Viktor Orbán’s Hungarian Carte Blanche: Exploiting Pandemic for Political Ends

As the world, and European Union, was busy tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, Viktor Orbán orchestrated another authoritarian power grab in his country, exploiting the pandemic for political gains in broad daylight. On March 30, the Hungarian parliament—which is dominated by Orbán’s conservative Fidesz party—passed a law that allows Orbán to rule by decree. The bill allows Orbán to indefinitely extend the national emergency declared on March 11. It also introduced other sweeping measures reflective of a classic power grab; one draconian measure of the bill is jail terms of upto five years for journalists if the government believes that they are spreading misinformation in regard to the pandemic.

According to the bill, so long as the emergency prevails, there will be no new elections. In addition, violation of the quarantine can also be punished by five to eight years in prison. In an open letter, the Hungarian opposition parties called the bill “Orbán’s dictatorship law.”

It is no surprise to the world that Viktor Orbán’s Hungary has been run as a mafia state since he came to power as the country’s prime minister in 2010. A loyal coterie of oligarchs run the country. According to Budapest’s Corruption Research Center, these oligarchs are the recipients of about 90 percent of the revenues from the public procurement projects funded by the European Union. And, as is characteristic of a typical crony state, these projects are overpriced by a degree of 1.7-10 times the competitive market price.

The new bill could complete Hungary’s transition from an illiberal democracy, often putting a democratic façade, to a complete autocratic state, with elimination of any remaining constitutional checks and balances.

This has taken place with two important backdrops.

Domestically, people are busy worrying about the immediate needs and repercussions from the COVID crisis. As is inevitable in times of crises, ordinary citizens can be much more readily made to overlook their civil liberties as they try to fall in line with the supposedly “expert” advice of authorities. A lot of things can justifiably be made subordinate to the idea of somehow returning to normalcy. Péter Krekó, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, says: “When death is in the air, people tend to rally around their national flag, and their attention is narrowed. While the opposition and the free media covered the enabling act widely, the average Hungarian has seemed less concerned. He or she is more interested now in where to buy face masks.”

Secondly, the western world is also subsumed in the COVID crisis. Although the press covered the acts of Orbán’s authoritarian power grab, foreign policy and human-rights issues across the governments in Americas and European Union have been relegated to the background.

Every few months, Viktor Orbán strengthens his network of patronage and the older governing systems entrenched in rampant corruption. When will the European Union heed, if not now? Orbán’s Hungary may well be reaching its apogee of illiberalism. It is completing its transition into a country where an organized group of elites capture the entire economy, profiteering at mass; a state where civil liberties—and the institutions upholding them—are cordoned off with a combination of constitutional amendments and a well-oiled criminal organization. In the last ten years of ruling the country, Orbán has rewritten the constitution, manipulated election laws, forced various news outlets to sell-off their entire operations to his loyalists, forced non-governmental organizations—through the help of a legislation—to be registered under the title of “foreign-supported” if they get a threshold of foreign funding. Orbán’s grotesque detestation of liberalism was apparent in his “Stop Soros” law, named after the famous Hungarian-born billionaire and philanthropist, George Soros. (Orbán has relied on a prolific number of Soros-hate campaigns as he regularly peddles anti-Semitic stereotypes for political gains, and it is worth noting that in the late-80s, Orbán studied political science at Oxford on a Soros-sponsored scholarship.) The law was aimed at criminalizing the act of helping asylum-seekers in the country.

Miklós Haraszti, a prominent Hungarian writer, has said, Hungary is “drifting in a Western boat propelled by an Eastern wind.” A central patronage network has already taken shape that is ripe with corporate-raiding and rent-seeking. It is becoming a system where civil liberties will be crumpled amass as the country completes its transformation into a quintessential criminal enterprise. Orbán’s Hungary is not much farther apart from Putin’s Russia—and, like Putin in Russia, it’ll be impossible to dismantle Orbán from power.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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