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  • Frank Serpe

COVID-19 Emergency Powers May Threaten Hungarian Democracy

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

On the banks of the River Danube in Budapest lies the Hungariarian Parliament Building. It’s striking neo-gothic spires and burgundy roof are symbols of Hungary and testaments to the ideals of liberty, justice, and democracy. It was here in 1989 where Mátyás Szűrös declared the end of communism in Hungary, ushering in a new era of democratic rule to the impoverished Eastern European nation.

However, amid the ongoing battle to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, it may have also been in this building where democratic order came to the verge of destruction.

On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament voted overwhelmingly to grant Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping emergency powers to combat the virus. As of April 20, the number of confirmed cases in Hungary stood at 1,984, with an additional 267 recovered and 199 dead.

While the government continues to claim that these measures are necessary to control the disease, watch groups in and out of Hungary argue that this is only the latest step by Orbán to seize additional power for himself. Organizations including Forbes, the International Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, Foreign Policy group and the Human Rights Watch, have expressed growing alarm at what they see as a deteriorating situation in Hungary.

Measures implemented in the “Bill on Protection Against Coronavirus” include giving the government power to enact or suspend parliamentary law without constitutional limitations and punishing those found to be spreading misinformation regarding the virus with up to five years in prison. Moreover, the act grants Orbán the right to rule by decree until the crisis is declared over by the government. Orbán has claimed that, though far-reaching, “when this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception.” Some political analysts fear that an end may never be in sight, and that democracy in Hungary has essentially come to an end. Already, nationwide curfews, stay at home orders, and travel restrictions remain in effect indefinitely.

News agencies and freedom of press organizations argue this crackdown on misinformation may be used to target journalists and those speaking out against government measures. The virus also continues to place a heavy strain on an already poorly funded universal health care system, where corruption is widespread and cash-based “gratitude payments” are the only way to ensure access to better treatment. Some worry that these emergency measures will do little to actually help Hungarians.

This bill comes as Hungary and the European Union (EU) continue to face off against one another.

As early as 2018, the European Parliament voted to issue Article 7 procedures against Hungary, citing an alleged “systemc threat” to democracy poised by Orbán. Outlined in the Treaty on European Union, Article 7 gives the EU the ability to suspend member states determined to have violated the organization’s founding values of freedom, rule of law, and democracy. However, there is no provision regarding the expulsion of a member state. EU leaders, including French Secretary of State for European Affairs Amélie de Montchalin and the First Vice-President of the European Commission Frans Timmermans, have expressed their worry and frustration regarding the situation in Hungary.

In response to the recently passed bill, Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić wrote to Orbán, stating, “an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed.” Leaders and institutions across the EU have also condemned this move by the Hungarian government.

Despite these worries, Orbán remains a popular figure in Hungary. According to Politico, 51% of Hungarians stated that they intend to vote for his right-leaning Fidesz Party as of March 21. The Fidesz Party also holds a commanding two-thirds majority in Parliament, giving him license to push forward nearly unhindered. Liberal opposition, primarily from the Democratic Coalition Party, has largely backed Orbán, despite initial demands for a “sunset clause” to be attached with the bill, which would have limited the length of Orbán’s emergency powers to a specific date.

With Hungary and the EU already in conflict, particularly in regards to migration and what the EU sees as the erosion of democracy, this bill will likely only further this confrontation. A number of analysts and decision makers, including the Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, have even called for Hungary’s expulsion from the EU and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Some worry that events in Hungary may embolden other leaders in Europe and around the world to use COVID-19 as an excuse to bolster their own power base.

Leaders from Israel, Bolivia, Thailand, and Chile have come under fire for using the ongoing pandemic to bolster government power and to avoid public accountability. South Korea and Singapore, while hailed for their timely responses to the crisis, have instated sweeping and intrusive security and privacy measures in the name of precautions. Throughout Europe and the Western world, nations have taken extensive measures previously unheard of to limit infections. Across the globe, both democratic and authoritarian governments continue to curtail individual rights and freedoms out of fear and safety, even while their citizens protest and the global economy quickly approaches a depression.

With Hungary and the world in a crisis unseen in generations, the strength of democracy arguably faces its greatest test since the end of World War II.

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