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Despite Coronavirus, Europe must keep a close eye on power hungry Orban

Despite Coronavirus, Europe must keep a close eye on power hungry Orban

Across the world, countries are scrambling to address the coronavirus pandemic, with governments taking a hands-on approach to try and effectively deal with the crisis.

In the United Kingdom, the railways have been effectively nationalised and temporary hospitals have been assembled. Throughout Europe, emergency laws have been passed banning citizens from public gatherings and from going outside apart from essential travel to supermarkets to buy vital products. Meanwhile, in Hungary, the Parliament has just granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule indefinitely by decree, strengthening his position as the leader, at a time when the world is distracted trying to defend against the coronavirus.

Every year, the research institute Freedom House measures countries on a weighted scale on the level of political rights and civil liberties citizens have. Hungary became the first EU country to subsequently lose its ‘free’ status, being downgraded to ‘partly free’ in 2019, with Freedom House explaining that Hungary is experiencing one of the ‘most dramatic declines ever charted by Freedom House within the European Union‘. This was before Orban’s power grab last week, which highlights that Hungary’s recent step towards authoritarianism is a gradual process, with democracy and accountability being eroded a layer at a time.

The recent Coronavirus Authorization Law passed by the Hungarian Parliament enables the ruling Fidesz Party, led by strongman Orban, to further tighten their hold over Hungarian democracy. The Hungarian Parliament voted by 137 to 53 to pass the measures early last week, with the two-thirds majority enjoyed by Orban’s party large enough to get the legislation through despite opposition from other more liberal parties, which had demanded a time limit or amendments to the bill.

The new law introduces harsh jail terms of up to five years for any untrue fact or misrepresented true fact about the coronavirus outbreak, leading to fears that it could be used to censor or self-censor criticism of the government response. In a country where the government forced the closure of Central European University, evicting its academic community, it is alarming that Orban feels that he can try and extend his power in such a blatant manner, and paves the way for the completion of his control over Hungary through his ‘Mission CREEP’ strategy.

This is even more concerning considering that Orban has been particularly critical of the principle of liberal democracy in the past, with him revealing his views on the matter in a 2014 Bloomberg interview: ‘Hungarians welcomed illiberal democracy. The fact that in English it means something else is not my problem. In the Hungarian context, the word liberal has become negative. Liberal democracy has no or very little support in Hungary’. This suggests that Orban feels as though he has the public mandate due to his electoral victories to slowly chip away at liberal democracy, which is particularly worrying.

A communique has been released from 13 EU member state governments expressing concern about disproportionate emergency measures in the immediate days following Hungary’s emergency law. Though the communique did not mention Hungary or Orban directly by name, it is a decent first step to make clear to the leader that the European community is watching and keeping a close eye.

For a country that has only been democratic since 1989 and was previously under lengthy communist rule, it certainly seems that Hungary is prone to strongmen leaders attempting to gain control, and the rest of its European neighbours appear aware of this too. Whether Orban’s increased authority is restricted only to the length of the current emergency remains to be seen. As Plato said, ‘the measure of a man is what he does with power’.

 

 


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