It was two months ago that Viktor Orbán got his special powers bill passed in Parliament, which allowed him to essentially establish an absolutistic rule. Ever since, the Hungarian public has been hotly debating the issue whether Orbán will give up his special powers or not.
I don’t believe this matter has any significant importance any more. The damage is already done.
Ever since early May, Viktor Orbán’s special powers act has triggered fierce debates in Hungary, Europe and even worldwide. As of writing this article, we are preparing for the European Parliament’s debate on the Hungarian situation. Such a high-key debate should come as no surprise because it’s quite unusual for any government to request unlimited special powers for an indefinite period of time.
In fact, what happened in the Hungarian National Assembly is totally unprecedented in the post-WW2 history of democratic European countries.
You don’t need to be a fervent admirer of authoritarian regimes to understand that you might encounter emergency situations that require extraordinary decision-making mechanisms and outstanding speed, which may temporarily entail a certain degree of power concentration. In itself, this realization is not incongruous with the concept of democracy, that’s why the constitutions of most democratic states contain such a potential mandate and several European governments actually used it this spring (while several others thought it would too much and dropped the idea). However, most countries set specific time limitations for such special powers along with strict post-emergency accountability because these two measures prevent crisis management from turning into authoritarian rule, and the democratic debate is just delayed but not eliminated.
This was an unquestionable, essential guideline for European governments. Those who took on the special powers did so under such parliaments which, due to their party political relations and composition, are quite able to hold them to account in terms of lawful operation. In addition, the governing and opposition parties of these countries gave a helping hand to each other for the time being and decided to reduce the tension so they could work together.
The outstanding example of this attitude was the Netherlands, where the PM invited an opposition politician to replace the resigned health minister who collapsed during a parliamentary debate on account of utter exhaustion.
Well, Hungary’s government did send a message, too, but it was something completely different. What Fidesz communicated to the opposition parties and the desperate citizens was this: nobody cares about you, your opinions or your fears; everything will go our way. There weren’t even any feeble attempts to create trust. On the contrary, Viktor Orbán, right from the beginning, kept intensifying the distrust between the governing parties and the opposition as well as among the general public. We can very well remember the highly treasonous statements coming from Fidesz circles, when they said the virus is spread by opposition-leaning citizens or the inhabitants of opposition-leaning cities.
Fitting into this pattern, the Parliament’s pro-government majority passed the special powers act, which is extraordinary in form and content alike: it contains no specific temporal limitation at a time when Fidesz has a massive majority in the national assembly so it solely depends on the governing party and its president whether or not these special powers are returned to the Parliament. Furthermore, the act also contained some provisions that may give room for abuse in terms of free speech. (We’ve just seen the outcome the other day when the police knocked on two people’s doors on account of harmless Facebook posts.)
Will or won’t he give it back?
Surprisingly enough, there were some opposition voices urging the opposition parties to grant Orbán the special powers because, as they suggested, it was a political trap and the PM will most probably give up his special powers in the end, which will eventually put the opposition in a bad light. I found this idea odd even back at the time and, having seen the events since then, I don’t believe it is justified. There are several reasons for that.
The first is the formal aspect of the act. No, democratic countries do not grant their governments unlimited special powers for unlimited time. Neither as a joke, nor out of political calculation. Agreeing to it would have been a spit in the voters’ face and a complicit assistance to the holders of power. I find it odd and can only put it down to the absurdity of the Hungarian political sphere that some people believe it is tolerable. No other European government asked for or got such powers, no wonder politicians and analysts “marvel” at the latest achievement of Fidesz’ authoritarianism.
It was not a trap; it was a blatant attack on the rights of the Hungarian people, and no responsible politician or public figure can assist to that.
What does it help if Orbán perhaps gives up his special rights one day?
Secondly, it soon became clear that they don’t wish to revoke some parts of the act, for example, the heavily criticized provisions on free speech; they would remain a part of our law later on, too. So from now on, all we can debate is what share of our lost rights would Orbán perhaps give back.
Thirdly, Fidesz politicians did exactly what could be expected of them. I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t use their powers to manage the pandemic. Instead, they used them to undermine the operation of opposition-led cities, conduct shady deals to transfer real estates to their buddies, classify suspicious contracts, put their hands on private companies with military force, take action against independent theatres and intimidate people in general. Instead of making Hungary a more efficient country with a lower COVID-19 damage, the PM’s special powers just made our state even more corrupt and miserable.
The fourth reason is all the above three combined.
Although I think Viktor Orbán and the current Fidesz leaders are far, far too petty to give up such a convenient power, but even if they did so, it would not change what happened here.
As a matter of fact, Fidesz may as well give up the special powers, but it will not alleviate the damage done. With all its might, Fidesz kicked away the opportunity for a more normal, cooperative political sphere which was, bizarrely enough, brought on by the outbreak of the epidemic. While other governments used the opportunity to build trust, Orbán intensified the climate of distrust and fear by turning up the anti-Soros and anti-Brussels campaigns a notch.
The bad news for him is that no political setting lasts forever.
In critical times when the chips may fall either way, all government politicians can feel the pressure. And if they have to leave the power positions, the manner in which they exit matters a whole lot for both the country and the particular leader. In situations like that wise politicians relieve the tension whereas a power-drugged politician intensifies it because he thinks he can escape forward by doing so. History shows that the first group tends to have a much more peaceful life afterwards. You are all free to draw your own conclusions.
This is a translation of the article originally published in Hungarian here:
If there is anything that all Europeans can be proud of regardless of their nationality, origin or identity, it is most certainly the rule of law, transparency, access to legal representation and equality before the law. We can be proud of how our continent has been governed by these principles for centuries and, even if an aggressive regime has occasionally been able to drag its country away from them, we could always find our way back to them eventually. On the other hand, there has always been another system lurking at the frontiers of Europe, ready to spread its untransparent and self-interested laws – let’s call it tribalism, clan mentality or mafia. Weak monarchs or governments have been known to give in to or at least co-exist with the mafia or the oligarchs but strong leaders and strong societies refused to tolerate them.
For a long time, we may have thought that the European Union was such a strong community since we have heard so much about its values and strict but fair laws. We Hungarians had long been hoping to become a member of this alliance because we thought that its norms and regulations would protect us once and for all from the backward forces that have regularly attempted to drive our Central European country to another, Asian road. In short, we thought we would be protected from the political mafia, the oligarchs, the obscure informal networks and the consequent vulnerability, weakness and general social deprivation.
This is the English translation of my op-ed published in HVG on 24 June, 2020.
Tragically enough, Serbia’s political system is probably the closest to Hungary’s at the moment. No wonder Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić is such a great pal for Viktor Orbán. They are an odd couple: while Orbán’s long and winding road took him from a Soros-funded liberal to a pseudo-nationalist dictator, Aleksandar Vučić worked as propaganda minister for Slobodan Milošević, one of the bloodiest dictators in the second half of the 20th century. Yes, he worked for the same Serbian dictator who razed half of the Balkans to the ground, had thousands of people murdered and viscerally hated Hungarians, by the way. This is the man who Orbán keeps running to, even during a pandemic. It should come as no surprise since today’s Serbia is similar to us in many aspects: party membership is the way to climb up the social ladder, the free press is harassed and opposition thinkers are intimidated while young people leave the country en masse. Just like in Hungary.
Parliamentary elections held in Serbia last weekend did not hold too many surprises for those familiar with recent political developments in the small Balkan republic. In an election originally announced for 26 April but postponed amid the coronavirus pandemic, Alaksandar Vučić’s populist right-wing Serbia Progressive Party (SNS) snatched over 60 percent of the vote and some 190 mandates in the 250-seat Skupština, the Serbian parliament. The dominance of SNS is further underlined by the fact that virtually all real opposition parties dropped out of parliament regardless of parliamentary threshold cut down to 3 percent prior to the elections. Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party scoring second place with just over 10 percent of the vote functions more like a satellite organization in a permanent governing coalition with the SNS. Thus, the strongest and only opposition party in the Serbian parliament will be the novel formation of Aleksandar Šapić, barely scraping through the threshold.