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.
A leaderless ship: The Bulgaria’s political crisis and the storm to come
Internal and international tensions
Politics tends to develop in a complex conundrum in all Balkan countries. Thus, never can observers take their eyes off the ball, investors feel completely safe or international partners express enduring satisfaction. In effect, this is the case also for bits of the region that have joined the European Union in the last decade. Recently, Bulgaria has been the most interesting hearth of, popular outrage, institutional instability and international tensions amongst the latter countries.
Actually, the atmosphere began simmering back in Summer 2020, when thousands of people took to the streets for several weeks. Arguably, the combination of the umpteenth high-echelon corruption scandal involving andthe pandemic-induced recession was only the most immediate cause. Swiftly, dissatisfaction led to vigorous calls for the Prime Minister’s and the Attorney General’s resignation and early election. Even the President of the Republic, Rumen Radev, broke with his supposed non-partisanship and joined the protestors gathering vast support. However, the winter suppressed street protests and Boyko Borisov, the Prime Minister, exploited the pandemic to justify his indifference.
In the meantime, the cabinet embroiled Bulgaria in a dispute which the country had refrained from ever since 1991. The so-called ‘Macedonian question’predates the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s independence, but only then turned into a crisis. Indeed, the hardest-fought issue was that surrounding the use of the name ‘Macedonia’, which Greece opposed until the Prespa Agreement. But the newly named Republic of North Macedonia has failed to acknowledge the deep historical and cultural connection with Bulgaria. Eventually, the former’s lack of real cooperation led Sofia to veto the opening of negotiations on EU membership. Thence, scholars have criticised the country’s government while foreign politicians tried to persuade Borisov to lift his veto.
Against the background of such a delicate, multifaceted domestic and international circumstances Bulgaria celebrated regular election on April 4. The country needed everything but being left leaderless, but this is exactly what happened.
Election results: Who to form a cabinet?
The most recent elections speak volume about the difficulty in understanding Bulgarian politics and understanding what the popular sentiment is. For a start, GERB, Borisov’s party, lost about 300,000 votes falling from 33.65%in 2017, to 26.18% this year. Moreover, the nationalist collation United Patriots, GERB’s reliable allies, split up and failed to clear the 4% threshold. Thus, with his 75 MPs in the 240-seat Parliament Borisov had no more a majority and desperately needed a partner.
At the same time, the elections produced an unusually hostile environment for GERB. In fact, a number of new leaders and formations emerged — all of which declared GERB a “most toxic party”. Still, opposing Borisov’s “model”, as they use to say, was not enough to form a government. Neither the protest party There is such a people (ITN) nor the establishment Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) even tried. Therefore, the two smaller protest parties – Democratic Bulgaria (DB) and Stand Up! Bastards Out (ISMV) – and the Muslim Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS) had to accept new elections in July.
In effect, once the elections results became clear, no one nurtured many hopes for a stable government. The BSP had offered it external, conditional support to an ITN cabinet as the DPS and even GERB did. Perhaps, members of DB and ISMV could have joined the project to ensure wider representation. But all attempts failed in front of ITN’s leader, the showman-turned-politician SlaviTrifonov, display of “political fearfulness”. The ultimate result of these developments was the shortest parliamentin Bulgaria’s two-century history.
What the parliament produced
Without a fully-functioning political government and with a lame-duck Parliament, Bulgaria is traversing a difficult period. The legislature has yet to approve the Recovery and sustainability plan towards which the EU has granted €6bln ($7.3bln). Without these funds, it will be harder for the country’s economy to rebound after the last recession. At the same time, no one is in charge of managing the ongoing feud with the Republic of North Macedonia. Hence, Sofia can neither substantiate its claims and pretences vis-à-vis Skopje nor backtrack and let membership negotiations start. Finally, in the last weeks tensions between Bulgaria and Russia have risen with mutual expulsion of several high-ranking diplomats. In fact, Czech authorities have found out about a “Bulgarian connection” in the incidents allegedly blamed on Russian security services.
On the offense: ITN, DB and ISMV against GERB
Yet, the parliament has found not time to address any of these really pressing issues. As it often happens after the elections, foreign policy has disappearedfrom the order of the day. There was no discussion of either the bilateral relations with Russia nor the North Macedonian issue.
Representative from ITN, DB and ISMV wrapped up the Recovery plan into their wider attempt to publicly discredit GERB. Thus, they refused to let the competent executive official introducing the bill and pretended Borisov himself did it.
Meanwhile, the three parties and the BSP also forced a vote on the cabinet’s resignation. Hence, the government is officially in charge only of managing current affairs: it cannot update the budget or adopt new economic measures. The opposition also blocked the automatic renewal of key concession for Sofia’s airport and some highways to Borisov’s closest allies.
So-called ‘Protest parties’ also formed a parliamentary commission to investigate Borisov governments’ misdeed. However, the legislature will soon dissolve, so nothing will come out of it besides some gossipy kompromat. The only real change is a new electoral law,remedying to some of the previous legal framework’s most evident fallacies. The hope is that it will curb the purchase of votes and other instances of fraud.
Wait-and-see: Borisov’s unkind defence
Borisov’s loyalists in the government, in the Parliament and, more importantly, in the media are repelling this frontal assault vehemently.
Figure 1 Acting Prime Minister Boyko Borissov called the Parliament “a show” in a video on his Facebook page.
Acting foreign minister Ekaterina Zakharieva has spoken out against the supposed attempt to make 850,000 GERB voters ‘disappear’. The chair of GERB’s parliamentary group, Desislava Atanasova, accused other parties of having “failed to fulfil society’s interests”. Borisov himself went out for the biggest prey: President Radev.On Facebook he declared
I hope that Radev is not proud [of the result of last year’s protests …]: This parliamentary show costs 19 million [leva, €9.5mln] a day. It is better that they closed it because we would have gone bankrupt.
The opposition motto offers no way forward behind the idea that “What GERB did must be cancelled”. Yet, GERB is not less destructive in its agenda. Currently, Borisov’s clique is challenging both the moratorium of concessionsand the electoral reformin front of the constitutional court. According to many experts, the justices could strike down or rescale at least one of these two measures. Hence, all hopes for a real democratic change will likely evaporate as long as GERB holds the levers of power.
Forecast: A leaderless ship in a stormy sea
Some have been talking about the rebirth of parliamentarism. But partisanship, anger and personal hatred currently dominate Bulgaria’s politics. Thus, a disenchanted observer could only see the dismaying polarisationand personalisation of the mainstream political discourse. At this time, Bulgaria is like a ship whose crew has mutinied, but whose captain refuses to jump off. Fortunately, the peaks of the economic and sanitary crisis seem over — for now. But the international setting conspires against the vessel. A storm is mounting from the East and the West. Winds of reprisal spire from Russia, whereas the EU is increasingly discontent with Bulgaria’s management of the North Macedonian issue. Assuming that the next elections will produce a working government, either the mutineers or the old captain will be just in time to manage the gale. But should this not happen, the country may soon regret the current lull.
Geopolitics of Europe and the Third Wave
With hospitals filling up across the continent, new variants of the virus proliferating and vaccine shortages biting back, Europe can be seen to be under the third wave of the COVID crisis. This wave has been a confused sea across Europe in which some national epidemics are worsening, some are reaching their peak and some are declining. Although lockdowns have eased as vaccine drives make headway, the end of state emergency does not undermine the inevitable long-term consequences of the crisis. COVID has brought to the forefront new geopolitical dynamics and created risks for the foreign policy of the European Union on several fronts. Beyond the epidemiological challenge of the impending health calamity, economic, political and geopolitical challenges are also plenty.
The crisis has held up a mirror to the Western countries as their effectiveness in managing the pandemic has been distorted and has brought about de-Westernisation of the world. As globalisation is under strain, the crisis is bound to redraw the borders between the state and the markets in democracies such as the Member States of the EU. Such an environment is likely to emphasise on national initiatives to the detriment of international cooperation. In a post-COVID world, the EU may have to deal with its geopolitical problems with less external credibility as well as internal solidarity among its member states.
The potential geopolitical consequences of the virus can be identified by extrapolating those trends that were taking place before the onset of the virus. Amidst evolving global scenarios, there has been a constant push from the EU to establish itself as a relevant geopolitical actor to realise its global power aspirations. In this context, it becomes important to note the two areas of concern raised by the crisis consist of questions on the internal cohesion of the EU and Europe’s ability to adapt to the increasing rivalry and competition among other global powers.
The EU as a player derives its identity from its supranationalism. However, with COVID wreaking havoc on the already unequal economy of the Northern and Southern Europe, the downslides of globalisation are being highlighted. This is likely to further embolden nationalist narratives, rather than European solutions. This will lead to the fragmentation of the region into its component member-states part, threatening the very identity if the Union. This has been a challenge to the EU as the Union recognizes solidarity as a fundamental principle as per Article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union. With the EU is facing the increasingly centrifugal ‘member states first’ approach put forward by the European capitals, the European integration project is under threat.
Further, with the pre-existing tensions between US and China, the European Union has been facing heat from both the sides of the Pacific. While the EU has put forward its own Indo-Pacific Strategy in order to constructively engage with the region, it continues to be challenged by America’s confrontational foreign policies and also being apprehensive of China’s refusal to open up their markets at a time of dwindling global economies, China’s assault on Hong Kong’s independence as well as China’s growing support towards the populist parties of Europe. The EU has come to perceive China as a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance with this perception largely being shaped by China’s revisionist challenge and its alarming nationalist narrative.
It is important to understand that coronavirus is not here to kill geopolitics. However, the European Union will have to strengthen their efforts towards ensuring that the pandemic does not kill the EU as a geopolitical force. The European Commission must step up its efforts to broker the Multilateral Financial Framework (MFF) among member states which was long pending even before the pandemic struck the continent. It would enable the Union to act collectively in funding recovery efforts in a post-COVID reconstruction of the economies. Further, the EU should focus on shortening their supply chains pursuing a policy of strategic autonomy such that EU’s external dependencies are diversified. The need of the hour is to rebuild an economically sound healthcare Europe while at the same time working towards a more geopolitical Europe. This will require EU to continue investment as a full-spectrum power in military as well as other security capabilities along with assistance and aid to the neighboring countries to rebuild their resilience in a geopolitically volatile environment.
The EU needs to defend and promote the European model which is struggling to stand amidst the global battle of narratives along with maintaining its strategic autonomy in health, economic and other sectors. At the same time, the Union needs to bolster existing and forge new alliances in order to fill the gap on multilateralism. It needs to locate a strategic edge to resist the external pressures and protect its presence in the global scene and continue being relevant in the changing global order with its extraordinary transcontinental presence of soft power.
How a Democracy Can Be Undermined: Some Lessons
Democracies have an inbuilt flaw when their own processes can be employed to undermine them. It is what has happened in Hungary in the last decade, and Hungary is not alone.
In his youth the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, was an ardent dissident leading a youth movement, Fidesz, and in 1989 he was calling for the removal of Soviet troops and free democratic elections. Opposition to single-party socialist rule was eventually successful, and he was elected a Fidesz member of the National Assembly in 1990.
In 1998, his party won a plurality, and he served his first term as prime minister until 2002 when the socialists returned to power. However, a landslide victory in 2010 gave Orban a two-thirds supermajority, and with it the power to amend constitutional laws.
Shortly thereafter in 2011 a new constitution was promulgated which gave the Fidesz control of the judiciary, and administrative commissions responsible for elections, media and the budget. Hence Orban’s ubiquitous presence on billboards around Budapest — a consequence of a law regulating billboards that he passed driving his supporter’s competitors out of business. Opposition flyers may now be found posted on poles and trees … and good luck seeing them at a distance.
With the opposition weakened, Hungary became a democracy backsliding to authoritarianism. In 2020, the parliament passed laws that allow Orban to declare an emergency at will and then rule by decree.
All of which poses a conundrum: Anti-democratic laws passed by an elected government undermine democracy yet at the same time can be considered the will of the people, even if they infringe their rights.
If one believes the U.S. is immune, consider elected politicians gerrymandering districts to remain in power. And if we believe for an instant that all of this is a right-wing phenomenon, we just have to glance at Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro.
Freedom House’s classifications of freedom in 210 countries note that Venezuela is not free. Orban’s Hungary is now only partly free in contrast with, say, the Czech Republic, another former communist East European state which is classified free.
In their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq argue that forces of democratic decay often accompany the appearance on stage of a charismatic leader holding the populace in thrall. They also note three pillars supporting democracy: free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, and the bureaucratic rule of law. The latter implies the independent functioning of bodies like the election commission, the Federal Reserve, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and so on. This limits the power of the central executive unlike in Mr. Orban’s case.
Fortunately from the Ginsburg and Huq analysis the U.S. appears to be well insulated and employs freedom of association in particular to great effect. There can be chinks in the armor, however, as is happening in Georgia with new voter suppression laws.
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