Last Monday, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, went to the plenary session of the country’s parliament to pass the “Draft Law on Protecting Against Coronavirus.” Two weeks earlier, on March 11th, when the official count of COVID-19 cases in Hungary stood at thirteen, and sixty-nine people were in quarantine, the country had declared a state of emergency that banned incoming travel from China, South Korea, Italy, and Iran and limited indoor gatherings to fewer than a hundred people. The new proposal sought to extend the state of emergency, and included a number of new measures that the Prime Minister now deemed necessary: the spread of “distorted truths” or breaking isolation orders would be punishable with prison time; the Prime Minister could suspend any existing laws or create any new ones as desired; and any of these new laws, so long as they were enacted while the emergency was in place, would receive the de-facto approval of parliament. Despite the extreme demands of the bill, even the typically wary opposition appeared willing to vote for it—as long as it had an expiration date. “All they were insisting was that this be ninety days, which is a long time to be governed by decree,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a professor of sociology at Princeton, told me. But Orbán, who was adamant that the extension be indefinite, refused. “He would not bend on that—in fact, he was most insistent on that point,” Scheppele said. “So this is not designed for the near-term.”
Scheppele is one of few Western scholars who can both read Hungarian and navigate the country’s legal system. She has known Orbán since the early nineteen-nineties, when, as a young academic, she worked in Hungary for several years, researching the court system in the post-Soviet nation. At the time, Orbán was a young member of the new Hungarian parliament, and he’d let Scheppele tag along as an observer on some of his earliest political events. Since Orbán became Prime Minister, in 2010, Scheppele has devoted some of her spare time to tracking his legal moves, which tend to be both clever and cunning: she followed his work as he packed the courts, gerrymandered parliamentary districts, changed the constitution, and assisted wealthy allies in buying up media outlets, asserting control over the flow of public information. He also solidified his grasp on a two-thirds supermajority in the parliament, earning the nickname the Viktator. Last week, he used that supermajority to push through the bill extending the state of emergency. On the evening that it passed, Scheppele and I spoke in a Zoom session. From her home outside Princeton, New Jersey, she told me, “Once you learn his handwriting, how to recognize his legal handiwork, you can see that this is definitely an Orbán thing. The only parts you can make sense of, if you’re not a lawyer, are the two changes to the criminal law. He almost always does this—he puts up a decoy.”
The changes to the criminal code that Scheppele was referring to are still worrisome. Anyone who publicizes a “falsehood” that “obstructs or prevents successful protection” from the disease can be punished with up to five years in prison. Anyone who interferes with the “implementation of epidemiological isolation” may land in prison for five years, and possibly eight if a person dies as a result. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the move, and there is already concern among the Hungarian press that the measure will have a chilling effect on doctors. There were reports that hospital employees were afraid to speak with Hungarian journalists in mere anticipation of the bill’s passage.
But Scheppele believes that, dangerous as these changes may be, the more arcane parts of the law may prove worse. “It took me a lot of cross-referencing, trying to figure out what’s the effect of doing this, that, and the other thing,” she said. There’s a section that says, basically, that anything Orbán has done and will continue to do under the state of emergency is automatically stated in law without the normal sunset clause. “There are thirty-one decrees that Orbán has issued that the parliament has now given its permanent approval to,” Scheppele said. For example, Orbán has ruled that only people over the age of sixty-five may be in grocery stores between 9 A.M. and noon, that all restaurants must suspend sit-down service, that small companies must have their rent frozen, and that loan payments are suspended. These are all, in many ways, sensible measures for a government to take during a pandemic. But observers are concerned that more draconian changes may come later. In the meantime, normal parliamentary procedures continue. In the past week, the parliament has passed measures to make it illegal for transgender people to change their birth records, and to classify information about Chinese funding for the national railway.
During the past ten years, Orbán has championed a concept that he calls “illiberal democracy,” which he developed during a post-2008 period of reforms in reaction to the excesses of the liberal financial and economic system. He also gave his concept a cultural veneer. With a keen talent for reading the moment, Orbán asserted that liberalism was a cruel system and that his version of democracy prioritized the good of the community—and, after a surge in refugee arrivals in 2015, the “European” culture of that community. According to his liberal critics, Orbán has invented a new kind of authoritarian system that maintains the appearances of a democracy while ceasing to function as one. When the draft law passed, last Monday, many proclaimed that his Reichstag moment had arrived.
But that kind of formulation may obscure the more insidious nature of what Orbán is up to. “I generally find the ‘dictatorship’ takes both wrong and unhelpful,” Zselyke Csaky, the research director for Europe and Eurasia at Freedom House, told me. “I’m concerned about what the long-term impact of this will be, not the immediate implications.” Csaky worries that Orbán, while appearing to address a public-health crisis, will continue to wage war against independent media outlets and opposition parties covertly. “It will be difficult to raise the alarm when actual changes take place, and that will inevitably happen if the crisis drags on,” she said. Hungary’s hospital system is notoriously underfunded and decrepit, lacking both medical and nonmedical resources, which is why George Soros, despite being demonized by Orbán, has donated a million euros to the pandemic response in his home country. “If things get bad, if the health-care system gets overwhelmed, I can see this going both ways,” Csaky said. “They can get buy-in for an actual crackdown, or things can spiral out of control and it can be difficult for them to avoid blame anymore. After all, they’ve overseen the complete degradation of the health system.”
Balázs Hidvéghi, a former spokesman for Orbán’s Fidesz party and a member of the European Parliament, dismissed criticisms from international media and members of the E.U. Hungary’s response to the crisis would depend not only on the government’s preparations, he said, but also on getting Hungarians to understand the gravity of the situation and securing their coöperation quickly. “In a situation like this—and, really, the world has not been in a situation like this for a long time—decisive action, and decisive action in time, and the implementation of decisions, is crucial,” Hidvéghi told me over the phone, from Budapest. “One thing that the terrible events in Italy show is that, if governments are late, then this situation can very quickly get out of control.” Hidvéghi denied that the draft law’s open-endedness was problematic. “Who is able today in the world to tell for sure when this pandemic will end?” he said. “When the situation will be at a point that life can get back to normal, either immediately or step by step?” The parliament, he pointed out, remains in session. “And, at any time that it sees fit, it can end this situation.”