Hungary’s anti-democratic coronavirus laws set a dangerous precedent

“Unscrupulous politicians can use our fear to take untrammelled power for themselves now and undermine democracy in the longer run.” Former Green MEP Molly Scott Cato comments on the stripping back of democracy in Hungary and urges close attention to be paid in the UK after the pandemic.

Viktor Orban
Viktor Orban

Image: European People's Party

Molly Scott Cato

At a time of national crisis such as this, citizens are willing, grateful even, for a powerful government acting beyond the boundaries we would normally accept. 

In the UK, the extraordinary interventions in the economy to protect livelihoods are welcome, but Parliament is in recess and the government has been granted emergency powers that have left many feeling nervous. But in Hungary things are much worse, with authoritarian leader Viktor Orbán using the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to suspend and perhaps overturn democracy.

On Monday (30 March), the Hungarian Parliament, which is heavily dominated by Orbán’s Fidesz party, passed legislation allowing him to rule by decree for an indefinite period. This represents an attack on civil and democratic rights that is extreme even by Orbán’s standards.

The sort of criticism that is rightly being levelled at our government for its mishandling of the health crisis is prohibited by a clause banning citizens ‘intentionally spreading misinformation that hinders the government response to the pandemic’, backed up by a possible five-year prison term. The fear is that Orbán will use this legislation to launch further attacks on his political opponents.

The European Parliament has long been concerned by Orbán’s history of flouting democratic norms and using EU budgets as a family slush fund. During my time in the European Parliament, I sat next to Dutch Green MEP Judith Sargentini who led our work to challenge and condemn Hungary’s slide towards authoritarianism. 

Judith’s report itemized numerous examples of undermining of the rule of law such as: abolishing the independence of the judiciary; restricting freedom of speech; and introducing discriminatory legislation targeting the country’s minorities. 

Whilst the report was voted through the parliament in September 2018, worryingly, British Tory MEPs voted against the report, hoping for support from Hungary during the Brexit negotiations.

With Judith retiring last year, German Green Daniel Freund, formerly of Transparency International, has taken up the cause and launched a petition demanding the EU Commission take urgent action. The petition insists that:

  • The Commission should take a clear public stance condemning the use of the coronavirus crisis to limit democratic norms and values. Commission President von der Leyen has responded by condemning Hungary’s actions, but without explicitly naming the country.

  • Any emergency powers introduced to tackle the Covid-19 emergency must have an end date enshrined in law and must not restrict the media freedom that is central to a functioning democracy.

  • All EU funds destined for Hungary should be suspended until democratic standards are restored, with the funds being directly administered by the Commission in the interim.

Hungary presents a real problem for the Commission because Orbán has increasingly gained popular support by controlling the media and crushing his political opponents. Hungary has become a shadow democracy, with a leader who does win the majority of votes, but in a process that is far from being democratic. Since the EU is a club of sovereign states, it is extremely difficult for the majority to control the actions of a rogue state within their midst.

In this unprecedented health crisis, governments across the world are stepping in to restrict our freedoms while simultaneously providing us with economic support. The positive consequence of this is that we will never again buy the myth of government helplessness that has been used as an excuse for government inaction on a range of issues, most obviously the climate emergency. 

However, the darker side of this coin is the way unscrupulous politicians can use our fear to take untrammelled power for themselves now and undermine democracy in the longer run. This is clearly happening in Hungary, and given government’s stated admiration for that regime, we should pay close attention to what happens in our own country. As the health lockdown is relaxed, we should also demand a rapid end to emergency powers and campaign for a revitalized democracy.