Coronavirus Crushes Its First Constitutional Democracy


In political terms, Hungary was already immunocompromised. A decade under the leadership of the self-proclaimed ‘illiberal nationalist’ Victor Orbán and his right-wing Fedesz party has caused constitutional calamity on a scale rarely seen in peacetime. Budapest has seen the erosion of democratic checks and balances, a reconfiguration of the judiciary and the infantilisation of the free press to the point wherein free and democratic elections are skewed to the advantage of Orbán’s party. When the Coronavirus earthquake hit, Hungary’s floundering democracy was already vulnerable.

Budapest has become a textbook example of how the coronavirus crisis can be exploited by political leaders to advance their own agendas whilst crushing civil liberties. On Monday, the Parliament in Budapest passed a highly controversial bill, which allows Orbán to rule by decree using emergency powers for an infinite time period. The Parliament itself has been suspended, existing laws have been ceased and future elections have been indefinitely postponed. These measures, brought into combat the pandemic, were accompanied by further regulations introducing jail terms for the spread of fake news and the breaking of quarantine. To put it frankly, a health crisis has catalysed a constitutional and human rights catastrophe.

There is no doubt that Covid-19 is a genuine emergency. Every country, including the UK and Ireland, is wrangling with the question of how to save their citizen’s lives whilst avoiding economic collapse and the violation of human rights. If one were to adopt a naïve assessment of Orbán’s new measures, it might be assumed that his actions were motivated purely for the protection of Hungarian citizens’ health. Indeed, the Right to Health is enshrined within multiple human rights treaties, including Article 11 of the European Social Charter and Chapter 4 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. However, such a viewpoint completely ignores the Prime Minister’s vilification of opposition parties as ‘supporters of the coronavirus’ due to their demands for a sunset clause. Instead, Orbán’s new measures are a carte blanche to solidify his control and are unjustifiably camouflaged with the veneer of emergency.

This creates a worrying precedent for other countries. The pandemic produces the perfect storm of fear and instability that typically fans the flames of illiberalism. Hungary’s immunocompromised condition is echoed by numerous other Western nations, including Poland and Brazil, wherein leaders have already reduced citizens’ rights before the coronavirus crisis struck. It is easy to predict that, unless Orbán is frozen out in political quarantine, he will become a role model for other populist leaders eager to solidify their power. Such a path is easy to forecast: first the country becomes more inward-facing; second, foreign policy is belittled; third, civil liberties and the normal operation of the rule of law are suspended ‘for the good of the country’. This path clearly crushes the ideal of democracy.

The final step on this path occurs after the coronavirus crisis has passed. Most countries enacting legislation to combat the present pandemic have installed sunset clauses of specific times. For example, the restrictions on freedoms introduced by the UK Coronavirus Act 2020 expire after two years. However, the absence of such a clause within the Hungarian provisions allows for potential abuses of power by the government with no named end date. In its current form, the legislation manifests as an uncontrolled and unending state of emergency allowing the government to exist indefinitely without checks or balances.

One particular area ripe for governmental abuse of power is the right of freedom of expression. This fundamental freedom allows for a free press and the subsequent open criticism of government in power, often instigating debates on issues of national importance. It could be argued by critics that derogations within this freedom are necessary, to allow for the proper balancing of rights against the public interest of combatting the coronavirus crisis. However, any measures that intervene with such rights must be temporary and definable. Already in Hungary such principles of good governance have been abused; a state of emergency brought in during the 2016 migration crisis is still in force. Derogations to the freedom of expression are therefore highly likely to be subject to abuse and the rule of law destroyed through Orbán’s solidification of power.

It is inarguable that a free press is necessary for a free and democratic society. It provides checks and critiques the country’s leaders, especially during an election campaign. It therefore necessary to highlight that Hungary is due an election in 2022. The probability that the new legislation will not only be used to crush dissenters of the governmental response to the pandemic, but also to prevent balanced Hungarian media during an election campaign is almost expected. The temptation to keep the emergency measures in place as this election approaches would only serve to fulfil predictions of Orbán’s authoritarian rule.

The nature of extraordinary emergency powers, such as those introduced here, is that they are easy to enact but difficult to rescind. The coronavirus pandemic impacts nearly all peoples, yet has been twisted in a frenzied propaganda effort to violate citizens’ rights without proper checks. The true test for Hungary will come when the health crisis has passed and other nations return to the status quo. Will Orbán reduce his own power? Or even more importantly, will other Western nations sit up and take notice of what is happening on their own doorstep?

Beth McSorley is an LLM student at Queen’s Belfast and works within legal practice. A recent delegate at the European Seminars on the Freedom of Thought, she writes on public law, policy and sport.


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