The 82-Day Dictatorship

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds a news conference in Budapest, January 9, 2020. (Tamas Kaszas/Reuters)
Worries about Hungarian authoritarianism prove overblown, but are they hiding the real danger?

One wonders if it will be recorded in the history books that from March 30th to June 20th Hungary lived as the shortest dictatorship in European history, before voluntarily extinguishing itself. An odd act for a dictatorship. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of Hungary had used the coronavirus to make himself dictator for life, it was said. But I guess he only had it in him to be dictator for life for less than three months.

Our most important experts on democracy and Eastern Europe knew that Viktor Orbán had really done it this time. Yasmeen Serhan, writing in The Atlantic this April, declared: “There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism—one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed.”

“The brazenness of Orbán’s power grab is without any parallel in recent European history,” wrote Dalibor Rohac in the Washington Post, predicting confidently that absent a “strong pushback from Brussels and Washington — which are both understandably preoccupied by more urgent matters — Hungary is bound to emerge from the current crisis as a full-fledged dictatorship.”

It was on March 30th that the Hungarian Parliament approved a state-of-emergency law to deal with coronavirus that gave power to Viktor Orbán’s government to pass laws by decree, and instituted severe-looking restrictions on the dissemination of fake news. Several European countries had already passed enabling acts of this sort — France has seemed to go in and out of such states of emergency regularly in the last decade. That the emergency powers were a feature of Hungary’s existing constitution, limited by that constitution not to touch fundamental rights and subject to a parliamentary check, troubled none of these analysts.

At the time of this great panic for Hungarian democracy, Hungarian opponents of Orbán spread ludicrous and easily-checkable claims about the legislation, saying that the parliament itself had been suspended and elections cancelled, a claim spread by people as eminent as Anne Applebaum. Other experts told us confidently that these powers were gathered by Orbán for the purpose of suppressing the inevitably disastrous performance of his nation’s health-care institutions. American political strategists predicted extravagant things, such as: “He’s going to wind up putting Gypsies in permanent detention…”

I predicted that Orbán would return the emergency powers back to Parliament roughly around the same time as France. This week, Hungary began the process, and all powers will be restored by June 20th. Currently, France’s emergency powers last until July 10th, but could be extended.

How did the predictions pan out? Hungary has seen just under 500 deaths out of slightly less than 3,500 cases, which, while serious, is nothing like the horrors visited upon Italy or Spain in recent months. Its hospital system, though far behind richer nations, did not break down.

There was no great showdown with Brussels and Washington, D.C., needed to end the emergency. During the crisis, Orbán’s opponents often repeated a statement from the European Commission expressing “concern” about the emergency legislation and a determination to monitor it. What they often did not mention was that the statement came along with a preliminary ruling of EU legal experts that there were no concrete violations of fundamental democratic rights, and therefore Brussels had no basis for acting against Hungary.

Orbán is not immune from criticism for his use of the powers. He used the power to rule by fiat to pass a planned redevelopment of City Park, which his party desired to do but which has been blocked by the opposition in Parliament and by the mayor of Budapest. This is an abuse of emergency powers, and a bit of political hardball, though not one that touches on the fundaments of democracy. End runs like this are commonly done in the Western world. New York governor Andrew Cuomo used sweeping emergency powers to amend or rewrite hundreds of New York laws, including many unrelated to the response to COVID-19 that he couldn’t pass through the legislature. Among these was suspending the requirement that cities and towns publish certain legal notices, a serious source of income for local media that could lead to newspaper closures and will make it harder for citizens to know how their tax monies are being spent. This too is an abuse, but nobody outside of the letters to the editor section of newspapers seems to notice it.

It was widely reported that two persons were arrested under the new emergency law powers for criticizing government. Both were questioned and released, One of them, identified only as “Andras” in media reports, was told by police that he had not committed a crime. He gave an interview about his interrogation to one of the most-read news sites in Hungary.

In my book, the police were too zealous and the law too broad. Neither of those two men should have been questioned even if they weren’t charged. But overzealous and lunkheaded investigations are launched by the police frequently in free countries. And Hungarian speech restrictions, even in the emergency, are put into relief when contrasted with European peers with great liberal reputations. Hundreds of people in the U.K. face lengthy and expensive trials or even prison sentences for charges under the Communications Act, and police there regularly threaten the public to watch what they say on social media. Germany’s Network Enforcement Act defines dangerous speech so broadly it would give supporters of opposition parties a second thought about expressing themselves on the Internet. Non-liberal states such as Russia, the Philippines, and Singapore have all cited it as an example to be emulated. German politicians have demanded that the law be made more repressive and loopholes in it be closed.

As for the predictions of indefinite detention, Hungary has not created its own version of America’s Guantanamo Bay, thank God. It’s remarkable that the same experts who were so sure Iraq would become a liberal democracy once a little force was applied are now so sure that Hungary will be a dictatorship by having elections and taking constitutional measures.

They will not be troubled by the failure of their certain predictions. Their opposition will just be repackaged in in some new theory. Well of course, Orbán can return the powers, they’ll say, he has a rubber stamp in Parliament. And besides, he’ll want those subsidies from Brussels. But then why did they believe it was the advent of dictatorship when they mistakenly thought Parliament was suspended? The same game is played with Hungary’s constitution. A rumor of a forthcoming transgression of that constitution is evidence of illiberal democracy run amok, but the evidence of following it interpreted as an empty gesture. Heads, tails. Etc.

One suspects it’s just simple hatred of Christian conservatism, a fanatical projection of culture war antipathies to the near abroad. Liberal keyboard warriors such as Cas Mudde even suggested allying with the fascist Jobbick Party to unseat Orbán in 2018, even as that party was led by a man who had founded an ultra-nationalist paramilitary.

Or sometimes it is mere class interest, as the worry about illiberal democracy almost always expresses itself in terms about the status of journalists and academics in Hungary. Most of this worry is done in pure ignorance about the leading online media outlets, such as Index and !!44!!!, which tend to be critical of the government.

And perhaps it has blinded them to the real dangers lurking in this part of the world. Illiberal democracy has mostly been a chimera. But the ongoing tit-for-tat between Hungary and Romania should trouble anyone who knows something about history in this region. The Hungarian government is increasingly engaging with the diaspora of Hungarian speakers in Romania. This is overwhelmingly popular in Hungary and addresses some of Orbán’s often-stated fears of demographic collapse. But it is a serious agitation to a neighbor. The Prime Minister of Romania has recently called attempts to guarantee more rights to the sizable Hungarian speaking minority in his country “treasonous.” Most of Hungary’s Western detractors hail from the school of thought born from the title (if not the text) of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. But there are rages, resentments, and humiliations lurking around the 1920 Treaty of Trianon that radically shrunk Hungary. And we should not believe that in a world of collapsing native populations, these border disputes can remain submerged.

If our foreign-policy experts could manage to read something longer than a hysterical tweet, they might be able to tell us something about it. In the meantime, they’ll have to put up with former dictator Viktor Orbán clowning on them and demanding apologies.


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