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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Coronavirus kills its first democracy


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You could say that Hungary was already “immunocompromised.” A decade under the nation’s illiberal nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, has corroded the state’s checks and balances, cowed the judiciary, enfeebled civil society and the free press, and reconfigured electoral politics to the advantage of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party. So, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Budapest’s ailing democracy proved all too vulnerable.

On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a controversial bill that gave Orban sweeping emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. Existing laws can be suspended and the prime minister is now entitled to rule by decree. Opposition lawmakers had tried to set a time limit on the legislation but failed. Orban’s commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority made his new powers a fait accompli.

The measures were invoked as part of the government’s response to the global pandemic. Hungary had reported close to 450 cases as of Monday evening, and Orban has already cast the threat of the virus in politically convenient terms, labeling it a menace carried by unwelcome foreign migrants and yet more justification for his aggressive efforts to police the country’s borders. “Changing our lives is now unavoidable,” Orban told lawmakers last week when justifying the proposed bill. “Everyone has to leave their comfort zone. This law gives the government the power and means to defend Hungary.”

The emergency law also stipulates five-year prison sentences for Hungarians found to be spreading “false” information, as well as prison terms for those defying mandated quarantines. Critics argue that vital support for the country’s health-care system is still lacking, while Orban has given himself carte blanche to exercise even more domineering control.

“I don’t know of another democracy where the government has effectively asked for a free hand to do anything for however long,” Renata Uitz, director of the comparative constitutional law program at Central European University in Budapest, said to Bloomberg News.

“This bill, once signed into law, will almost certainly put even greater pressure on what’s left of Hungary’s independent media,” noted Emily Tamkin of the New Statesman. “One man’s misinformation is another man’s report on increasing illiberalism.”

Orban’s many detractors elsewhere in Europe see this gambit as a potential pathway to dictatorship. Ahead of the parliamentary vote, leading figures in Brussels and Strasbourg warned against an “indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency” that would further undermine Hungarian democracy. On Monday, former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi tweeted what many liberal Europeans feel — that Hungary’s illiberal slide threatens the values of the European Union as a whole and could merit its expulsion from the bloc.

But there’s no clear path forward for such drastically punitive action, not least as the continent flounders in its battle against the coronavirus. And Orban has his supporters, too. He has been lionized as a nationalist hero for the West’s anti-immigrant populists and welcomed to the White House by President Trump.

On Monday, far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini defended Orban’s new powers as part of the “free choice” of a democratically elected parliament. For years, center-right parties in Europe have allowed Orban’s Fidesz party to shelter under their umbrella in the European Parliament, denting Europe’s ability to effectively censure Hungary. Now, you may see renewed calls for Fidesz’s expulsion from that conservative continental alliance.

Orban and his allies have rejected criticism from those who have characterized the new law as anti-democratic, insisting that the measures are temporary and will end once the threat of the pandemic subsides. Others aren’t so sure.

“Everyone should think twice before giving Orban the benefit of the doubt,” Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, wrote last week. “His decade-long premiership has been marked by a continual assault on any constraints on his power — whether by courts, civil society or the media.”

Rohac, writing in the opinion pages of The Washington Post, continued: “Hungary’s previous moves toward authoritarianism were disguised as a necessary reaction to outside threats: foreign corporate interests during the financial crisis, ‘cosmopolitan elites’ during the refugee crisis of 2016, or, whenever the occasion demands, the philanthropist George Soros (a staple of Orban’s nativist playbook).”

Hungary’s prime minister is not alone in exploiting this public health crisis for his political advantage. His kindred spirit, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, leveraged the threat of the pandemic into what critics branded a parliamentary “coup,” delaying his own trial on corruption charges while potentially securing a new political mandate to return to power.

In nearby Poland, opposition groups are infuriated that the ruling right-wing nationalist government is forging ahead with plans for May presidential elections, despite lockdowns and concerns that the virus is far more widespread than authorities have acknowledged. Polling suggests incumbent President Andrzej Duda would be in a far stronger position if the elections aren’t delayed.

While the threat of a pandemic requires national governments to sometimes exercise unique emergency powers, analysts have warned throughout the recent crisis of the risk of demagogic leaders harnessing public anxiety to their benefit.

“In states of emergency, there may be a need to temporarily derogate from certain rights and procedures but any such measures need to be temporary, proportionate and absolutely necessary from a public health perspective,” Lydia Gall, an Eastern Europe researcher with Human Rights Watch, told The Washington Post, referring to Orban’s pursuit of unchecked power. “Vaguely formulated provisions, as can be seen in the state of emergency legislation adopted, do not fulfill those criteria and certainly not when they are set for an indefinite period of time.”

Correction: An earlier version of this piece cited reporting elsewhere that indicated the Hungarian parliament would be closed. That was inaccurate.

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