Viktor Orbán has become the perfect personification of a far-right populist leader. With his party Fidesz and an always present legislative majority, Orbán has reshaped the Hungarian democracy during the last decades. While there have been massive reforms taking place in Hungary over the last decade of Orbán´s stay, in legal terms, the most influential took place during his 2nd term. The changes in the fundamental law of Hungary are the biggest threat to its democracy. While the actions of this leader have alarmed other leaders, including the EU, for years, COVID 19 provided Orbán the opportunity to seize even more power.
Legally, possibly the most influential impact of Orbán’s rule in Hungary was the adoption of a new constitution. The legal path taken was truly interesting. As mentioned before, after the election of 2010, Orbán became Prime Minister for the second time and Fidesz took 68% of the seats in the National Assembly. This supermajority allowed them to basically write the Fundamental Law of Hungary, which entered into force in 2012. This new constitution is now openly Chirsitan and protective of “Hungarian identity and territory”, reflecting the strong nationalism of Orbán and Fidezs.
Along the major changes, the judicial system completely reshaped, including the structure of the Judicial Council in Hungary and the system of appointment and removal of judges, which brings into question the country’s rule of law. The EU has considered conditioning funds to the country if judicial independence is not ensured. Another crucial aspect of Hungary that was reshaped by Orbán’s new constitution are the electoral rules. These now favor the electoral majority by assigning more seats in the National Assembly providing Fidesz with even more power. Finally, the media has also been heavily regulated, not only by the new constitution but by a Media Law passed in 2010. This law was deemed the most restrictive in Europe, allowing fines for “unbalanced” journalism.
All these moves, which look quite authoritarian, made it extremely easy for Orbán to further consolidate power. While these sorts of maneuvers are no strangers to other regions like Latin America, they surprisingly happened within the European Union.
What about the EU
While he does check most boxes of far-right populist, Orbán is not specifically eurosceptic. Many describe him more as nationalist than Eurosceptic. However, he does reject certain aspects of the Union. It is not about the economic aspect, as it is for other eurosceptics, but about ideology, as Orbán preaches a “conservative mantra”. In his view, Brussels is “envious” of Hungary´s success and too committed to left-liberal ideals, which he views as the opposition.
However, the EU does seem to have a bit of a problem with Orbán. For example, a proposed reform in 2018 of the judicial system was blocked by Brussels. Not directly, but through conditioning of funds. Here is where Orbán´s skepticisms ends. Economically, Hungary cannot complain, as millions come from the EU making it the second largest receiver of subsidies. However, complaints from the EU are not rare. Brussels has been very critical of the exorbitant powers the new emergency law gave to Orbán, with MEPs expressing concern over the impact of the law on the Hungarian democracy as they have done before.
Expansion of Power due to COVID 19
As the state of the Hungarian democracy worries the international community, COVID 19 does not help. At first, Orbán took the same path as Trump and Bolsanaro in dismissing the virus as a simple flu refusing to take more severe measures. However, the pandemic expanded and action was called for. In March 2020, the National Assembly, having ⅔ of its seats taken up by Fidesz, gave the Prime Minister the power to rule by decree as part of the government’s strategy to deal with COVID 19. Since March, Orbán has issued more than 100 decrees, not all of them related to fighting the virus and including very harsh laws against the ‘spread of false information” which looked a lot like a crack down on the media.
While the state of emergency and the immense new powers of Orbán initially had no time limit, in mid June the National Assembly voted to end them. However, many human right activists and NGOs believe Orbán, due to this power grab, is stronger now than before the pandemic. The vote to remove Orbán´s new powers has been described as an “optical illusion”.
Some analysts claim that this a ploy to retain his position for life time others justify it. Meanwhile the EU, specifically the President of the European Commission, Ursula von del Leyen, warned leaders not to exaggerate their new powers due to the pandemic, there has not been a strong move against this grab of power by the EU. Unfortunately, and as many opposition figures believe, this act seems to represent the last nail in the coffin of the post-1989 democratic system.