• Global Outlook

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban Moves to Fight the Coronavirus with Authoritarianism

Updated: May 21, 2020

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s Prime Minister, who is referred to by some as the ‘Viktator’, has granted himself dictatorial powers in the countries efforts to fight and prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Linda Kim Global Outlook

Credit: Politico

On March 30th, the Hungarian parliament passed an emergency law called “On Protecting Against the Coronavirus,” giving the prime minister exceptional powers that could accelerate Hungary’s descent into authoritarianism.

While this new emergency law may seem like just another maneuver to solidify his political power, Orban’s track record since taking office in 2010 leaves little room for optimism for the survival of democratic normalcy in Hungary.

Orban’s systematic takeover of Hungary’s democracy

Prime Ministery Orban’s authoritarian rule masked in the cloak of a democratically elected government has fended off both domestic and international threats to his administration. Long an opponent of liberal democracy, Orban has spearheaded efforts to erode democratic institutions including the country’s court system, restrain the freedom of the press through legal and political means, and obstruct the activities of civil society organizations. Exploiting public fear for political gain is not a new concept for powerful government officials and this is not a first for Orban who has been stood strong against immigration and the European Union in asserting Hungarian nationalism.

However, his latest shameless power grab in the wake of the global crisis caused by the novel coronavirus has exposed underlying cracks in the foundation of Hungary’s deteriorating democracy.

Orban has granted himself sweeping powers that accompany the country’s emergency declaration. Using this guise, he has diverted 50 percent of state funding earmarked for political parties to a coronavirus fund, further weakening his political opponents and solidifying his party’s monopoly on power.

The president’s party has already secured a two-thirds majority in the country’s parliament, giving him the power to change the constitution without any challenges from the opposition. “Now, by exploiting the coronavirus epidemic to give himself broad powers to rule by decree indefinitely, Orban has thrown his chiffon gown away, forcing his friends to see him as the naked autocrat that he is,” writes Foreign Policy’s, Garvan Walshe, in a takedown of Orban’s recent actions.

With a long-held an iron grip on the press, marked by a history of taking down his enemies and rewarding his friend, it is of little surprise that within the broad emergency powers was a new law prohibiting the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus, now punishable by up to five years in prison.

Critics have said that this law is aimed directly at intimidating journalists who might consider reporting on Hungary’s inadequate health care system, facilities and lack of resources including adequate personal protective equipment for doctors and health professionals.

Dictatorial powers cannot win Hungary’s coronavirus battle

Orban’s indefinite emergency rule has drawn international criticism, strained already tense relations with the European Union and potentially put Orban on a legal collision course with the international courts.

But the Hungarian President seems to show little concern over these threats. On the contrary, the emergency declaration seems to have further emboldened him. In a move mocking the European Commission, Hungary signed a diplomatic statement issued by the body declaring that emergency measures could not be declared indefinite. In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, Orban faces more than just the threat of EU legal action. Hungary’s depreciating currency puts the country’s economy at further risk of collapse. Orban’s steadfast anti-Eurozone position maintained for years means that the country will not benefit from the safeguards put in place to prevent the collapse of Euro states’ financial systems. An economy heavily reliant on industrial production and export to Western Europe will undoubtedly further weaken Hungary’s economy as demand continues to dry up.

The coronavirus will also unmask the dire condition of Hungary’s healthcare system, neglected during Orban’s 10 years in power, which is not ready to fight an epidemic of disease on this scale. The health system lacks resources including ICU beds, testing kits and life-saving ventilators, making fighting and stopping the spread of the disease a seemingly impossible feat.

This is in addition to staff and personnel shortages that already exist as a result of Hungarian doctors and nurses relocating to Europe where salaries are higher and working conditions are better.

Until the coronavirus began its global spread, the Hungarian opposition had begun to mount a resurgence in the country, especially in municipality and local elections, securing victories in several mayoral races including the in the capital of Budapest. If the opposition can maintain this momentum through the crisis and the European Union upholds its principle to prevent the establishment of a dictatorship in one of its member states, there is optimism that Hungary’s democracy may yet be salvageable.

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