Who will stand up for the rule of law in Hungary?

EU talks have raised further questions around the future of the country's civic freedoms.

 

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Last week, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán declared a “huge victory”. He hadn’t won an election, but, in a sense, he could claim to have won something equally important: scope to maintain the additional power he’s amassed.

The various EU countries had been in a long debate about financing the coronavirus recovery, and Orbán had gone into the talks threatening to veto a decision that tied loans and grants to democratic values. In the end, the deal reached early on 21 July tasked the commission with proposing measures to prevent the funding going to countries with rule-of-law breaches, and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, “Protecting our budget and the respect for the rule of law go hand in hand”. But the compromise that was struck also left open questions about how exactly the new system will play out, including the potential for the European Council of EU leaders to block or tone down action.

For now, Hungary could reportedly receive as much as 52.8 billion euros over the seven-year budget period beginning next year. That would be a 35 percent increase from the last budget. Orbán, for his part, said, “any attempt to make a connection between the rule of law and the budget was ... successfully rejected”.

The backdrop to this is the coronavirus pandemic, which the Orbán government has used to further its own power. First, parliament passed a state of emergency that allowed Orbán to effectively rule by decree and rendered misinformation, as defined by the government, punishable by up to five years in prison. The Hungarian parliament then lifted that state of emergency but voted to give the government the ability to declare a “state of medical crisis”, which would also let Orbán rule by decree.

Furthermore, the prime minister has used the pandemic to limit mayors’ ability to do their jobs — reallocating funding and failing to consistently provide updated information about infections, for example — and so blame them for society’s ills.

Nor are mayors the only ones who have found themselves under new pressure during the coronavirus pandemic. Hungary’s most popular news site, Index.hu, was also thrown into crisis last week, a month after warning its independence was at risk. The site’s editorial board resigned and most of its journalists walked out following the firing of its editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull. According to staff at the site, the sacking represented “clear interference” by the new owners.

All of this raises a question, which is: where will opposition to and criticism of Orbán's government find an outlet?

As the Hungarian journalist Szabolcs Panyi wrote in his moving tribute to Index and to Hungarian journalism more broadly, before the publication’s demise its main competitor, Origo, the second largest privately owned television station, TV2, and the largest daily, Népszabadság, all became respectively either pro-government, right-wing or nonexistent. The journalists who left Index have been pushed onto social media platforms, setting up a Facebook page, which, at the time of writing, has over 200,000 followers.

The few political opposition figures who have managed to find their way toward some semblance of power — namely, the country’s mayors — are hindered in demonstrating whether they are competent because they appear to be undermined and undercut by the central government.

And questions remain over how the international community will respond. After all, even after the parliament effectively granted the Orbán government the power to rule by decree, not once but twice, the EU still came up with a response that left Orbán crowing over Hungary’s success. There is promise of future action to protect rule of law in Hungary, but, in this respect, tomorrow never seems to come.

The Trump administration has broadly pursued a policy of engagement with Hungary, the idea being that doing so would allow the United States to counter Russia and China in Central and Eastern Europe, and Trump even hosted Orbán at the White House visit last spring. And, in any event, the United States is perhaps not currently best placed to try to change Hungarian behaviour even if it wanted to, consumed as it is with over 150,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic and a president who is floating the idea of unconstitutionally delaying the election.

All of that leaves Hungary with a dire independent media scene, a small and stymied opposition, a European and international community that can’t seem to find the method or desire to do much about it, and a government that finds new and original ways to make itself more powerful. Orbán had good reason to declare victory. Whether Hungary does, too, is another matter.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor

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