The state of emergency in Hungary isn't the end of democracy
In a message posted on Facebook, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced a state of emergency to deal with the effects of war raging across the border in Ukraine. Orbán told the nation that “the world is on the brink of economic crisis,” and that emergency powers are needed to “allow the government to react immediately and protect Hungary, and Hungarian families, by all possible means.”
Right on cue, cries of “dictatorship” arose from international media and politicians. Readers were informed that “Hungary’s authoritarian leader is using the Ukraine war as an excuse to seize more power,” and that “the Hungarian government is now using the humanitarian crisis to further its own authoritarian ambitions.” MEP Guy Verhofstadt frothed that Orbán’s emergency powers are out of “Putin’s playbook” and an “abomination of all that’s European.”
If such claims are true, we should indeed be worried, because it would mean there are an awful lot of aspiring authoritarians out there. In the Czech Republic, a country facing similar challenges to Hungary amid the refugee crisis and the impact of sanctions on Russia, a state of emergency has been in place since early March, allowing the country’s strongly pro-EU government to respond rapidly by suspending some usual laws and procedures. The Czech state of emergency was recently extended until at least the end of June.
The Hungarian war emergency provides similar powers, but the difference in responses to the Czech and Hungarian states of emergency is sadly predictable. International voices have an unfortunate tendency to “cry wolf” on authoritarianism in Hungary without paying attention to similar circumstances prevailing elsewhere.
There is, nevertheless, a difference in the context behind the new Hungarian emergency state. With the country’s pandemic emergency due to expire at the end of May, Orbán’s Fidesz government had to push through a constitutional amendment allowing the possibility to declare a state of emergency in the event of war or humanitarian disaster in a neighbouring country.
It could well be argued that the necessity to pass a constitutional change indicates better restrictions on the use of emergency powers than in Prague, where no similar step was necessary.
While it is true that Orbán does have a fondness for constitutional tinkering (this amendment was the tenth made by him), turning every decision into a matter of life and death for Hungarian democracy merely blunts his accusers’ edge. It also distracts from the real problem facing Hungarian democracy: the lack of a coherent opposition capable of holding Fidesz to account.
Hungary’s opposition has been left broken by its abject failure in the April elections, meaning that Orbán isn’t facing much in the way of parliamentary scrutiny. But whether or not his emergency powers are justified, the international media shouldn’t try to do the Hungarian opposition’s job for them.