Orban's authoritarian overreach

The Hungarian Parliament can, in theory, rescind the legislation and roll back Orban's coronavirus coup once the public health crisis is over. But no one in their right mind expects that to happen.

Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Viktor Orban is no longer Hungary's prime minister but its dictator, and Hungary is now the European Union's first openly authoritarian member state.   
Seeing the coronavirus pandemic as a fleeting, golden opportunity to remove the last traces of constraint on his personal rule, Orban went for it. 
Last week, in a bill hastily pushed through parliament – where his Fidesz-KDNP coalition holds a two-thirds majority – he was granted sweeping emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. 
Under the new legislation, the prime minister is authorized to rule by decree. No elections, parliamentary or judicial oversight can take place while the measures are in effect. Strict social-distancing rules mean public protests are banned, and anyone deemed by the government to be spreading vaguely defined "false" or "distorted" information faces up to five years in jail. 
The Hungarian Parliament can, in theory, rescind the legislation and roll back Orban's coronavirus coup once the public health crisis is over. But no one in their right mind expects that to happen voluntarily. 
After a decade-long, methodical process of state-capture and the dismantling of virtually all sources of opposition, Viktor Orban had already hollowed out Hungarian democracy to such a degree that – like Turkey, Russia and Venezuela before it – Hungary had become an electoral-authoritarian system even before the pandemic struck. 
With only 440 confirmed coronavirus cases and 15 fatalities, the notion that the legislation passed on March 30 granting the prime minister absolute power was anything but an opportunistic power-grab carries little water. No other democracy on the face of the planet, not even the worst afflicted, has contemplated anything like this wrecking of its institutions.  
Orban's blatant abandonment of the last vestiges of democratic politics in Hungary may prove to be a classic case of authoritarian overreach. It is one thing to gradually erode checks and balances while professing attachment to "illiberal democracy"; it’s quite another to shelve that democracy outright and rule by decree indefinitely. 
The European Union opened sanctioning proceedings against Hungary in September 2018 for violations of the rule of law, but has since dragged its feet. If the EU is to retain any credibility whatsoever as a club of democracies, it has no choice but to react quickly and sharply to the breakdown of Hungarian democracy. The EU cannot kick Hungary out per se, but it can suspend its voting in EU institutions, cut its funding, isolate Orban diplomatically, and challenge the legality of the emergency law before the European Court of Justice. 
At a time when Europe is reeling from Italy and Spain's justified anger at having been deeply let down in their hour of greatest need, the EU simply cannot allow Hungary to become an overtly non-democratic member state. Either Viktor Orban has overplayed his hand this time, or the unravelling of the EU as a community of democracies is well and truly underway.    
The writer is a senior lecturer and the head of the program in diplomacy & conflict management at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy, IDC Herzliya.