Bozóki: If the question is about the state of democracy, I must say that there was no democracy in Hungary even before the law was enacted. The country ceased being a democracy or a rule of law state roughly in 2015-2016, around the time of the Hungarian government’s response to the refugee crisis and the referendum on the refugee quota system. It was then that a hybrid system emerged [read more on Hungary as a hybrid regime]. The popular term “illiberal democracy” is misleading because it still refers to some kind of  democracy. Viktor Orbán himself has used the term in his speeches. In fact, what we have seen in Hungary is the development of an anti-democratic system. In that sense, democracy in 2020 could no longer be damaged.

Dictatorship is not always conditional on physical violence or mass terror. These concepts belong to the old definition of dictatorship.

Two renowned constitutional law experts, Gábor Halmai and Kim Lane Scheppele, recently argued that Hungary used to be a disguised dictatorship, in which the “peacock dance” of attacks against the rule of law followed by half retreats prevailed, but now the veil has fallen.[1] In the emergency state, the dictatorship of the head of government prevails.

What does Hungary being a dictatorship mean in practice?

Dictatorship does not mean that people will be taken to the forced labour camp in Recsk [a notorious forced labour camp in Communist times], deported, beaten or imprisoned. Dictatorship is not always conditional on physical violence or mass terror. These concepts belong to the old definition of dictatorship. In the 21st century, dictatorships do not need to use direct violence. Dictatorship is not only about the police beating people with clubs – that happens democracies too – but also whether the Prime Minister has the power to use violence against citizens outside of the rule of law. That is not happening right now in Hungary, but the extent of the powers handed to the government mean that it would be possible. But the prime minister may renounce these special powers once the pandemic is over. This dictatorship may not last forever, and Hungary may still return to electoral authoritarianism.

Will Hungary’s political system return to its pre-pandemic state once the law has been revoked?

The best scenario is that the Hungarian system returns to as it was. The toughest measures, such as arresting people for allegedly spreading misinformation, would be lifted. In the present situation, even this interview could be seen as spreading rumours as I am questioning whether Hungary is a democracy.

However, Justice Minister Judit Varga has already indicated that certain measures may remain in force. There are precedents for crises being used to increase the powers available to the Orbán system. An emergency was declared during the 2015 refugee crisis and the government was granted extra powers that are still in force. After the crisis was over, the government maintained its special privileges and the parliament renewed them every six months.

Orbán is taking revenge for the electoral victories of opposition candidates in several municipal districts last year.

I do not think that all current measures will stay in place, but those that are politically beneficial to the Fidesz government will most likely remain. For example, parties have been deprived of half of their funding, which will used instead in the fight against the epidemic. This cut will pose serious difficulties for opposition parties, whereas the ruling party will not face the same struggles because Fidesz can rely on the government budget for its campaigns. A similar example is the action taken against mayors: the government has introduced rules that weaken the powers of mayors and reallocates tax revenues from local governments to the central authority. What happened in the opposition-led city Göd, for instance, is clearly a punishment: according to a recent decision, part of the taxes paid by the Samsung factory to the city will be deducted directly by the state, depriving the municipality of a significant part of its revenue. Orbán is taking revenge for the electoral victories of opposition candidates in several municipal districts last year.

How much power does Viktor Orbán have today?

For the last 100 years, no one in Hungary has had as much power as Viktor Orbán. The Communist leaders János Kádár or Mátyás Rákosi answered to Moscow, and Miklós Horthy [the ruler of Hungary throughout most of World War II] was simply removed from power by the Germans when he ceased to be cooperative – so their room for manoeuvre was much smaller. Orbán has stubbornly built up a personalised system, similar to Peronism in mid-20th century Argentina or in some of the post-communist states created in the 1990s. For example, as seen in Slovakia or the territory of the former Yugoslavia, new states have made ethnocentric nationalism their ruling ideology. Illiberal and anti-democratic leaders are not uncommon in this landscape but Hungary’s EU membership makes the Orbán system very special.

Orbán has used his new power relatively few times so far, but a slow start can still be followed by acceleration. It is typical of Fidesz to enact a series of seemingly unrelated measures in legislation for it only to become clear much later on what the aim of each of these “landmines” was.

What is the rationale behind placing those political landmines?

The current epidemic is expected to cause a severe economic downturn that could completely rewrite Fidesz’s 2022 election strategy. Suddenly, the question appeared of whether voters might turn away from Fidesz due to failures in crisis management. The first phase of a crisis strengthens the current government, but the consequences could severely weaken it. The Prime Minister is well versed in the politics of power and will already be trying to incorporate safeguards against this eventuality.

How do you see the EU’s responses to the Hungarian government’s actions? Although all EU institutions have condemned the measuresthey did so reluctantly. Věra Jourova, Vice-President of the Commission, even stated on Czech TV that she had not seen any sign of a breach of EU law in Hungary so far.

The problem is partly because the leadership of the European Union institutions changes every five years and the newcomers are inexperienced and unprepared for the cynicism and the unscrupulousness of anti-democratic steps being taken in Hungary. Since most European politicians come from countries with democratic political cultures, they try to deal with the Hungarian political developments in good faith. Only by the end of the parliamentary term do they begin to understand Orbán’s government. But, by then it’s time for another European Parliamentary election and the composition of the institutions changes again.

Understanding the current situation in Hungary is made even more complicated by the fact that governments in many countries are using extraordinary powers to various degrees as a result of the crisis. Nevertheless, nowhere apart from Hungary are the powers so extraordinary and unlimited in time. In this respect, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, has so far appeared weak, lacking in shrewdness and experience at the highest level. Europe now needs a leader with an image built on leadership, strength, and authority.

The European Union has been very soft and slow in reacting to developments in Hungary. In exceptional circumstances, each country is focused on their own fight against the pandemic. Orbán has understood this very well, and is taking the chance to do whatever he likes.

Amid the coronavirus crisis, minority rights continue to be violated in Hungary. First, government propaganda accused Iranian students of bringing in the virus and subsequently expelled several people. Then, it was made impossible for transgender people to legally change their gender. Why were these steps taken?

Iran was one of the first countries to be hit by the pandemic, and so using Iranian students as scapegoats was an obvious step given how the government has been inciting hatred against Muslims for quite some time. Targeting transgender citizens is a strategy to play on prejudices in order to gain quick support. This step builds on the campaign against gender studies, which saw the Istanbul Convention denounced as a Trojan horse for “gender ideology” and the government refusing to ratify the treaty.

The government takes these kinds of positions to provoke protests from the opposition and civil society so, in turn, they can send a message to their constituents that the “liberals” are once again pushing some out-of-touch agenda, while the government works to protect the country from the virus. These measures are campaign-driven and can be interpreted based on their political symbolism.

How does Orbán’s example influence politics in other countries?

Just as countries learn from each other about the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the rights of minorities, they learn from one other about autocracy, too. Means of repression trialled in one place are copied in another. Within the EU, Orbán’s Fidesz party, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice Party in Poland, and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy have learned a lot from each other. But ideas also come from outside: many of Orbán’s impulses come from the current Russian, Turkish, and Chinese regimes. The way the Hungarian government has centralised the media market has parallels in Russia and China. The attack on the Central European University is similar to how Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suppressed Turkish professors and students, and how Vladimir Putin attacked the European University in St. Petersburg. Orbán is very open to these authoritarian examples, especially now he has realised that Hungary cannot be forced out of the European Union.

What can the European Union do? German MEP Daniel Freund, for example, has proposed withdrawing funds, as long as there is no functioning parliament.

Western Europe is shocked to see an EU country trampling on the fundamental European values ​​to which all member states officially subscribe. There is no precedent for this and no real options to impose serious sanctions because no one expected that such a thing would ever be necessary.

Withdrawing money sounds good, but I do not think it will happen. Different member state interests make it difficult for the EU to find meaningful solutions. But even if the European Union cannot intervene effectively, its member states could still act on their own initiative – even by coordinating their policies towards Hungary. The key player is Angela Merkel. For historical and economic reasons, Hungary is seen as the backyard of Germany and firm German action could change a lot. But it has never materialised. Is Germany’s policy shaped by the interests of its car manufacturing sector? Is there a divide between German political and economic interests? I don’t have the answers, and these questions puzzle me.

In what ways is the Hungarian government externally constrained, as you wrote in a 2017 study?

When writing that 2017 study with Daniel Hegedus, I was more optimistic than I am today. The EU plays a neutral role. EU membership constrains what the Hungarian government can do but, at the same time, it provides legitimacy. As a member of the European Union, Hungary can present itself as part of a community of democracies. That the EU does not, or only modestly, object to his actions makes Orbán look like a legitimate, democratic leader.

The EU’s constraining role has proved to be weaker than we thought, but it is undeniable that the EU puts structural limits on the actions of the Hungarian leadership. If EU money were one day to stop, the Hungarian economy would soon face trouble and protests could ensue. In exchange for the money from Brussels, Orbán does make certain concessions. The fact that Orbán has to sign certain European documents, explain why he does not comply with certain conventions, and appear regularly in Brussels also plays a limiting role. All of these slow down negative processes, even if they do not stop them entirely.

The European Court of Justice plays an important role as a court of appeal in Hungary. The decisions of the Hungarian judiciary are often successfully corrected by this court, and the Hungarian state has been forced more than once to pay compensation for the violations committed.

Finally, we must not forget that the Hungarian people are on the side of the European Union – at least two-thirds of the population support it. This means that Hungarians wants Hungary to remain a member of the European Union. This cannot be ignored – not even during the coronavirus pandemic.

[1] Gabor Halmai and Kim Lane Scheppele: Don’t Be Fooled by Autocrats! Why Hungary’s Emergency Violates Rule of Law, 22 Apr 2020.

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