COVID-19 might become an excuse for dictatorial leaders to seize unquestioned power

Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán. Source: Reuters

The world is currently witnessing its worst healthcare crisis since the Spanish flu of 1918. More than 180 countries in the world are now affected by COVID-19, especially developed economies like the US, Italy, Spain, UK and China.

Europe is one of the worst hit places, severely affecting its economic growth. Hungary is a central European country which was once a part of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. In the year 1989, with the fall of Berlin wall, it emerged as an independent liberal democracy. 

As of 6th April, 2020 Hungary reported 744 COVID-19 cases and 38 deaths. In March, 2020 Hungarian parliament voted to give Prime Minister Victor Orbán, the power to ‘rule by decree’ with no clear end-date. This bill was passed as a “measure to tackle coronavirus outbreak”. 

The beginning of Soft Fascism

Over the course of eight years in power, PM Orbán has chipped away at the foundations of the Hungarian democracy. Under his regime, the parliament has passed several new rules that can seem reasonable on their face but actually serve to undermine essential democratic freedoms.

The Hungarian government controls the media and airwaves company to such a degree that many broadcasters are just the mouthpiece of the ruling government.

Secondly, Hungary has fenced the entire border with Serbia to counter illegal immigration from the war-torn countries. 

A state of emergency was declared in 2016 related to immigration and a hard anti-immigration stance was taken by the government. 

PM has also stamped out dissent and seized control of every major aspect of country’s political and social life, without needing to resort to ‘hard’ measures such as building up a police state or banning the election process.
Hungary’s fenced border with Serbia to curb immigration. (Source: Vox)

A Backsliding Democracy

In the year 2010, Orbán’s right wing populist political party Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance) won a constitutional majority by winning 263 seats, which is just over the two-third margin necessary to rewrite the constitution by parliamentary vote.

Similar things happened in 2011 onwards and multiple major amendments were made to turn the tables around. For instance Fidesz party has a greater influence over churches and has also stripped hundreds of religious institutes (including synagogues) of their legal status. The new preamble of the Hungarian constitution says that “Hungarian nationality is exclusively Christian” even though country has substantial Jewish population.

To take the unfair advantage, Orbán also manipulated the boundaries of electoral constituency to favour his party. This process is also known as “gerrymandering”.

He also created new court system which cements political leader to control judicial system of the country. He appointed his old friend as the leader of the judicial system and stacked the constitutional courts with his loyalists.

The state’s old broadcasters were dissolved and the new broadcasters were created. Many private media houses were sold to oligarchs or allies of Fidesz party. All these instances and decisions signal towards an authoritarian regime.

Indefinite Authoritarian Power 

The newly passed bill suspends the Hungarian parliament for the indefinite period of time and governance would be replaced by a direct ‘rule of decree’ by the prime minister. 

Hungarian Parliament voted with two-third majority which is enjoyed by Orbán’s party in spite of opposition demanded a time limit on the legislation. 

Some of the key features of the bill include jail term of up to five years for intentionally spreading misinformation which hinders government’s response to the pandemic. This measure has been imposed against false information, which can be used by the government against the independent media. Anybody disobeying the quarantine orders might face 5 year into prison. Lastly, the bill also extends the state of emergency beyond the Covid-19 crisis.

In effect, the new bill empowers the Hungarian Prime Minister to introduce and disregard any legislation for an unlimited period of time. This means in Hungarian authoritarian regime opposition is allowed to exist but not allowed to fundamentally challenge the regime.

The government has portrayed and defended the move as a response to the current crisis posed by COVID-19 but critics have labelled it as dangerously open-ended and vulnerable to abuse.

As Europe struggles with the Covid-19, there is a chance of it becoming an existential crisis for the European Union.  The situation in Europe will become increasingly challenging, if one of their own member country breach the value of democracy and rule of law very openly. 

There is a chance that EU might turn in to a paper lion as it continuous tolerating Hungary’s autocratic regime, which has hit a new low in its 10-year record. It seems the European Union had already given up on Hungary a long time ago. 

Authoritarianism in South Asia

Similar parallels can be drawn in South Asian countries where authoritarianism is on rise. Pakistan is a democracy on paper but repeated interventions by military dents its effectiveness and democracy remains under-developed.

The citizens of Pakistan have shown faith in democracy despite poor governance and corruption in the country. The army has also not intended to seize the government in Pakistan, but continues to meddle in politics and also commands power over external and internal matters of the country. 

In Bangladesh also, there is a decline in democratic freedom since last one decade. Bangladesh’s current ruling party “Awami League” consolidated power though harassing opposition leaders (including Khalida Zia, former PM & leader of opposition), media houses and various civil society groups.

There is a rising political violence, weak institution building, absence of political accountability and worsening law and order situation in the country, which created an unpleasant environment and further damage to Bangladesh’s fragile democracy. 

With authoritarianism on the rise across the globe this COVID-19 crisis might turn out as an excuse for dictatorial leaders across the world to seize unquestioned power. 

Arpan Rathi

Arpan Rathi has completed his Masters in International Studies from Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune. His interest areas are geopolitics, climate change and non-traditional security.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.


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