On March 30, in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Hungary’s parliament passed a law allowing the nationalist government to rule by decree. International news outlets and commentators were quick to interpret the move as the final nail in Hungary’s moribund democracy. The trouble with this assertion is that Hungary ceased to be a functioning democracy long before the current crisis. Viktor Orbán has de facto ruled by decree for 10 years now. The legislature functions as a rubber-stamp parliament, with ruling Fidesz party MPs passing motions without substantial debate—in the dead of the night, if necessary—and the president quickly signing them into law.
The experience of living in a Potemkin democracy and the understanding that most of Orbán’s grand moves should be viewed as political theater has informed domestic reactions to the latest emergency. Most commentary on social media suggests that Hungarians feel that there’s little that Orbán can do now, under the new law, that he couldn’t already do before. (One exception is the newly introduced jail terms for spreading misinformation about the pandemic that can now be used to silence critics.) Pundits argued that Orbán’s primary aim was to entrap the opposition with impossible conditions, such as refusing to include an expiration date on the state of emergency, so that opposition parties will be compelled to vote against its extension, and Orbán can cast them as unpatriotic for seeking to obstruct his efforts to protect the nation.
The struggle to control the narrative is clearly a key preoccupation of governments of all stripes at the moment, so this argument carries weight. And, as countries from China to India to the U.S. demonstrate, the current crisis is clearly opportune for nationalist strongmen looking to amass symbolic capital by demonstrating forceful leadership.
But there is more than just politics at play. The government’s bowing to public pressure to close schools and its backtracking on a decision to strip elected mayors of autonomy after pressure from Fidesz’s own mayors suggests that public opinion is less controllable and otherwise loyal party cadres less reliable in moments of crisis. Foreign and domestic commentators have both underplayed the prospect of the government losing its grip on public opinion and/or its own MPs. These possibilities are all the more plausible given that Orbán has opted to pursue an unorthodox strategy to address the crisis.
Hungary’s response to the crisis so far diverges from the European mainstream, both in terms of its limited financial commitment and the anti-egalitarian thrust of its measures. While on April 7 the national bank and the government joined other European countries in announcing cheap credit and tax holidays for companies, to date Hungary has done far less than regional counterparts to protect jobs, and has been even less generous towards citizens and local municipalities. Although 4,000 Hungarians are losing their jobs every day—a large number in a country of 10 million—the government has done nothing yet to help them besides freezing the payment of private mortgages. It has refused to increase the duration of unemployment insurance, which citizens can only access for 90 days (the shortest duration in the EU), or to raise the universal family allowance (which has remained frozen at around 40 euros per child since 2008). And instead of rushing to support municipalities that have been flooded by requests for urgent social assistance, the government stripped them of further revenues.
Hungary’s approach stems both from Fidesz’s long-term goal of reducing state debt—limiting Hungary’s exposure to foreign creditors and avoiding a repeat of its predecessor’s “IMF fiasco”—as well as the social model it has built: the “work-based society” that Orbán portrayed as an alternative to the West European welfare state. Offering “free money” to the unemployed would, in Orbán’s view, be tantamount to reinforcing a culture of deservingness.
In sum, Orbán is not prepared to offer a rescue package on par with the economic and social toll of the pandemic. And he is determined to uphold the country’s exploitative “growth machine”—a combination of small taxes, rampant deregulation and what we could call an increasingly downsized illfare state—that is the most important source of his legitimacy. Orbán’s defense, that “there is no free money,” appears especially cynical in light of the fact that loyal oligarchs, who have received billions of euros in European and state subsidies, have been exempted from the special taxes which the government is imposing on banks, supermarket chains and political parties to (partially) finance crisis mitigation measures. This ruthless Social Darwinism been masked with Orbán’s counterfactual promise to “leave no Hungarian behind.”
Considered in this light, the new emergency legislation appears as a strategic move to cushion the executive as much as possible from shifts in public opinion and pressure from elected politicians. More particularly, the move allows Orbán to address three risks.
First, it eliminates the risk of losing his parliamentary supermajority in a period of crisis—something that could happen if just one or two Fidesz MPs fell sick. The loss of his supermajority would be perceived as a sign of Orbán’s weakness and it could also sow confusion among his supporters. It would also mean that Fidesz would have to rely on the opposition to amend key legislation, potentially undermining Orbán’s carefully crafted image as the nation’s savior.
Second, rule by decree erases the possibility of MPs influencing policy. One particularly acute problem the government faces is that the grand narratives it has advanced, to project the image of a nation besieged by refugees and the unholy alliance of George Soros and the European Commission (see my and Anna Szilagyi’s forthcoming article on anti-Soros conspiracism in the U.S. and Hungary in the spring issue of The Public Eye), have lost much of their resonance in the current crisis. Although in the early days of the pandemic Orbán tried to connect COVID-19 to Muslim immigration, it soon became clear that the main sources of risk were not Iranian students but Hungarians returning from Italy and Austria. The weakening power of propaganda means that public opinion is less controllable and more erratic than before, increasing the probability of public demands for relief and other policies that go against Fidesz’s socio-economic doctrine. Cutting MPs out of the picture doesn’t eradicate this risk, but it does mitigate it.
Finally, the state of emergency offers a legal avenue to introduce truly exceptional measures should they become necessary. If the crisis lasts, it could bring Hungary’s export-dependent economy to its knees. In such a situation, Orbán now has the option of deploying police and the military to maintain public order and prevent mass looting or protest, instead of opening the state’s coffers to those in need.
This would, of course, amount to a massive slide towards authoritarianism, even by Hungarian standards. But it would be in line with the gradual move towards institutional authoritarianism, which has weakened the political and civic opposition and allowed Fidesz to overcome political crises and dissent already. Ruling by decree could thus help Fidesz sustain its Social Darwinist socio-economic model, which it has been building since 2010, while allowing Orbán to fend off the kind of popular revolt that has taken down other governments in the past.