BUDAPEST — Back in late March, Hungary’s parliament passed a law giving Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a host of emergency powers to combat the coronavirus pandemic, including the ability to bypass parliament and effectively rule by decree. Around the same time, the government updated the criminal code to increase penalties and jail time for spreading disinformation that impedes the government’s pandemic response, meaning someone could spend up to 5 years in prison if convicted. International media and European political circles quickly decried the moves, seeing them as a clear power grab and proof Hungary had veered into authoritarian rule.
Almost immediately, Blanka Zöldi, a journalist at the independent news website Direkt36, started getting concerned messages from a few friends abroad who had read about the new developments. “They said, ‘Oh my god, what’s happening, are you okay? You’re living in a dictatorship!’” she told me over coffee on a scorching late June day.
By the time I met her in Budapest, parliament had just voted to end Orbán’s emergency powers as well as the “state of danger” that brought them about (although he retains the right to invoke a version of it down the line). Orbán’s allies in government have called that proof they aren’t abusing their democratic powers, even going so far to demand an apology from those who cried foul back in March.
But Zöldi, who’s written about Orbán’s government for years, was surprised that this moment—and not the countless other times his tactics have made international headlines—was the one when people chose to reach out to her with worries about the state of democracy. “It was like [they] haven’t been following what’s been happening in Hungary for the past years,” she said.
That view summed up the attitudes of many of those I spoke with in Budapest recently: The emergency law was shocking to international observers, but to those deeply involved in Hungarian politics and democracy, it felt like business as usual. The outcry abroad obscured some of the less obvious ways Orbán had utilized the pandemic for his own political aims—and ignored the fact that, because he’s had a two-thirds supermajority in parliament since 2010, he effectively could have already done anything he wanted to anyway.
“People tend to focus on these legal technicalities and at the same time, they seem to have missed that really what this whole law did was just to lay bare the situation,” said Zselyke Csaky, director of research for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House. “The government did not need those extra powers—it already had those extra powers.”
Writing about Hungary as a foreign journalist can be a fraught exercise: More than just the language, which makes much of society and the media inaccessible to outsiders, it’s sometimes difficult to discern how dire things truly are or how worried one should be about any particular move of Orbán’s government.
The full impact of the pandemic on Hungarian democracy is similarly difficult to fully decipher (not least of which because a second wave and a renewed state of danger could affect it further). We’ll never know how this spring and summer would have progressed in Hungary if not for the pandemic. And it’s true that the emergency law itself wasn’t necessarily as catastrophic as many believed. Still, it seems fair to say that what’s happened in these last few months—including a disquieting takeover attempt and mass resignations at the online news portal Index, a handful of controversial laws passed with little scrutiny, and attempts to undermine opposition politicians—push the country further down Orbán’s intended “illiberal” path.
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The coronavirus pandemic is a peculiar moment for democracy around the world: In the face of an invisible virus wreaking havoc on entire societies and economies, people have been suddenly ready to hand over additional powers to their governments to effectively fight the pandemic. In Germany, for example, where most are normally extremely wary of divulging personal information, about a fifth of the population has downloaded the government’s coronavirus tracking app.
In many of those countries, allowing the government to take on additional roles happens because people have an inherent trust their elected leaders will use it responsibly. Months into the pandemic, Germans overwhelmingly support Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government’s response to the crisis; the vast majority is still on board with pandemic-related restrictions and trusts the government to take steps it deems truly necessary.
The situation is trickier in Hungary, where—at least internationally—that trust is in short supply. Any action Orbán takes is understandably viewed through the lens of his decade-long effort to reshape Hungary: Since taking office again in 2010, he has systematically centralized as much control as possible. He has worked to obliterate independent media, reformed the electoral system and attacked everyone from those working for non-governmental organizations to refugees and migrants to academic researchers and many others.
The international community largely trusts Merkel when she implements a new strict coronavirus measure. When Orbán does it, people look at his track record and assume it’s a power grab.
Zoltan Kovacs, Orbán’s international spokesman, told me the “nasty” responses from abroad are nothing more than “unjustified attacks,” and that anyway the government isn’t especially concerned with the opinions of anyone besides Hungarians. “Very honestly, we don’t care about that,” he told me across a conference table during our meeting one morning. “It’s unfounded, it has nothing to do with reality… our own responsibility goes only to the inside, and that is to the Hungarians.”
What matters, he continued, is that the government “played by the constitution and by law, by all respects.” The fact that it willingly ceded its emergency powers when the pandemic abated, he said, “is a clear indication that we were working by the rules by all standards.”
It’s true that the darkest predictions about Orbán’s rule-by-decree did not come to pass: His government refrained from using its newfound powers to impose truly draconian measures, or throw journalists in jail for violating the new disinformation law. But to assume the coronavirus had no demonstrable impact on the state of democracy would be to ignore the more under-the-radar ways in which Orbán operates—and the ways these months of pandemic have furthered Hungary’s overall democratic trajectory.
“This pandemic didn’t amplify populist tendencies, it just set them on a different track,” said Dániel Mikecz, a researcher at the independent think-tank the Republikon Institute.
One such way was to take advantage of the decreased scrutiny over non-coronavirus measures to enact controversial laws. In May, for example, Hungary’s parliament passed legislation classifying the details of a Chinese-funded high-speed rail line between Budapest and Belgrade, a controversial project. A few days later, MPs passed a measure prohibiting gender changes on official documents, effectively limiting transgender people’s ability to receive legal recognition.
Both laws could have still easily passed without emergency powers: With a two-thirds supermajority in parliament and a series of provisions in place to fast-track legislation, Orbán’s Fidesz party could have even made things happen faster.
“The parliamentary process, if the government wants it, can be super-fast,” Márta Pardavi, head of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based watchdog organization, told me over lunch. “You can adopt a law within four days with all sorts of exceptional rules accelerating procedures. So it’s not impossible to push through legislation that is crucial in a regular process.”
But the coronavirus provided political cover. Both laws would have surely received more international attention and domestic pushback had they not been advanced in the middle of a pandemic.
Orbán’s government has also used the crisis as an opportunity to strike at the political opposition under the cover of effective pandemic management. Opposition parties’ electoral victories in municipalities across the country last fall, including the capital, provided Orbán’s first significant political setback in a decade. Since the opposition views them as a stepping stone to possible gains in parliamentary elections planned for 2022, Orbán clearly wants to complicate their efforts to demonstrate effective governance at local levels.
The national government took a series of actions ostensibly aimed at reducing the financial burden on citizens or shoring up national funds to combat the pandemic—but which in effect stripped cities of significant portions of their usual budgets. For example, Orbán decreed parking would be free across the country, removing a major source of revenue for cities at a time when they need it most. He also redirected party funding and various taxes toward a national coronavirus recovery fund, further chipping away at city budgets.
The emergency law was shocking to international observers, but to those deeply involved in Hungarian politics and democracy, it felt like business as usual.
That move, Budapest Mayor Gergely Karácsony told me through a translator, “made, and is still making, our lives very difficult in relation to how we can carry out basic responsibilities.”
On a practical level, Karácsony said, the cuts in funding mean his government won’t be able to implement many of the new policies and initiatives on which he’d run his campaign last year. That, combined with what he described as a “blame game” by Orbán and government-friendly media, plays into the prime minister’s strategy for keeping the opposition from making further gains: “Of course running up to the national elections in 2022, the government is positioning itself and painting opposition municipalities as incompetent,” he said. “The government’s propaganda machine is doing everything it can to attack the local municipalities that are run by the opposition.”
Péter Márki-Zay, the independent opposition mayor of the southern city of Hödmezővásárhely who won his post in a special election back in 2018, told me it’s not just the budget cuts: The government is also refusing to provide real-time information about the number of new coronavirus cases and deaths in municipalities, giving it only at the county level. Mayors are expected to make decisions about how best to combat the pandemic without even knowing where things stand in their own cities.
“We already had a problem, and then the government made it much, much more difficult,” he said. “They really used the crisis for purely political reasons.”
In Göd, a Budapest suburb with a population of about 20,000, that situation is even more pronounced. Invoking a regulation for “special economic zones,” the government seized 20 percent of the city’s territory—including a Samsung factory that brings in a major chunk of the city’s tax revenues—and handed it over to the Fidesz-aligned county government instead.
Göd Mayor Csaba Balogh, elected last fall from the opposition Momentum party, told me via Skype that the government justified its decision by saying he was incapable of managing such an important source of international investment. Between now and 2024, Balogh said, he expects Göd’s losses will be approximately 50 billion Hungarian forints (roughly $164 million). “When we inherited the city, we also wanted to achieve great things,” he said. “So that’s what we’re not going to be able to do.”
Asked about the funding reallocations, Kovacs said “nobody’s punishing anybody”: The diverting of funding is necessary for the federal government to effectively combat the pandemic’s economic impact. Opposition politicians are playing up the issue as a “political game,” he added.
And while the government may not have used the disinformation law to target journalists, many see its indirect influence in the attempted restructuring of the independent online news portal Index. Citing advertising revenue losses due to the pandemic, Index’s owners told the staff in late June that they planned a significant internal shuffle and outsourcing of certain teams to external consultants. The editorial staff signed a letter saying the proposed changes threatened the organization’s editorial independence.
After weeks of uncertainty as to what would come next, last Wednesday brought an answer: Index’s owner fired Szabolcs Dull, the editor-in-chief who originally spoke out about the proposed changes. In a note on its website, Index staff—almost all of whom have since resigned in protest—said his sacking amounts to “an overt attempt to apply pressure on Index.hu that will result in the decline of independent reporting.” Images from within the newsroom on Thursday and Friday showed stunned, despondent employees unsure what the future holds; thousands took to the street in Budapest on Friday to protest the situation and advocate for press freedom.
Zöldi, the journalist, who saw a similar play unfold when she worked for the online news portal Origo, said the coronavirus provides a plausible reason for further cuts and media takeovers. In the past, loss of advertising revenue—much of which comes from the government, but also reflects the media industry’s general struggles worldwide—provided an excuse for making a news organization’s coverage more government-friendly.
“From one day to another, they were saying, ‘Origo is not bringing the numbers that we want, we need to make a reorganization, the attitude of the readers has changed, and this is why we have to make changes,’” she told me. “There was always a pretext or a financial reason. So now the whole virus and the whole economic downturn has given a reason.”
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The long-term implications of the pandemic’s effects on Hungary’s democracy remain unclear, especially because emergency powers may again be invoked. In the same legislation that revoked those powers, parliament authorized the government to determine if and when such a state could be deemed necessary in the future. The justification was that given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic and the possibility of a second wave, it makes sense for governments to put new mechanisms in place to prepare.
The provisions for a renewed “state of danger” are significantly narrower than those applied last spring, however: They specifically apply to the health system and pandemic-related activities rather than the government as a whole. But democracy advocates say the possibility remains that they could be misused, especially since Orbán does not need parliament’s approval to trigger them.
“It is not carte blanche, open-ended—but it is very reminiscent of it, and it can be abused,” Pardavi said.
How worried one should be about Hungary right now comes down, again, to the idea of trust: Do you trust Orbán to wield additional power responsibly or expect him to use it to take more control? In Pardavi’s estimation, the government hasn’t exactly earned confidence in its judicious use of power.
“Something to keep in mind when it comes to Hungarian laws and legal frameworks and rule of law rules is the political context and the track record,” she said. “Just looking at the measures as formally legal measures would be naïve.”
So many laws on the books right now—from legislation cracking down on NGOs and discussion of migration issues to the disinformation law to the potential for a future “state of danger”—are rarely enforced to the fullest potential, and appear to serve more as warnings and implicit threats to certain groups. But Orbán could simply decide one day that it’s time to really use those laws, which would have huge implications.
“They have the whole machinery ready,” Csaky said. “It’s a thing hanging over your head and you are aware. Because the situation is good right now, it doesn’t look like they want to be using it, but it doesn’t mean they couldn’t.”