Hungary Insight

Hungary’s coronavirus bill is about power. But not the way you think.

The political strategy behind the coronavirus bill that allows the Prime Minister to rule by decree was not passed to establish an autocracy in Hungary, but to portray Orbán as the sole protector of the people.

On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament accepted an emergency bill that allows Viktor Orbán to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. The bill received widespread condemnation from both the international press and EU leaders. Their interpretation was that with the move Orbán finally got tired of pretending to be a democrat and gave birth to an outright autocracy in the heart of Europe.

The fact that such thoughts could even emerge both within the international community, as well as a section of the Hungarian press, is telling of Fidesz’ past ten years in power. However, these sentiments present a misunderstanding of the political strategy behind the legislation and perhaps all of Hungarian politics in the past ten years.

Hungary’s electoral autocracy context

Orbán did not acquire the right to rule by decree so that he could single-handedly rule Hungary forever, but to completely exclude the opposition from the public’s experience of crisis management.

Two years ago, Gábor Filippov published an article on a well-read Hungarian portal, The piece offered a persuasive contextualisation of the Orbán-regime. It argued that Hungary, while due to obvious deficits in its democratic institutions, cannot be considered a well-functioning democracy, it cannot be labelled an autocracy either as elections are held regularly and theoretically, the opposition has a way to democratically oust the government.

The political strategy behind the coronavirus bill was to portray Orbán as the sole protector of the people in Hungary. Credit: Facebook

Hungary is not unique in having this system, he wrote, which political science describes as a hybrid regime, a semi-autocracy, or an electoral autocracy. For instance, the governments of Uganda, Russia, or Turkey also operate on a similar basis.

Ever since the publication of Filippov’s article, those who managed to accurately analyse political developments in Hungarian politics did so through his framework. To understand the significance of the Coronavirus Bill, it should also be understood within this context.

Projecting an enemy image

Given that Fidesz has had a two-third majority for ten years, they already had full control over legislation with a strong democratic legitimacy. In terms of their actual political power, the bill does not change much. The emphasis in Orbán’s plan, therefore, was not on the bill passing parliament, but on that it was rejected by the opposition first.

But why was it so important for Orbán that the opposition rejects the proposal? The reasons for this can be found in Fidesz’s well-established communication strategy. Throughout the past ten years, the governing party always tried to project an enemy image that it could claim to defend Hungarians from, be it the IMF, Brussels, George Soros, or immigrants.

Now that the opposition rejected the bill, pro-government media will be able to portray them as actors that are hindering government efforts in the fight against coronavirus. Credit: Facebook

However, as the final waves of the refugee crisis got more and more silent, in the past year the immigration and Soros-cards seem to have stopped working. As a result of this, the opposition won back a number of large cities during last year’s municipal elections. In the early parts of this year, Fidesz communications seemed to be shifting towards the Roma and the courts as their primary target.

The virus outbreak offered a more convenient solution. The government’s only problem was that, obviously, the opposition was also going to do everything to fight the virus. And this is where the bill comes in.

Orbán’s smile

The bill was first debated on March 23. Parliament was not originally planning to sit that day, however Fidesz insisted on calling an extraordinary meeting, claiming that the law had to be passed to extend the period of emergency which allows defensive measures against the virus. This meant that due to constitutional reasons, because of the emergency nature of the parliament’s sitting, the bill would have needed to pass with a 80% majority, meaning that the opposition would have also needed to vote for it.

Orbán acquired the right to completely exclude the opposition from the public’s experience of crisis management. Credit: Facebook

If the only thing the government wanted to do is a power grab, they could have just waited a week, until March 30 (the date it actually ended up being passed) as then, at a regular sitting, it only needed to be accepted by a two-third majority which Fidesz has had for 10 years.

Desperate attempts by the opposition to achieve at least some sort of compromise with a time limit failed. According to HVG, some figures within the government would have been open for cooperation, but Orbán shut down the idea immediately. He knew full well that there is no parliamentarian with a good conscience who would have voted for the bill in its original form.  And once the bill was voted down after its first reading, reported that various MPs noted that they have not seen a bigger smile on Orbán’s face in a long time. His plan was set in motion.

The virus party

Now that the opposition rejected the bill, which Fidesz claim serves the purpose of protecting Hungary, pro-government media will be able to portray them as actors that are hindering government efforts in the fight against coronavirus. His electoral slogan for 2022 is ready.

There are early signs that Fidesz’s communication strategy has already tuned to this messaging. During the March 23 debate, Orbán told an opposition MP outright that “don’t worry, we will beat this virus, even without you!”

When withdrawing legislation that would have required any mayoral decision to be reviewed by an appointed body during emergency, prominent Fidesz-MP, Gergely Gulyás stated that a week before it was the opposition itself that demanded such changes. Now, the fact that they oppose it is just a clear indication that they want to play politics instead of actually helping the people out during the crisis.

A pro-government meme which states that “there used to be so many opposition parties, now there is only one: the virus-party” has also been making rounds on social media.

While the coronavirus bill will not end elections in Hungary, it might just help Fidesz win another one. Credit: Facebook

Anti-EU propaganda

Another (perhaps unintended) byproduct of the new law will also aid the government’s propaganda communications. The bill received widespread international condemnation. 17 EU countries published a joint statement that warns member states to maintain democratic institutions even while managing the crisis.

Only a day later, Fidesz’s propaganda machine reacted with a campaign whose message was “Instead of helping the defence against Coronavirus, Brussels are still preoccupied with Hungary. Our message to them: stop hindering our efforts against the virus.” What the messaging seemed to ignore is that the EU offered 5.6 billion Euros to Hungary as part of their Coronavirus-management scheme.

Orbán always tried to position himself as an underdog fighting against a corrupt establishment which was often Brussels. Now he can use the Coronavirus-crisis to continue pushing this message.

The power of hybrid-regimes

This is not to say that the bill will not bring practical authoritarian gains for Orbán. For now, he will be able to single-handedly rule by decree, which comes after a number of MPs from Fidesz unprecedentedly broke ranks amidst the crisis.

Under the leadership of Máté Kocsis, parliamentary Fidesz directly went against Viktor Orbán by joining the opposition in suggesting school closures in early March. Now that the Prime Minister rules by decree, Fidesz will be able to project a united crisis management and show no signs of conflict.

But the point is that the rule by decree is most likely a temporary measure. The power of hybrid-regimes lies in that they pretend to be democracies while they are not. A smart leader in these regimes would be foolish to give up that pretence.

By ruling by decree, Orbán wants to be sure that the public see him and his party as the ones who manage the Coronavirus-crisis. He is not building a dictatorship but constructing a reality where the experience of surviving the Coronavirus is equivalent to the experience of being saved by Viktor Orbán.

The coronavirus bill will not end elections in Hungary. But it might just help Fidesz win another one.

By Ábel Bede

Ábel Bede was born in Budapest and is currently studying History at Durham University. He wrote his dissertation on early 20th century Hungarian politics and culture and published several pieces in prominent Hungarian newspapers. Feel free to check out more of his articles right here!

Photo credit: Riccardo Pareggiani/NurPhoto/Getty

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