The trouble with crying wolf is that sometimes the wolf shows up at your door. For years, critics have said that Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban is a tin-pot dictator, Central Europe’s answer to Vladimir Putin. The flaws in Hungary’s democracy and Orban’s own no-holds-barred approach to electioneering were held up as the decisive factors behind his political success, while other explanations — the advantages of incumbency, the pre-pandemic strength of the Hungarian economy, the divided state of the opposition — were downplayed or ignored. For those committed to the ideological project of ever-closer European integration, Orban’s outspoken nationalism, his Euroscepticism, and his strident opposition to immigration made him a particularly inviting target.
Now, however, the Hungarian government’s heavy-handed response to the coronavirus threatens to vindicate Orban’s critics. On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament passed emergency legislation that allows Orban to indefinitely govern by decree and threatens jail time for anyone spreading false or misleading information about the pandemic. Technically, Parliament can revoke this extraordinary grant of power with another vote, but Orban’s Fidesz party controls an overwhelming legislative majority.
Orban is sometimes compared to the likes of Putin or Xi Jinping. This is badly mistaken. Even after his assumption of broad emergency powers, the prime minister is best understood as the latest in a line of Hungarian leaders who have uncomfortably straddled liberalism and authoritarianism. During the late Soviet period, Hungary under Janos Kadar was known as “the happiest barracks in the Eastern bloc,” a relatively relaxed socialist alternative to the grim regimes of East Germany or Romania. Before World War II, the country was ruled by Admiral Miklos Horthy, a right-wing autocrat who nevertheless presided over parliamentary elections.
The signal fact about soft authoritarianism is that it is soft, and therefore amenable to change. Crudely lumping Orban in with hardline autocrats implies that Hungary’s democratic backsliding is hopeless and irreversible. It would be better to recognize that the coronavirus is an unprecedented emergency and that ill-considered emergency powers may yet be relinquished.
In recent years the EU’s response to Orban has been either too weak or too broad. In 2018 the much-heralded Sargentini report on Hungary was presented to the European Parliament. The report, authored by a Dutch Green Party MP, included many legitimate complaints about the erosion of civil liberties and corruption, but it also took Hungary to task for its gender inequality, the inadequacy of its old-age pensions, and its failure to adopt same-sex marriage. It is hardly surprising that Hungarians were not interested in being lectured by a left-wing EU functionary about gender roles.
On April 1, after Parliament granted Orban the power to rule by decree, several EU governments released a mealy-mouthed statement that omitted any mention of Hungary and vaguely called for “monitoring” by the European Commission. Meanwhile, the American embassy in Budapest released a similarly weak statement that conspicuously failed to mention Orban or the Hungarian government. Foreign governments should make specific but forceful points about maintaining civil liberties and the integrity of the democratic process without needling Hungarians over unrelated issues. A commitment to liberal democracy does not imply a particular set of electoral outcomes, and the EU and the United States should recognize that Hungary is not Denmark or Canada.
Promoting liberal democracy is an unfashionable cause of late, but Hungary is worth fighting for. In the dark days of the Cold War, Milan Kundera sought to explain the enduring ties between Central Europe and the West by quoting the last dispatch of the Hungarian News Agency from the doomed but heroic 1956 uprising against the Soviets. “We are going to die for Hungary and for Europe” was the final message from Budapest before the agency was destroyed by Russian artillery. The message is a timely reminder that Hungary is at the heart of Europe, both geographically and culturally, with its own proud liberal traditions that stretch back over 150 years.
Orban’s outsized presence on the world stage is another sign that what happens in Hungary matters, not just for Hungarians but for Europe more broadly. Fortunately, the stakes are not as high as in ’56. There are no tanks on the streets, and Hungarian democracy is not a lost cause. But even in the midst of a global pandemic, it is time for other liberal democracies to stand up, both for Hungary’s sake and for Europe’s.
Editor’s Note: This article originally claimed that the American embassy had been silent on the issue, when it had in fact released a statement.