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30 March 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:38pm

How Viktor Orbán used the coronavirus crisis to hand himself unlimited power

A new law allowing the Hungarian prime minister to rule by decree has left his remaining political opponents toothless. 

By Emily Tamkin

Almost since the coronavirus crisis started, there have been those who predicted that it would be used by autocrats, actual and aspirant, to tighten their grip on power. People are willing to overlook more during a crisis, to give up their civil liberties, and to listen to the authorities. In exchange, those authorities see them through the crisis on the promise that, one day, things will return to normal.

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, aided by his country’s parliament, has hinted that day might come later than expected, and not because of the harm done by a virus. Earlier today (30 March), Hungarian MPs voted for a bill that will allow Orbán’s power to essentially remain unchecked. It declares a state of emergency; it allows him to rule by decree; it ensures there will be no new elections; it renders misinformation, presumably as defined by the Hungarian government, punishable by up to five years in prison; and it makes disobeying quarantine or isolation punishable by five to eight years in prison.

It does all of this for an indefinite, undetermined, undefined period of time. This is how it will be until Orbán decides otherwise. Ahead of the vote, opposition parties wrote a letter saying that they would not support “Orbán’s dictatorship law,” but acknowledging that the prime minister would likely win: his party, Fidesz, controls two-thirds of Hungary’s parliament.

Since returning to power in 2010, Orbán and his government have rewritten the constitution. News outlets have been bought up by those reportedly close to the prime minister. In 2017, the Hungarian parliament passed a law forcing NGOs that receive a certain amount of funding from overseas to register as “foreign-supported” under threat of closure. In 2018, it passed a “Stop Soros” law that criminalised helping asylum seekers. The law was, of course, named for Hungarian-born billionaire philanthropist George Soros, on whose scholarship a young Orbán went to Oxford; whose university, Central European University, has largely been pushed out of Budapest; whose Open Society Foundations moved operations out of that same city in 2018 under government pressure; and who today announced that Open Society would give €1m to Budapest to help carry the city through this pandemic.

Over the same period of time, Orbán’s Hungary has fallen a full 14 spots, from 50th in 2010 to 64th in 2019, in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. There are some who believe that this – alleged corruption and enrichment for his inner circle – is the reason for Orbán’s illiberalism. Bálint Magyar, for example, a sociologist and former minister of education, ascribes to this view, and has deemed Orbán’s Hungary a mafia state.

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But there are others who think that this, too, is but a means to an end. Charles Gati, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a former friend of the Hungarian prime minister, told me in 2019 (during reporting for my book on Soros) that Orbán’s “number-one motivating factor is to show his father he is a big deal.” To do that, he needs to be bigger and more powerful than urbane liberals  – “slick city boys who knew languages,” as Gati put it. The means “to that end is the mafia state,” he told me then. “So that he and his Fidesz will live forever.”

In this context, it is perhaps not unimaginable that Orbán would look at a global health crisis and see another means to an end. This bill, once signed into law, will almost certainly put even greater pressure on what’s left of Hungary’s independent media. One man’s misinformation is another man’s report on increasing illiberalism (last year, for example, Hungarian foreign minister Péter Szijjártó said that politicians “deviating from the liberal mainstream” risked becoming the targets of “globally operating fake news factories”). 

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What is left of the political opposition has been rendered toothless. In view of the pressure that Orbán’s government has put on migrants and asylum seekers, this law may well be used to target them, or to further strip the rights of the minority Roma community, about whom Orbán announced a national consultation in February (the survey, his chief of staff said, was “about restoring moral order”). The pandemic is one crisis; for others in Hungary, the passage of this bill is not a balm for that calamity, but an additional one.

To put it another way: at some point, this pandemic will end. It will loosen its grip on all of us. Whether Orbán will loosen his newly-tightened grip on power is another question – as is the matter of who that grip squeezes out of Hungary.

Emily Tamkin is the author of The Influence of Soros: Politics, Power, and the Struggle for an Open Society, published by HarperCollins in July