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Budapest Dreams

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U.S. Department of State / Public domain

So the Hungarian parliament just gave dictatorial power to everyone’s favorite example of democratic backsliding, Victor Orbán.

Hungary’s parliament handed Prime Minister Viktor Orban the right to rule by decree indefinitely, effectively putting the European Union democracy under his sole command for as long as he sees fit.

While governments around the world assume emergency powers to fight the coronavirus, locking down all aspects of every-day life and shutting borders, few democracies have given their governments such latitude without an end date.

Hungary’s ruling party lawmakers overrode the objections of the opposition in a vote on Monday, handing Orban the right to bypass the assembly on any law. The Constitutional Court, which Orban has stacked with loyalists, will be the main body capable of reviewing government actions.

The emergency-rule law “poses no threat to democracy,” Orban told lawmakers after the vote. His detractors didn’t agree.

“I don’t know of another democracy where the government has effectively asked for a free hand to do anything for however long,” said Renata Uitz, director of the comparative constitutional-law program at Central European University in Budapest

Even if this doesn’t turn out to be the literal end of Hungarian democracy, these powers allow Orbán – who already has turned to Hungary into a “soft” hybrid regime – to even further consolidate power. The authorities at stake are genuine “state of exception” stuff, comparable to the Enabling Act that allowed the Nazis to end the Weimar Republic.

The new law allows Mr Orbán to rule by decree, alone and unchallenged. The prime minister will be able to override all existing legislation. Elections will not take place. Information on government actions will be provided to the speaker of the Hungarian parliament and the leaders of parliamentary groups.

The spreading of “false” information that could lead to social unrest and prevent the “protection of the public” will become a crime punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. Some of Mr Orbán’s cheerleaders in the media have already suggested approvingly that this provision could lead to the arrest of critical journalists.

There are well-grounded fears that these powers will be used to further exert and extend the government’s grip on the institutions of Hungarian civil society, and cast critics of government policy as unpatriotic at a time of national crisis. The decision as to when the current emergency is over will be in the hands of Mr Orbán’s Fidesz MPs. A compliant parliament may eventually choose to make permanent some of the arrangements introduced in the context of a global health crisis. “Emergency” measures introduced in 2016 to restrict the rights of asylum seekers are still in place.

There are indications that this is mostly about political survival; the government is doing a poor job of handing the pandemic, which remains at a very early stage in the country. In other words, Orbán has got to be worried that COVID-19 represents the kind of “shock” that might actually threaten his grip on power. Meanwhile, other Central and Eastern European governments are considering a similar route.

Because LGM is primarily about US politics, I would be remiss in not reminding everyone that Orbán is the darling of the new conservative intelligentsia, who love him for defending “traditional values” against decadent liberalism. He’s particular popular with the new integralists – who, to be honest, are more or less are the new conservative intelligentsia. Don Moynihan has more over on Twitter.

As I commented, for many of these people Orbán’s authoritarianism isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. They want the strong hand of a powerful leader to drive feminism, “drag queen story hour”, and other supposed corruptions from the public sphere.

And in case you think this is just about some professors at Harvard or Notre Dame, I’d like to remind you of the existence of William Barr.

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