Hungary: Western Europe’s whipping boy

Those lecturing its government over emergency powers don’t really care about democracy.

Frank Furedi

One of the disturbing consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the declaration of states of emergency by governments throughout the world. From Britain to Spain to Hungary to the United States and all the way to India, governments have assumed special emergency powers to deal with the pandemic. In numerous countries, such as Britain and Canada, parliament has been suspended in order to deal with the emergency.

Anyone who is committed to a democratic public life should be concerned when they see emergency measures like these come in. Parliaments are precious institutions that serve and give voice to the aspirations of the demos. It is entirely legitimate to raise questions and concerns about the suspension of such vital institutions. But instead of having a serious discussion about the long-term implications of suspending parliaments and executive power being exercised through decrees, sections of the Western political elite and media have decided to focus their energies only on condemning the Hungarian government for its supposed ambition to turn itself into a dictatorship.

If one was to rely on the Western media for information, it would be easy to get the impression that the actions of the Hungarian government, and of prime minister Viktor Orbán, are analogous to Hitler grabbing power in March 1933, after the Reichstag adopted the Enabling Act of 1933. ‘The brazenness of Orban’s power grab is without any parallel in recent European history’, writes a columnist in the Washington Post.

Some outlets insist that, as a result of the decision of the democratically elected Hungarian parliament to adopt emergency powers, the rise of a dictatorship has become an accomplished fact. ‘Hungary’s Orbán government seizes on coronavirus pandemic to establish dictatorship’, warns a headline on the modestly titled World Socialist Website. The Guardian’s Owen Jones, who called for a complete shutdown in the UK, casually tweeted: ‘No big deal, a full blown not-even-pretending-anymore dictatorship has been established in a European member state.’

Most media attacks on Hungary don’t go so far as to claim that a dictatorship now runs Hungary. Instead, they see the Orbán government’s action as a ‘potential pathway to dictatorship’ – arguing that the newly adopted emergency powers have the potential to lead to a dictatorship.

The Hungarian government is certainly not composed of angels. And like any government facing an unprecedented global emergency, it is quite possible that it will make errors of judgement in its handling of the crisis. But to accuse the Hungarian government of executing a power grab sui genesis is to indulge in tendentious and mean-spirited polemics. Even a Hungarian schoolchild can do the parliamentary maths and figure out that the government does not need special decrees to ‘grab power’. The last election gave the Hungarian government a large majority in parliament. It already has the two-thirds majority it needs to pass all the measures that can be decreed under emergency powers.

As Hungarian political scientist Gábor Török has pointed out, if Orbán wanted to introduce a dictatorship, he could do so with parliament meeting regularly, without special authorisation through decrees. The hysterical denunciations directed at the Hungarian government conveniently overlook the inconvenient fact that, in any case, Orbán possesses a unique democratic mandate to deal with the current emergency.

Anyone observing the media campaign against Hungary and its government would imagine that it is motivated by a genuine concern to uphold the values of democracy. Anti-Hungarian crusaders continually go on about the importance of protecting the values of Europe. Recently, the former Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, tweeted that Hungary should be driven out of the European Union because it threatens this institution’s democratic values.

In every respect, Renzi personifies anti-Hungarian bigotry. It is worth recalling that, unlike Viktor Orbán, who became prime minister through running in a General Election, Renzi gained power through what could be called a coup d’état. Renzi would not know what democracy is if he bumped into it. He never ran in a national election nor had he been elected to either Italy’s lower or upper houses of parliament before he became PM. In 2014, he was simply named as Italy’s leader by the Italian president, Giorgio Napolitano, a former leading member of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). In effect, Renzi replaced the previous prime minister, Enrico Letta, through the kind of intra-elite political manoeuvring that used to characterise the final years of the Weimar Republic.

In passing, it is also worth noting that Napolitano actively supported his party’s denunciation of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, when the PCI’s newspaper referred to the revolutionaries as ‘thugs’ and ‘despicable agent provocateurs’. So being lectured on the need to be wary of dictatorship in democratic Hungary by the Renzi-Napolitano school of realpolitik is like hearing a serial killer praise the value of life.

The reality is that the animosity directed at Hungary by its Western detractors is not motivated by a genuine concern about the fate of freedom and democracy. Their dislike of Hungary is fuelled by their hatred for the cultural values that the Hungarian government stands for. In particular, they fear that its celebration of national sovereignty will inspire others to embrace this outlook.

There is nothing wrong with having an open debate on matters of cultural values. What is despicable, however, is using a global health crisis as an excuse to settle scores with a political opponent.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and commentator. His book What’s Happened To The University?: A Sociological Exploration of its Infantilisation, is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Picture by: Getty.

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Peter Baker

1st April 2020 at 4:54 pm

All he has done is what they have done here and our parliament didn’t even vote on the issue. What happened here is disgraceful and just gives cover for other countries to do the same. Pretty soon the whole of Europe will be one giant police state, us included. That is why we left the EU but unfortunately we didn’t leave soon enough or impose the very tight controls on our borders that the majority of people wanted – soon enough.

Not relying on cheap imported foreign labour might cut into big business profits, but it would push up wages for ordinary workers and the cost of free movement of people due to globalisation which has caused the Coronavirus pandemic is now going to cost all of us 100’s of Billions. And it will be ordinary people who will pay – not banks or big business.


1st April 2020 at 6:54 pm

Orban’s emergency powers have no built-in time limit. That is pure dictatorship.

Janos Hideg

2nd April 2020 at 9:11 am

Budapest’s (Liberal) mayor took over running Budapest about two weeks ago in the very same fashion (by decrees and without time limit), which seems to be of little concern for “democrats” – I fail to understand why. Furthermore, the Hungarian parliament has the right to lift the state of emergency any time, and conversely, they could vote on renewal every single week, it would make absolutely no difference, since Orban has a 2/3 majority, and the next elections in Hungary are not due before 2022. So, what would be the point of renewing fortnightly or weekly the state of emergency apart from wasting time, and risking MPs getting infected unnecessarily?

Janos Hideg

1st April 2020 at 4:42 pm

Orban seems to manage this crisis well so far, none of his measures seem to be inadequate or even harsh under the circumstances and compared to the measures of “more democratic” EU countries. In fact, in some resapect Hungarians enjoy more slightly liberties of movement than in some EU states, while Orban appeals more on the self-discipline and common sense of Hungarians rather than on police and other authorities. As he has a good record in crisis management (Hungary’s bankruptcy in of 2009, flood, red-sludge disaster, etc) and governance he simply he enjoys the trust of his county.
Deal with it.

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