Coronavirus Measures in Hungary: An Excuse for Authoritarianism

Updated: Jun 2

May 6, 2020 by Firinne Rolfe


Authoritarian governments do not appear overnight. It is a slow weakening of democracy. A silent and bearable disease that becomes a painful and deadly killer. The change is seen in the slow dropping of points in their Freedom House score.

The Oxford Dictionary defines authoritarianism as “the belief that people should obey authority and rules, even when these are unfair or even when this means the loss of personal freedom”. In authoritarian governments power is highly concentrated and laws and constitutions become guidelines not mandates that the government must follow.

Hungary is a landlocked European country, famous for its beautiful capital of Budapest. Hungary was communist from 1948 until the year 1989 which brought economic and social changes. A new constitution was written which included the building blocks of democracy- an independent judiciary, civil liberties and free elections. However, this constitution has since seen many amendments and in 2012 Prime Minister Orbán brought in a new controversial constitution.

Viktor Orbán has been the Prime Minister of Hungary since 2010. Some have referred to his first actions in office as a “constitutional coup d’état”. For a long time, the government has been chipping away at judicial independence, restricting civil society and attempting to control the media. Hungarians have seen their freedom decrease dramatically in recent years, a similar decline to Venezuela and Nicaragua. Out of the member states of the European Union, Hungary observes the lowest Freedom House score. This was all before recent developments in the state of our world.

Coronavirus has changed what governments look like in many countries. It has made some people wonder if democracy is a hindrance in the midst of a pandemic. In many ways our world is on hold, however, democracy can not be put on hold. It is not something that can be turned on and off without repercussions.

Orbán has used this tragedy to his advantage. He won a vote which gives him the power to rule by decree, suspend elections and give jail time for “individuals who publicize what are viewed as untrue or distorted facts — and which could interfere with the protection of the public, or could alarm or agitate a large number of people”. There are no time parameters on this bill which essentially gives him the power to silence critics, undermine Rule of Law in the country and eliminate the checks and balances that are key to democracy. The government is suggesting these changes are so they can better control the pandemic. However, it is unclear how some proposed laws will be of aid to the pandemic. Such as the recently passed discriminatory laws against transgender people. Bills like this one are extremely dangerous and have many worrying about the future of Hungary, especially if the law continues to stand after COVID-19 passes.

Although many leaders would like to use this pandemic to prove the superiority of their regime, there is actually no correlation between regime type and success in handling the outbreak. We have seen democracies like South Korea be incredibly successful while Italy and the United States have struggled.

Not surprisingly, there is more of a correlation between the legitimacy a government enjoys and their success. It is imperative that citizens voluntarily follow the rules, as has been successfully demonstrated in Canada. PEW research center found that a mere 17% of Americans reported trust in their federal government, which likely contributed to many not observing social distancing advice.

Although the health and wellness of humanity should be on the forefront of everyone's minds right now, it does not mean that other issues can go unnoticed. What once may be have been front page news now takes a bit of scrolling to find. Citizens in Hungary, and everywhere else, should not have to exchange their civil liberties for their health.

Firinne Rolfe ('21) is a Senior Editor at SPR.

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