March 25, 2020

It snowed in Budapest on Monday but the flakes did not settle. People queued politely outside bakeries and post offices, keeping safe distances apart. Inside counter staff, masked and gloved, handed over bread rolls and postage stamps with exceptional caution: treating each customer as a potential bio-hazard.

Lately Hungary, unlike Britain, has had toilet rolls in the shops — but also troops on the streets. If the presence of the latter served to guarantee supplies of the former, I’d be reluctantly accepting; I’m as keen on a comfortable loo visit as the next chap. However, to me the military presence seems to facilitate another, less laudable, purpose.

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Officially the deployment of soldiers in major Hungarian cities, which began last Friday, was to “reassure the civilian population”. This seemed incongruous: people here are scared of corona not of each other, and there is no sign of civil disorder.

The defensive positioning of armoured vehicles in major squares around Budapest on Friday afternoon coincided with the government tabling a law “On Protecting Against the Coronavirus”.  The APCs provided the law with a kind of symbolic escort into the Országgyűlés  (National Assembly).

The bill was first debated on Monday (23 March) and seems set to pass into law next Tuesday (the 31). Some prominent legal scholars have criticised it as a latter-day “Enabling Act”.

The law’s emergency provisions are formidable. They include allowing the government to rule by decree without legislative oversight and endowing Orbán with power to amend or suspend any provision of the criminal or civil codes at will. No elections can take place. Crucially the State of Emergency has no time limit; a standard basic safeguard in democratic systems.

The act specifies two new offences (punishable with 3- or 5-years imprisonment) related to “spreading a falsehood or distorted truth” touching the corona outbreak. Last week, Fidesz-aligned media demanded the jailing of respected investigative journalists who had exposed serious flaws in the government’s corona response.

“Orbán’s terrible track record on press freedom creates the suspicion that the law is aimed at the last remnants of an independent press in Hungary,” says Kim Lane-Schepple, Professor of Politics and Sociology at Princeton University (and a long time Hungary watcher).

Governments worldwide are seeking authorisation from parliaments to intervene in their societies in ways that outstrip accustomed norms. I expect that coincidence will soon be cited by Fidesz, and its slick Anglo-American apologists, in an epic exercise in ‘whataboutery’. On close examination the case is unconvincing.

In Britain the curtailment of particular freedoms announced by Boris Johnson on Monday night, including closure of non-essential businesses and limiting exercise to one outing per day, are dramatic. However, the restrictions occur within the framework of the established legal order. In Hungary the legal order itself is the victim of the emergency.

The size of the UK’s corona legal package, at more than 300+ pages, has occasioned excited comment in the British media. Paradoxically, though, when it comes to emergency legislation “more is less” closely specifying what a government may do also limits its room for manoeuvre. Conversely brevity of language goes together with blanket empowerment.

The prolix exactitude of the British legislation, combined with time limitation and judicial-scrutiny safeguards, has enabled even a staunch human rights lawyer like Phillipe Sands to support the British bill

“You can see that… they have done it in as limited a way as possible,” Sands told the BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight on Friday, stating the bill is “absolutely connected to the objective of addressing this threat and [it] cannot be used for anything else,” .

Hungary’s emergency law runs to only four pages. Instead of pin-pointing variations from particular statutes, within stated perimeters, it grants a catch-all permission. Within its brief text it states that the government may “suspend the enforcement of certain laws, depart from statutory regulations and implement additional extraordinary measures by decree”.

In other words this is a legislative blank cheque which, given the lack of a sunset clause, might never expire. Though the Constitutional Court is left as a nominal counterweight to Orban’s power, there is confusion as to how appeals can reach it if, as now, trial courts are shuttered. The court has in any case been safely under Fidesz control since 2013.

The hollowness of the Hungarian government assertion that the Corona Act was motivated by public health concerns was exposed by the presence in the chamber on Monday of the Fidesz MP for the city of Szeged, László B. Nagy.

Nagy was sitting apart from his colleagues and wearing a face-mask. Only the previous day he had informed the local Szeged media that he and his family were entering a two-week voluntary quarantine after finding he had been in close physical contact with a physician diagnosed with the virus. For the government however, the desire to ensure a qualified majority for the bills immediate passage outweighed infection control considerations.

As things turned out Fidesz could not press the bill through all its stages in one afternoon. Even with support from the openly neo-fascist Mi Hazánk (“Our Homeland”) party, an insufficient number of opposition delegates could be found to reach the four-fifths majority required to suspend the normal House rules of procedure and rush the law through.

This followed Orban’s refusal of all compromise suggestions from opposition party leaders. These included an offer to give him the entirely unrestricted powers he desired but only for a (renewable) specified time-period. While opposition deputies have delayed the bill’s passage for now they cannot ultimately prevent it: the outcome of next Tuesday’s final vote is inevitable.

A way back from full autocracy could be found if sufficient international pressure forced Fidesz to withdraw or modify the bill. The only effective source of pressure on Budapest from within the EU is Berlin: Germany is Hungary’s largest foreign direct investor.

With Angela Merkel struggling to co-ordinate government from her own quarantine and Bavaria’s (Orbán-allied) Christian Social Union setting the tone in the governing coalition that seems unlikely.

Corona is the perfect vehicle for fully realising Orban’s autocratic aspirations. The epidemic excuses removal of residual legal fetters on power; emergency legislation by other states affords propaganda camouflage and the distraction of partner governments by the anti-virus battle means restraining international pressure evaporates.

What happens in Hungary should matter to us all. It is a test case for what can go wrong when the inherited liberal paradigm with all of its (admittedly significant) problems is discarded.

The failure of contemporary liberalism has been its treating of the individual in isolation from the community: assuming that freedom equates to life enjoyed without the guidance of objective truth or concession to communal norms. The damage done to public discourse and personal well-being is expertly diagnosed in many articles on UnHerd.

Some prominent Anglophone post-liberal intellectuals like Phillip Blond, seduced by Fidesz’s strongly communitarian rhetoric, have lauded it in the face of criticism. In doing so they risk the failure of post-liberalism as a morally credible project.

What becomes evident from consideration of the latest power grab in Budapest is that Orbanism does not represent a viable rebalancing of rights between community and individual. Rather it is the triumph of arbitrary power over structures of collective accountability.

In Hungary Covid-19 endangers not only the human body but also the body politic.