Quarantining Democracy: Pandemic as a Cover for Orbán’s Authoritarianism
In the initial days of novel coronavirus outbreak, with it localised to only a few provinces of China, who would have dreamed that countries championing for democratic freedoms would also be emulating Chinese regressive measures once virus crosses their borders? Contrary to it, these democratic champions, along with the western media outlets, were quick to criticise Beijing’s response to coronavirus by labelling it as ‘authoritarian’. However, as the virus spread far-and-wide across the borders, countries throughout the world, democracies and non-democracies alike, were quick to respond in a way which was along similar lines to the Chinese response, albeit in the guise of a pressing priority. Besides taking drastic steps like enforcing lockdown, contact tracing, intrusive digital surveillance, most countries also immediately resorted to centralising power. Though such preventive measures were effective in stopping the spread of the virus to a great extent, they also brought along problems which challenged the hard-earned democratic freedoms, especially in fragile democracies. Seeing an opportunity under the veil of the health crisis, aspiring authoritarian leaders in a few countries disguised their authoritarian tendencies as measures aimed at ‘fighting the pandemic,’ to further their particular political ends.
In Europe, the countries that immediately caught attention were the nascent democracies of post-communist states in the Central and Eastern Europe — particularly Hungary and Poland, whose political leadership, under the guise of public health crises, immediately resorted to a display of autocratic traits. From passing stringent laws to executive reforms, the leaders in these countries ensured not to let go such an opportunity without bolstering their power. Despite having a relatively lesser number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, these countries enforced lockdowns much earlier than the Western European countries. Hungary declared a “state of danger”on March 11, after only a week of first reported coronavirus case in the country. On March 30, in the name of continuing ‘the fight against the pandemic,’ Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán used his two-third majority in the parliament to pass the Act on the Containment of Coronavirus which gave him absolute powers to rule by decree and without any parliamentary oversight. Merely stating that these new provisions would be in force until the ‘end of the emergency,’ this bill also lacked any definite sunset clause. Under this legislation, Orbán led government also prohibited any local elections, by-elections and referenda until the ‘end of the emergency.’ Besides gaining such sweeping powers, Hungarian government also declared that any attempt of breaking quarantine, criticising, obstructing or preventing administrative efforts to fight the pandemic, spreading falsehoods or information which may cause unrest or disturbance would be considered a crime, which could even be punishable by a prison sentence up to five years.
Owing to Orbán’s record since his return to power with the absolute majority after the 2010 election, opposition parties, civil society groups, independent parliamentarians, NGOs and journalists quickly turned sceptical over this new law. Concerns were raisedboth internationally as well as domestically over Orbán getting a free hand ‘to deal with the pandemic.’ On April 1, a group of thirteen countries from the European Union issued a joint statement raising concern about the use of emergency measures in dealing with this pandemic. Admitting that “it is legitimate that Member States adopt extraordinary measures to protect their citizens and overcome the crisis,” their statement, however, also highlighted that, such power transfers, if unchecked, could risk threatening democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights. Besides adding that emergency measures should be limited to “what is strictly necessary,” the statement also warned that these measures should be “proportionate and temporary in nature” and “subject to regular scrutiny.” Although this joint statement did not explicitly mention Hungary, the timing of issuing it, only a day after Orbán oversaw the passing of the controversial bill in Hungarian Parliament, was in itself a clear indication to where it pointed.
The European Parliament also passed a resolution on April 17 to condemn this controversial legislation of the Hungarian Parliament and described it as “totally incompatible with European values.”A Spanish MEP, Juan Fernando López Aguilar said that this new emergency law to fight the pandemic “is the suspension of parliamentary democracy in the country.” Several MEPs also called on the European Commission to “start infringement procedures against Budapest and stop EU payments.” Rupert Colville, U.N. human rights spokesman also raised his concerns over the bill by warning that this legislation would give the “government practically unlimited powers to rule by decree and bypass parliamentary scrutiny with no clear cut-off date.”
Domestically, Peter Jakab, a leader of the opposition party in Hungary, claimed that this law “placed the whole of Hungarian democracy in quarantine.”Terming it as “suicidal for National Assembly,”an online petition with more than 100,000 signatories also denounced this draconian turn of the government by highlighting that this legislation would aim at eliminating last vestiges of constitutional safeguards from the public life of Hungary. Warning how Orbán de-democratised Hungary since 2010, the petition also cautioned Hungarians that the government wants to turn this opportunity provided by health crises to usurp absolute power in the country.
Despite such soaring criticism, Orbán’s government maintained that this law was “both necessary and proportionate.” Hungarian government’s international spokesperson, Zoltan Kovács countered that the criticism directed at this emergency law “was badly misinformed, often just plain false, and all of it was shamefully biased, clearly singling out Hungary, despite the fact that similar measures in other EU countries went much further.” Terming this criticism as a political attack, Péter Szijjártó, Hungary’s foreign minister also dismissed it as “simply fake” and “not true.” Accusing the EU of double standards in its opposition, Szijjártó also argued that Hungary was not the only country to enact such laws while fighting the pandemic.
Though, after the government lifted restrictions throughout the country, this legislation was revoked by unanimous vote in the Hungarian National Parliament on June 16, and thereby ended the “state of danger” and government’s power to rule by decree. Yet critics’ fears did not dissipate because on the same day the parliament also approved a bill which gave extended powers to the government to re-impose state of emergency in case another medical crisis breaks out. Terming the repealing of March 30 legislation as an “optical illusion, ”a group of three human rights organisations claimed that this legislation is by no means intended at restoring the pre-pandemic order of the country, but rather, it is to create the legal basis “that will allow the government to again rule by decree for an indefinite period of time, this time without even the minimal constitutional safeguards.”
Although many measures of the Hungarian government did manage to keep pandemic relatively under control, however, the government also proved that the critics’ concerns regarding Orbán’s absolute powers were not baseless. By using the period of “state of danger” to threaten, question and detain journalists and opposition party members for social media posts giving ‘false information’ or criticising the government; taking significant control over the funding of Index — one of the only few remaining independent media outlets in the country; restricting the rights of transgender people; stripping the municipalities of valuable tax receipts; and classifying contracts related to development projects with China, Orbán wielded power in a way which clearly reflected his authoritarian intentions.
Thus, under the veil of fighting coronavirus crisis, Orbán got a cover to cement his power by further quarantining democracy and rule of law in a country which was already declared by Freedom House as the first and only country in the EU to be ‘Partly Free’.
While mitigating national emergencies have often called for expanding on the role of governments and compromising on individual freedoms, however, it is vital to question such roles and compromises in case they step beyond the desirable limits. Because only in a utopian world, where the democratic culture and rule of law pervades deep down to the grassroots level of the society, such occasional centralisation of power would come with minimal risks. While in a realistic world, dominated by leaders who are eagerly waiting for an opportunity to seize power, and turn despotic and authoritarian, any such transfer of power may prove detrimental with long-lasting political implications. So, while fighting to minimise the human and economic losses due to this deadly virus, it is also necessary to ensure that the victory against such unprecedented health crisis should not come at the cost of democratic values and principles. Therefore, to ensure that on the other side of this pandemic a new crisis is not awaiting, it is vital to respond to the health crisis in a combined approach of scientific as well as political measures rather than perceiving it as a fight of science vs politics. It is vital to fight coronavirus both as a biological as well as a political contagion.