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A warning from Hungary: democracies can also be “suspended”

Budapest, Hungary – Dealing with the coronavirus crisis is often presented as a choice between saving the economy and protecting public health. hungary warning

In the United States, Donald Trump vows that he wants to lift the restrictive public health measure “in weeks, not months,” urging that America must be “open for business” as soon as possible.

In Italy, on the other hand, as the death toll continues to rise, the government issued strict measures, freezing the economic life in the north of the country, impacting heavily the already weakened Italian economy.

Alarming headlines about the need for massive economic bailouts mix with the imminent threat of collapsing health systems. These are accompanied by the images of panicking shoppers and empty food shelves.

In the media, the coronavirus dilemma is presented as the need of striking the right balance between economy and public health. But it is becoming increasingly evident that, in some countries, there is a third dimension to this crisis – its consequences for democratic institutions.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has warned that Viktor Orban is using the coronavirus crisis to “fuel xenophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric.

The last remnants of an independent press in Hungary

In Hungary, Justice Minister Judit Varga put forward a bill last Friday that would give Prime Minister Viktor Orban dictatorial powers. The opposition blocked the swift passing of the motion, criticizing the legislation, which would allow Orban to rule by decree without a clear end date, and would also limit the freedom of the press in the country.

Despite the rejection of the motion on Monday, it will likely be adopted next week, when the passing requires only a two-thirds majority, which Orban’s Fidesz party controls.

In a joint statement, four human rights groups warned that “a carte blanche mandate for the Hungarian government with no sunset clause is not the panacea to the emergency caused by the Covid-19 virus in Hungary.” The organizations say that “we need strong rule of law safeguards and proportional and necessary emergency measures, not unlimited government rule by decree that can last beyond the actual epidemic crisis.”

Kim Lane Scheppele, a Professor of Sociology and International Affairs at Princeton University, wrote for the Hungarian Spectrum that “Orban’s terrible track record on press freedom creates the suspicion that the law is aimed at the last remnants of an independent press in Hungary.” hungary warning

She also cautions that the legislation is “written broadly enough to sweep in critics who challenge whether the government is acting sensibly or even whether a measure that the government is taking has any relationship to the virus at all,” adding that “it is up to the government to determine what “obstructs” the implementation of its program.“

What is more, Scheppele warns that because the new crimes introduced by this legislation are “permanent changes to the criminal law. They would not go away when the crisis is over.” hungary warning

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has so far dismissed calls to postpone the presidential election due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Polish exception

At the same time, however, until the state of emergency lasts in Hungary, there can be no new elections in the country. Across Europe, elections had been largely postponed due to coronavirus, but there is one exception. In Poland, the government intends to hold presidential elections on May 10. It seems that the ruling PiS party is convinced that its candidate – the incumbent president Andrzej Duda – will win the election.

But while Duda’s opponents had to call off their campaigns and limit their televised appearances, he continues to travel around the country and appear on national television. Based on the most recent survey, almost three-quarters of Poles wish to have the elections postponed. To add a cherry on top, according to the Polish constitution, only the president – in this case Andrzej Duda – can issue a state of emergency.

As governments introduce social distancing, public protests become no longer an option. Under the pretence of the protection of public health, government surveillance could take on new levels. The same goes for censorship. hungary warning

At the same time, xenophobic attacks see a spike in Central and Eastern Europe, with many locals blaming foreigners and minorities for the virus. To add to this, while drowning in information, worried citizens are ready to grant governments special powers to tackle the emerging crises.

In the current order of things, autocrats around the world – hellbent to crush the remnants of democratic institutions – may well find this new state of emergency very comfortable. Especially when there is no clear end date attached to it.

In the meantime, as Scheppele writes, democracy in Hungary is “in suspension.”

By Matej Voda 

Born in Prague, Matej Voda studied at Charles University and University College London. He currently pursues his graduate studies at Central European University in Budapest and Vienna. Previously, he worked and interned at EU-Russia Civil Society Forum in Berlin, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Prague-Based Association for International Affairs, and the Prague office of Euractiv. He enjoys cheese, theatre and Russian literature. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!