The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The leader of a NATO ally is using the coronavirus to seize power

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a business conference in Budapest on March 10.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during a business conference in Budapest on March 10. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

AUTOCRATS HAVE used emergencies to concentrate power since history began, so it can be no surprise that the novel coronavirus pandemic has been seized by strongmen such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha. What’s remarkable is where the most bald and far-reaching political coup has taken place: in Hungary, a nominal democracy in the center of Europe that is a member of both NATO and the European Union.

On Monday, the country’s parliament, which is controlled by the right-wing nationalist party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, voted to grant him the power to ignore existing laws and rule by decree for an unlimited period of time. Parliament itself will cease to function; while the Supreme Court will remain active, Mr. Orban is allowed to order changes to its procedures. Elections are suspended until the end of the emergency, which will last until the “elimination of the human pandemic” and “its harmful effects”— which could be years.

[Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

Hungarians who object to this seizure of power will risk their freedom. Anyone deemed to be spreading “false news” can be punished with prison terms of up to five years. Those deemed to be hindering efforts to combat the epidemic could be jailed for up to eight years. Pro-government media are already calling for opposition leaders to be prosecuted for saying, truthfully, that the state hospital system is unready for the epidemic.

Like countries around the world, Hungary has reason to take robust measures against the coronavirus. But the outbreak in the country of 10 million so far is nowhere near as severe as those in Italy, Spain and the United States. On Wednesday, Hungary was reporting 525 infections, about the same number as the District of Columbia. Movement across its borders has already been restricted since 2015, when parliament gave Mr. Orban emergency powers to respond to a wave of refugees.

Having begun his political career fighting Hungary’s former communist regime, Mr. Orban now resembles his former adversaries. In the past decade he has arranged the closure or takeover of almost all independent media, stacked the courts with his loyalists, and rigged the election system in favor of his party. Now he has dispensed with parliament and elections altogether, for as long as he chooses.

The length of his personal rule is likely to depend less on the course of the coronavirus than on the amount of pushback he receives from other E.U. and NATO governments. So far the response has been weak: The head of the E.U. commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke up Tuesday against excessive and indefinite emergency measures, but did not name Hungary. The Trump administration, which rewarded Mr. Orban with a White House visit last year, so far has offered no comment on his coup.

The Opinions section is looking for stories of how the coronavirus has affected people of all walks of life. Write to us.

That makes more valuable the statements issued by the chairmen of the Senate and House foreign relations committees, Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho) and Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.). Mr. Engel put it well: Mr. Orban, he said, has solidified his position as “the incontestable ruler of a non-democratic Hungary.”

Read more:

Dalibor Rohac: Hungary’s prime minister is using the virus to make an authoritarian power grab

James Kirchick: Is Hungary becoming a rogue state in the center of Europe?

Anne Applebaum: Hungary is thumbing its nose at the U.S. — by following Trump’s cues

Rob Berschinski and Hal Brands: Hungary’s prime minister does not belong in the Oval Office

Max Boot: Why President Trump and Hungary’s authoritarian leader are soulmates