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Understanding Hungary’s Authoritarian Response to the Pandemic

Laura Livingston
Tuesday, April 14, 2020, 8:00 AM

The coronavirus has accelerated a decade-long democratic crisis in Hungary, during which Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has weaponized rhetoric and manufactured outside threats to gradually consolidate his power.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in 2015. (European Union 2015, European Parliament; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0,

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In the face of what the U.N. labels “the most challenging crisis since World War II,” governments across the world have introduced sweeping measures purportedly aimed at containing the novel coronavirus. These policies span border closures, enhanced surveillance, dramatic speech and media restrictions, election postponements, and shuttering of legislatures and courts. While some forbearance of civil liberties is reasonable in the face of a grave threat, the pandemic has already served as an opportunity for would-be authoritarians to consolidate the power they have long coveted.

Hungary’s response to the pandemic is especially alarming. On March 30, the Hungarian parliament voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely, giving him dictatorial powers for at least the foreseeable future. Orbán can suspend existing laws or enact new ones—all with de facto parliamentary approval and without a known end date. The law also criminalizes spreading false or distorted facts that interfere with the public safety or are “suitable for alarming or agitating” the public, crimes punishable by several years in prison. Concerningly, this language is vague enough to cover anyone who challenges the government’s preferred narratives and handling of the coronavirus. With lower courts already suspended and the path to the Constitutional Court unclear, it’s difficult to envision the legislation being challenged. As legal sociologist Kim Lane Scheppele writes in the Hungarian Spectrum, Orbán’s “emergency gives him everything he ever dreamed of: The absolute freedom to do what he wants.”

Such sweeping measures did not unfold overnight. For Hungary, the coronavirus has accelerated a decade-long democratic crisis, during which Orbán has gradually consolidated his power and weaponized rhetoric to emphasize an ethnic Hungarian identity, target vulnerable groups, and dismantle the institutions responsible both for protecting those groups and for checking executive power—ultimately transforming Hungary into an illiberal state.

Orbán has gradually remade Hungary in his image since 2010, when his Fidesz party retook a majority in parliament on the heels of the financial crisis and growing anti-establishment sentiment in Hungary. After an initial term as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, Orbán reportedly determined that if he ever came back to power he would not be so easily removed. Upon reclaiming the prime minister’s office, he made good on his word. He packed the judiciary with Fidesz loyalists, redrew the electoral map and changed electoral laws, gave ethnic Hungarians who had never set foot in Hungary voting powers, gutted the civil service, appointed party loyalists to watchdog agencies, consolidated the media and amended the constitution. In the 2015 interim election, however, Fidesz lost its supermajority amid a series of corruption scandals, high unemployment and a proposed internet tax that sparked mass protests—bringing many of Orbán’s legislative reforms to a temporary halt.

In this moment of waning support, Orbán found an opportunity in the refugee crisis. Hungary served as a major crossing point into the EU for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and the Middle East. While few refugees sought to remain in Hungary, Orbán nevertheless weaponized the crisis to create fear and anxiety toward a largely unknown “other.” Deploying the type of rhetoric that has historically been used to justify violence against groups on the basis of their identity, Orbán has succeeded not just in influencing Hungarian opinions toward Muslims and refugees, but also in justifying policies that enfeebled the institutions that protected those groups, including civil society and an already consolidated media—incidentally the few remaining institutional checks on his power.

Orbán invoked the myth of Hungarian victimhood to divide Hungary into an “us” (Christian Hungarians) and a “them” (Muslim refugees and their advocates, including nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] and the EU). He depicted Hungary as having historically existed at the mercy of malevolent outside forces—whether Ottoman, Habsburg, Nazi or Soviet—and as Europe’s “last defense” from “Muslim invaders.” Fashioning himself and Fidesz as Hungary’s protectors who alone could “preserve Hungary for Hungarians,” Orbán cautioned that those fleeing conflict in Syria and the Middle East were not refugees but economic migrants, sent by the Islamic State to bring terror and disease. He warned that these “outsiders” posed an existential threat to a Christian Hungary and were part of a larger plot to “redraw the religious and cultural patterns of Europe.” Measures targeting migrants and refugees (and those who help them) were portrayed as necessary, even praiseworthy actions to protect the Hungarian “way of life, our culture, our customs and our Christian traditions” and to prevent the Hungarian people from “dying out.”

This rhetoric had an impact not on extreme pockets of the Hungarian public but, rather, on society-at-large. Surveys conducted during this mounting anti-migrant campaign found that Hungarians significantly dehumanized Muslim refugees (considering them to be animalistic or less than human), were resistant to refugee resettlement, were generally supportive of anti-refugee policies, and were significantly more willing to petition against refugee aid than for it. Separate polling found that 76 percent of Hungarians believed refugees would increase the chances of terrorism in their country (compared to a median of 59 percent among 10 surveyed countries), while 82 percent of Hungarians believed refugees posed a burden because they take a country’s jobs and social benefits (compared to a median of 50 percent). Further, twice as many Hungarians thought increasing diversity made Hungary “a worse place to live” as thought it improved their country. While prejudice and xenophobia are hardly new in Hungary, the country now ranks even higher on these measures compared to other European countries than it did previously.

Orbán’s rhetoric created a normatively permissive environment to further target refugees and those supporting them. He declared a “state of emergency due to mass migration” in two border regions; erected a 13-foot fence along 110 miles of the southern border; deployed the military—wearing masks to ostensibly protect themselves from disease carried by refugees—to violently patrol the fence using dogs, rubber, bullets, tear gas, and nets; and authorized soldiers to use deadly force if they believed their own lives were endangered. The law expedited the processing of asylum claims, allowing Hungary to dismiss claims more quickly and reject those from applicants who had passed through other countries deemed safe for seeking asylum. The measure also criminalized illegally entering the country, making all refugees in Hungary criminals by virtue of their presence; damaging state property, such as the border fence; and “providing aid to another person for [illegally] crossing state borders,” rendering those NGOs helping refugees in a precarious position facing years in prison.

Even after a dramatic reduction in the number of incoming refugees, Orbán kept the issue alive, and the consolidated, Fidesz-aligned media ensured these narratives went unchallenged in the majority of Hungarian news outlets. The government launched a campaign depicting George Soros, the Hungarian-born Jewish financier and philanthropist, as conspiring with Brussels to “flood” Europe with refugees—complete with billboards showing a smiling Soros with pliers and European politicians ready to tear down the border fence. Combining anti-migrant propaganda with anti-Semitic tropes, Orbán warned Hungarians, “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Levels of anti-Semitism in Hungary rose alongside this rhetoric.

Fidesz reclaimed its constitutional supermajority in the 2018 elections. Armed with what he termed “a mandate to build a new era,” Orbán made good on his rhetoric, taking aim at the engineered threat of Soros, migrants and refugees, and those NGOs and members of civil society who helped them. A “Stop Soros law” criminalized individuals or organizations helping migrants gain status, while a 25 percent tax was imposed on all NGOs that “engage in propaganda activity that portrays immigration in a positive light.” In a largely symbolic move, nearly 500 already pro-government media outlets were “donated” by their owners to a new government-aligned media entity, a measure justified as helping “the survival of the Hungarian written press culture.” The entity streamlined the disbursement of government advertising revenues to friendly outlets and attacks on the few remaining independent outlets. As of 2018, more than 500 Hungarian news outlets were pro-government, compared with just 31 in 2015.

The government also revamped the school curriculum to better reflect “Hungarian values”; created a National Culture Council to ensure that cultural institutes “defend the interests of the nation’s well-being”; and picked a months-long legal battle with Central European University (founded by George Soros and one of the region’s premier universities and migration departments), eventually driving the university to leave Hungary and relocate to Vienna. With the media under his control, a financially besieged and demonized civil society, and co-opted cultural institutions, Orbán had successfully enfeebled the remaining challengers to Fidesz narratives and checks on his power, though the facade of democratic institutions remained.

After years of Orbán manufacturing “outside threats” to consolidate his power, Hungary arrived at the current moment. The government’s initial response to the virus was eerily familiar. Setting in on his usual targets, Orbán depicted the coronavirus as “spreading among foreigners,” declaring that Hungarians are “fighting a two-front war, one front is called migration, and the other one belongs to the coronavirus.” After indefinitely suspending access to border transit areas for asylum-seekers, Hungary declared a state of emergency that restricted the size of gatherings, closed all schools (though initially only universities, due to their high concentration of foreigners), and halted incoming travel from China, Italy, Iran and South Korea. Days later, on the heels of the familiar anti-migrant justifications, the Hungarian parliament introduced the legislation extending the state of emergency and giving Orbán dictatorial powers indefinitely—perhaps hammering the final nail in the coffin for Hungarian democracy.

The pandemic has accelerated Orbán’s decade-long project of crafting his vision for a Christian or “illiberal democracy.” This happened not overnight with tanks in the street or mass violence—but, instead, gradually, through rhetoric and laws that turned Hungary into a shell of its former democratic self and created the means and the normative environment for groups to be targeted.

So what is next for Hungary? Those stakeholders traditionally best positioned to make change—civil society and the media—have endured years of sustained attacks. The EU’s promise to maintain regional democracy has already fallen short in the face of Orban’s ongoing power grabs, with prior EU efforts to sanction Orbán producing little tangible impact. Thus far, 13 member states have expressed “deep concern” that “certain emergency measures” risk violating the rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen expressed “particular concern about the situation in Hungary.” Consistent with his past responses to such efforts, Orbán has depicted these statements as frivolous interferences in Hungary’s national affairs.

The dual crises of public health and economic downturn create an environment in which publics may be especially willing to forego certain rights and liberties in the interest of protecting themselves and their families. Amid the curtailment of these rights, there is much to learn not just from Hungary’s response to the pandemic but from all that preceded it—the rhetoric targeting outsiders, the consolidation of power, and the accompanying legal policies that dismantled the institutions once prioritized as the cornerstones of liberal democracy.

For those who care about democracy around the world, this is a moment to support those within Hungary facing these draconian measures. And as governments pursue border closures, enhanced surveillance, and the shuttering of institutional checks in the name of protecting countries from this “outside virus,” Hungary should serve as a cautionary tale.

Laura Livingston is Regional Director, Europe at Over Zero, an organization that supports community leaders, civil society organizations, and researchers to create long-term societal resilience to violence. She has a background in the intersection of governance, conflict, and peacebuilding, and has advised related civil society initiatives in the Balkans, East Africa, and the MENA region. Laura received her JD from the Georgetown University Law Center.

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