Acton Institute Powerblog

FAQ: Did Viktor Orbán just become a dictator?

On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a law aimed at combating the coronavirus, which gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the power to rule by decree. Critics warn this law gives the prime minister dictatorial powers and could allow him to suppress opposition media outlets. Here are the facts you need to know.

Did the government already have these powers?

This bill significantly strengthens the powers the prime minister has. The Fundamental Law of Hungary already allows the government to declare a state of emergency. This allows him to “suspend the application of certain Acts, derogate from the provisions of Acts, and take other extraordinary measures” including ruling by decrees that can take effect without parliamentary authorization. However, these decrees automatically lapse after 15 days if members of the National Assembly do not vote to extend them. The Fundamental Law states:

Article 53

(1) In the event of a natural disaster or industrial accident endangering life and property, or in order to mitigate its consequences, the Government shall declare a state of danger, and may introduce extraordinary measures laid down in a cardinal Act.

(2) In a state of danger, the Government may adopt decrees by means of which it may, as provided for by a cardinal Act, suspend the application of certain Acts, derogate from the provisions of Acts and take other extraordinary measures.

(3) The decrees of the Government referred to in paragraph (2) shall remain in force for fifteen days, unless the Government, on the basis of authorisation by the National Assembly, extends those decrees.

(4) Upon the termination of the state of danger, such decrees of the Government shall cease to have effect.

Earlier this month, PM Orbán issued Government Decree number 40/2020, which declares a national emergency over the spread of COVID-19. Those who break the national lockdown will be fined €1400 (500,000 forints); however, the decree allows citizens to go out for haircuts and manicures. The government said it needed to lengthen this period to effectively fight the global pandemic.

What does the new bill do?

This law gives the government the authority to take all measures it deems “necessary and proportional” to “prevent, manage, and eradicate the epidemic and to avoid and mitigate its effects.” From this point forward, all decrees will continue indefinitely, with a few caveats (see below).

The government must inform the National Assembly, or its speaker and parliamentary groups, about each action.

All national elections are canceled until the government rescinds the state of emergency.

The law also makes two permanent changes to criminal law. One would make obstructing government orders on the coronavirus an offense punishable by three years in prison. A Hungarian news source notes this can be extended to “1-5 years if perpetrated collectively, 2-8 years if it results in death. Even preparation [to violate government orders] is punishable by a year in prison.”

The bill also punishes what it deems false news reporting about the status of COVID-19 in the nation. It states, “Anyone who, under a special legal order, in public, utters or spreads statements known to be false or statements distorting true facts shall be punishable by imprisonment between one to five years if done in a manner capable of hindering or derailing the effectiveness of the response effort.” Critics fear the statute’s vague wording can be used to imprison the government’s political foes.

Are there any checks on this power?

The government’s new powers are not entirely unbounded.

First, the constitution states that “the application of the Fundamental Law may not be suspended, and the operation of the Constitutional Court may not be restricted,” even during a national emergency.

Second, the National Assembly can reverse these powers. Under the Fundamental Law, technically only the government can order or cancel a state of emergency. Parliament can rescind the powers granted by this bill at any time, before or after Orbán cancels the “state of danger.” However, it requires a two-thirds vote from MPs. That happens to be “exactly the majority held by ruling party Fidesz,” notes Human Rights Watch, “meaning ultimately it’s Orbán’s decision.”

Finally, the Constitutional Court—which will is “allowed to hold meetings using electronic means of communications” if necessary—can review any decree, if requested by the government itself or one-quarter of MPs. Opposition parties could work together to muster that number.

How long could the emergency last?

“Temporary” powers granted during national emergencies tend to take on a life of their own. Opposition MPs point out that the government has not canceled extraordinary powers it enacted in response to 2015’s migrant crisis has not yet been dropped. This problem is by no means restricted to Hungary: 31 of the 58 national emergencies declared by the U.S. government remain in effect—the oldest dating to 1979!

How has the opposition reacted?

The measure has drawn strong opposition, nationally and internationally. The leader of Hungary’s Jobbik Party, Péter Jakab, described the bill’s passage a “coup” and the beginning of an Orbán “kingship.”

International condemnation has been swift. The Civil Liberties Committee of European Parliament called on Hungary to “ensure that fundamental rights, rule of law and democratic principles are protected.” The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE) warned of the “great risk that the new regulation will not so much penalize the disseminators of harmful disinformation but instead make the work of independent journalism more difficult.” The Council of Europe wrote Orbán a letter stating, “An indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed.”

Senator Bernie Sanders has also tweeted his opposition.

How has the Hungarian government responded?

During legislative debate, promised MPs, When this emergency ends, we will give back all powers, without exception.” Hungarian President János Áder insisted that the government’s powers will be “limited to the prevention, management, eradication and reduction of the adverse effects of the epidemic.” Orbán replied to the Council of Europe in a terse letter, “If you are not able to help us in the current crisis, at least please refrain from hindering our defensive efforts.”

Will these powers be exploited politically?

Likely. EuroNews’ reporter for Hungary, Sándor Zsíros, has stated he believes Fidesz will use the new powers to harm opposition parties’ prospects in the 2022 elections. “So in my own interpretation we should not be afraid of the looming dictature [sic] in Hungary,” he wrote. “But playing this game in a real crisis situation, instead of reaching out for a political unity? That’s another question that needs to [be] answered.”

Does this law pose a threat to opposition media?

A media site close to Fidesz has already asked if the law should apply to Zoltán Kész, a former independent member of the National Assembly. (Kész has also written for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic.) He posted a social media message that he knew of a hospital that lacked sufficient resources to fight the coronavirus, a charge the hospital publicly denied. “[T]he crime of spreading terror news, which can reasonably be asked in connection with the above posts, may be punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment,” the website noted. Kész has responded that he can prove all of his statements, and “I will not live in fear.”

What is the chief threat to opposition media in Hungary?

Freedom House notes that two media outlets critical of the government have shut down, because Orbán’s government removed taxpayer funding:

Magyar Nemzet and Lánchíd Rádió suffered financial losses after losing state advertising revenue. HírTV, which Simicska sold off in 2018, saw a subsequent shift in its editorial line under its new owners. … Individuals have the right to own property and establish private businesses. However, the recent difficulties of business owners who have fallen out of favor with the government illustrate the extent to which success depends on government connections.

(Photo credit: European People’s Party. This photo has been cropped. Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson

Rev. Ben Johnson is Executive Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.