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Pandemic of Populism: Rule of Law in Hungary

Bella Di Mattina

As those of us in Australia scrutinize the Coronavirus tracking app, spare a thought for those in Hungary, the central European country known for its democratic backsliding.[1] Earlier in April, the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban passed laws allowing him to rule by emergency decree—indefinitely.[2] It’s not the first decision Orban has made in his fight against liberal rule of law, but until now there was some cause for hope. We can only speculate what this latest move means for Hungarians persecuted under Orban’s repressive regime.

In the past years, multinational Non-Governmental Organisations and intergovernmental organisations have decried Orban’s alleged ‘democratic backsliding’, which he argues are essential for the Hungarian community. His moves have included severe gerrymandering,[3] constitutional amendments, stacking constitutional courts with allies,[4] and allowing cronies to slowly buy up the Hungarian press.[5] This has all resulted in attaining a ‘supermajority,’ which ensures constitutional amendments pass parliament without any scrutiny. Orban sees his power plays differently—as an ‘illiberal democracy’ which prioritizes the Hungarian community over the European Union (EU) interests.[6] This explains why his reforms have hit Hungarian minorities—refugees, Roma, and the LGBT community—particularly hard. He has rallied against the refugee crisis and used it to draw support for his racist views. Dismantling every check and balance available in order to dismantle Hungarian rule of law, institutions such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Freedom House have been sounding the alarm since his leadership began in 2010.

The “Draft Law on Protecting Against Coronavirus” extends the state of emergency and accentuates Orban’s already authoritarian powers, removing the last semblances of checks and balances. It allows Orban to suspend any existing laws or create new ones that will receive the de facto approval of the parliament.[7] It also suspends all potential by-elections and centralises power which was previously in the hands of more moderate mayors. These changes include laws to punish those who ‘distort the truth’ with prison time. The removal of press freedoms has caused particular concern, with doctors at underfunded public hospitals now afraid to speak to Hungarian journalists.[8] Overall, the laws prevent any dissent to Orban’s reign, either from the parliament, courts, executive, or the press.

The laws have also continued the persecution of minorities in Hungary, and prevented positive changes from reaping rewards. One of the first new laws under Orban’s extended state of emergency prohibits changes to birth certificates for transgender Hungarians.[9] His rescinding of mayoral powers will have a particular impact in District 6, a quarter in Budapest with colourful demography, which recently elected a pro-democracy pro-LGBT mayor.[10] The election was considered one of the first gains against Orban and his party, Fidesz. Further elections of democrats at a local level are now completely inhibited by Orban’s state of emergency. This means that small local gains made in past elections cannot be repeated any time soon.

This democratic backsliding—part of a wider challenge facing many central and eastern EU member states—has finally led to some decisive action in Brussels. It currently faces proceedings under Article 7 of the EU Treaty for deviating from the core values of the EU— values which are highly scrutinised and are a condition of entry to the EU. The result of Article 7 could mean the suspension of some EU member rights. Hungary also faces continual denigration in the media, from the EU’s powerful member states such as Germany and France, and from European Parliament parties such as the Greens, Renew Europe, and the Socialists and Democrats. With Orban’s view of European solidarity and liberalism as a counter to Hungarian interests, it is doubtful such attacks will stop his steamrolling of Hungarian rule of law or the denigration of minority rights.


[1] Matthijs Bogaards, “De-democratization in Hungary: diffusely defective democracy” (2018) Democratization 25(8) 1481 - 1499.

[2] Shaun Walker and Jennifer Rankin, “Hungary passes law that will let Orbán rule by decree” (The Guardian Online, 31 March 2020).

[3] Transparency International, “Hungary’s Elections: free but not fair” (Web page, 4 April 2014)

[4] Amnesty International, "Hungary: Fearing the Unknown - How Rising Control Is Undermining Judicial Independence in Hungary" (Web page, 6 April 2020)

[5] Amnesty International, “State media censors Amnesty and HRW” (Web page, 29 November 2019)

[6] Yasmeen Serhan “The EU Watches as Hungary Kills Democracy” (The Atlantic, 2 April 2020)

[7] Ibid.

[8] “If we got anonymous testimony from doctors and nurses working in hospitals we would verify and publish. But now even if we know the information accurate, we have to think again as we don’t want to be accused of ‘distorting’ facts.” Jamie Wiseman, “Crisis Point: Covid-19 intensifies challenge for independent media in Hungary” (International Press Institute, 18 May 2020)

[9] Krisztina Kolos Orban, “Orban is using coronavirus to do what he's always wanted – deny trans people their rights” (The Independent, 1 May 2020)

[10] Valerie Hopkins, “Viktor Orban suffers blow in Budapest’s mayoral election” (Financial Times, 14 October 2019)

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