Coronavirus

Coronavirus has enabled Viktor Orbán to tighten his grip on Hungary

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The recent Coronavirus Authorization Law passed by the Hungarian Parliament enables the ruling Fidesz Party to further tighten their hold over Hungarian democracy. It paves the way for the completion of Orbán’s control over Hungary through the ‘Mission CREEP’ strategy.

Hungary’s ‘Mission CREEP’, an acronym which stands for both the overt and covert ways the ruling party, Fidesz, has over the course of a decade, tightened its (C)ontrol on three core elements of any healthy democracy: the (E)ducation system, (E)conomy, and (P)ress. 

However, Hungary’s emergency COVID-19 law, passed on Monday 30th March, enables this control to go further than before.

Opposition parties were prepared to back the new law providing it contained an end date. This was hardly an unreasonable stance, given that this has been the stance taken by many other European countries, including the UK many times before. 

The Fidesz government, however, merely waited until Monday, when the supermajority needed to pass the legislation dropped to 66%, which is within its coalition majority.

The law grants Prime Minister Orbán and his government the power to make any new laws and repeal old ones by decree. The government’s main spokesperson, Zoltan Kovacs, has been quick to stress the emergency will have an endpoint; either when the pandemic is over, or when the National Assembly votes to remove it. 

Yet, interpreting when this pandemic will be over may be considered prone to heavy subjectivity, and the Hungarian government has a history of extending a state of emergency for an excessively long period. 

A state of emergency was called in 2015 over the migrant crisis and was kept in place for several years, despite Hungary’s known hardline stance meaning it barely received any migrants after 2015.

With regards to Education, unveiled earlier this year was a highly controversial new state curriculum. It aims to encourage students to be ‘proud of their people’s past’. Notable past military defeats are out, replaced by glorious victories. 

The authoritarian rule of Miklós Korthy from 1920-44 is represented in a more positive light, with its collaboration with the Nazis downplayed. The Chairman of Hungary’s History Teachers’ Association has described the proposed version of Hungary’s history as ‘highly problematic’. 

Orbán said in February that the curriculum would show ‘who the Hungarian people really are’, before singling out Hungary’s 12 Nobel prizes. Yet, Hungary’s sole recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Imre Kertesz, is written out of the curriculum entirely. 

However, there is mandatory reading for nationalist authors such as Jozsef Nyiro and Albert Wass. Nyiro was a member of a fascist party and admired Nazi propagandist Goebbels. Wass was an anti-Semite and a convicted war criminal.

It’s far from the first time Orbán’s government has engaged in an extraordinarily ideological and party-political approach to education. It previously hounded the country’s best university, the Central European University (CEU), using propaganda and legislation, purely because it was founded by American-Hungarian billionaire, George Soros. 

Tied up in the educational policy has been the government’s cultural identity war. In 2018, gender studies were banned as a possible university subject while last December plans were announced to make funding of major theatres conditional on state appointment of directors. In fairness of the latter point, the Hungarian state already heavily subsidises the arts, keeping tickets cheap.

Despite significant protests against the proposed curriculum and issues with nationwide connectivity to the state’s online platform for teaching during the COVID-19 outbreak, the curriculum is still set to be introduced from September. 

Meanwhile, as part of a bill announced a day after the emergency law, the Hungarian government deemed it an emergency to recast Hungary’s Civil Registry to display ‘gender at birth’ and not ‘gender’. 

Although Fidesz’s supporters and its role as the government of the day already provide it with significant financial muscle, this emergency could open the door for greater Orbán government control over the economy. 

140 companies are being taken over by military deployments to maintain critical services during the pandemic. A drastic step, but not out of step with other countries – an example being Spain’s nationalisation of all private hospitals. 

However, the door is open for the Orbán government to gain greater control over the economy in the long term, with proposals reportedly mooted to only bail out companies in exchange for government ownership.

Most of the press is pro-government controlled already, partially explaining the government’s popularity. Over time, Fidesz members or supporters increased their ownership of press outlets. 

In one fell swoop in December 2018, owners of nearly 500 broadcast, print and digital media outlets announced they were ‘donating’ them to the Central European and Press Media Foundation, run by Orbán ally, Gabor Liszkay. Orbán even had to sign a decree to protect the movement from Hungary’s media and competition watchdogs, by declaring it to be of ‘national strategic importance’.

The few independent media outlets which remain in Hungary will have to tread even more carefully now. Part of the emergency law passed on Tuesday included an up to 5-year jail term for anyone found to disseminate ‘any untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact’ about the coronavirus outbreak in Hungary. 

While in the UK, the media has pressed the government on PPE equipment, in Hungary, such actions could now land you in hot water. And worryingly, the law is not explicit about what counts as an ‘untrue fact or any misrepresented true fact’. 

Every year, 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 according to Freedom House, being downgraded to “Partly Free”.

A communique from 13 EU member state governments, not mentioning Hungary explicitly, expressed concern about disproportionate emergency measures in the immediate days following Hungary’s emergency law.

It’s also been reported that most major mainstream European Parliament party blocs are to call for the European Commission to launch an Article 7 of the Treaty of the EU procedure against Hungary because of the emergency law. 

Under this article, a member state’s rights can be suspended due to breaching EU values, but the process is long and convoluted and requires unanimity of all other member states. 

However, increasing international scrutiny and opposition within Hungary may still have some effect. The bill proposing changes to how gender is registered also comprised proposals to seriously hamper the ability of municipal leaders to act decisively during the pandemic. 

It would have handed mayors the power to take the decisions of local councils but with a built-in 5-day review by the state government, leading to warnings that delays would lead to unnecessary deaths. The Hungarian government has indicated it now intends to drop this part.

Hungary is far from the only European nation to implement emergency legislation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. What makes it a more pressing concern for civil liberties organisations, though, is that Orbán’s government has a track record of accruing control in public life. 

Where COVID-19 comes in, is producing the conditions to enable power grab actions to be viewed largely as proportionate, or to be unnoticed during the tumult. It also creates an opportunity for authoritarian governments like Orbán’s to gain greater economic control. 

If their record is anything to go by, the opportunity to move Hungary’s ‘Mission CREEP’ further on won’t be passed up.

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