Hungary Goes Full Authoritarian

Orban has used Covid-19 to kill whatever vestiges of democracy remained.

“EC13” by Europa Pont is licensed under CC BY 2.0

WaPo has an evocation, dramatic, and yet sadly headline in reporting the moves by Hungarian PM Viktor Orban: Coronavirus kills its first democracy

You could say that Hungary was already “immunocompromised.” A decade under the nation’s illiberal nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orban, has corroded the state’s checks and balances, cowed the judiciary, enfeebled civil society and the free press, and reconfigured electoral politics to the advantage of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party. So, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Budapest’s ailing democracy proved all too vulnerable.

On Monday, Hungary’s parliament passed a controversial bill that gave Orban sweeping emergency powers for an indefinite period of time. Parliament is closed, future elections were called off, existing laws can be suspended and the prime minister is now entitled to rule by decree. Opposition lawmakers had tried to set a time limit on the legislation but failed. Orban’s commanding two-thirds parliamentary majority made his new powers a fait accompli.

This makes Hungary the first fully authoritarian member of the EU (an institution predicated on its members being liberal democracies).

Orban has fully taken advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic situation to consolidate power:

The emergency law also stipulates five-year prison sentences for Hungarians found to be spreading “false” information, as well as prison terms for those defying mandated quarantines.

Such powers are terrifying insofar as Orban, via his decree powers essentially can decide whose information is false and who is defying quarantines.

“This bill, once signed into law, will almost certainly put even greater pressure on what’s left of Hungary’s independent media,” noted Emily Tamkin of the New Statesman. “One man’s misinformation is another man’s report on increasing illiberalism.”

Orban had already guided Hungary to what he has called “illiberal democracy” and championed authoritarian nationalism, including a hardline on immigration and lots of rhetoric about preserving Hungarian culture. This is an extremely troubling development in what was a fully democratic country less than a decade ago.

Freedom House demoted Hungary from “Free” to “Partly Free” in its 2019 report (after several years of erosion in the FH metrics):

Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010.

For a comparison over time:

Source: Puddington, Arch. “Thirty Years: The Changing State of Freedom in Central Europe

FILED UNDER: Democracy, Europe, , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Mikey says:

    Witness what Trump and his supporters would love to have happen here.

  2. gVOR08 says:

    @Mikey: Witness what will happen here if by mischance or malfeasance Trump is reelected and the GOPs take the House.

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Fortunately, Tiny isn’t as smart as Orban.

  4. Kathy says:

    We know the EU has a mechanism for member states to leave. Is there one to expel member states?

  5. Scott F. says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Tiny doesn’t need to be as smart as Orban.

    Read again from the cited article about what Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has been working on for the last decade, reflect on the GOP skullduggery from the last several years, and ponder the resemblance. It’s not that difficult to imagine that our country’s institutions have been so weakened, since let’s say the Merrick Garland episode, that the authoritarians in the Republican Party would make a similar play while people are distracted and frightened due to COVID-19.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    We know the EU has a mechanism for member states to leave. Is there one to expel member states?

    That would have to happen, would it not? How could the EU remain a legitimate union if one of its member countries was ruled by a dictator? I wonder what kind of economic pressure the EU could apply to Hungary to nudge it back on the path to democracy…

  7. Kylopod says:

    Hungary has been a de facto dictatorship for years now.

  8. DrDaveT says:

    This makes me so sad. I was in Hungary 15+ years ago, and it seemed such a happy and hopeful and blossoming place, bursting out of the long shadow of communism. Boy did I call that one wrong.

  9. CSK says:

    Last autumn, Trump paid Orban the greatest compliment in Trump’s lexicon: He said that Orban was just like him.

  10. PJ says:


    We know the EU has a mechanism for member states to leave. Is there one to expel member states?

    There is, but it requires unanimity. Poland is heading in the same direction as Hungary and has blocked a number of attempts to punish the latter, and would most certainly block any attempts to expel it.

  11. SC_Birdflyte says:

    It wouldn’t surprise me if Poland is next.

  12. JohnMcC says:

    Read something a few years ago (possibly Timothy Snyder?) that Hungary, Poland and central Europe in general have been set free by the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘had been set free to continue on their path to fascism’ — or some similar wording.

  13. @Kylopod:

    Hungary has been a de facto dictatorship for years now.

    This is true. These moves, however, seal the deal is a rather extreme fashion. A really disturbing one.


    Poland is heading in the same direction

    Poland is a concern. A lot of this “we must protect our culture” nationalism can be very dangerous.

  14. Barry says:

    As been sorta pointed out, Hungary has been a de facto and pretty de jure one party state for a couple of years now:

    Independent mass media has been crushed, with laws to punish journalists or independent organizations deemed subversive.

    The judiciary is 100% run by the party in charge.
    Prosecutors choose judges for trials.

  15. Liberal Capitalist says:

    Something often overlooked: If you grew up under Soviet rule, Authoritarianism is what you know.

    When times are tough, the rally-round-the-flag moment becomes rally-round-the-strongman.

  16. Kingdaddy says:

    Not being an expert on the European Union, does someone know about whatever mechanisms may exist for removing a country that no longer adheres to the EU standards on democracy and the rule of law?

  17. To clarify for those who have pointed out that Hungary has been on this slide for a while, I did note in the title “full” and the subtitle is “Orban has used Covid-19 to kill whatever vestiges of democracy remained.”

    I suppose I could have been clearer, but the basic point was not that Hungary went from democratic to authoritarian this week, but that it went well over the edge to a new level of authoritarianism this week.

  18. @Liberal Capitalist: Of course, the Iron Curtain fell thirty years ago, so a lot of Hungarians did not grow up under Communist rule.

  19. JohnSF says:

    There no specific procedures for expulsion.
    But under Article 7 there is provision for the Council to determine a breach of “values under Article 2” namely

    “the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

    And can then suspend them from the Council, and “suspend certain of the rights deriving from the application of the Treaties.” Which is pretty fuzzy, so it sounds like it would be time for the lawyers to perform their ritual dances.
    Main thing is, the Council would probably threaten to halt all EU transfer payments; and hold trade suspension as a reserve.

    My guess would be they won’t make any such open moves so long as the coronovirus crisis is as severe as right now. And as long as Hungary has some plausibility to claims its just an emergency measure.
    I would also expect that the key ministries are currently communicating via secure diplomacy to Budapest that if this dummheit carries on after the crisis, Hungary can kiss €5 billion per year goodbye, for starters.

  20. JohnSF says:

    As several people have said, Hungary has been playing grandmothers footsteps with authoritarian rule for years.
    Also Poland, albeit to much less extent (and with more excuse in terms of local political dynamic).
    Both are examples of how weak the EU is versus the states, outside it’s fields of specific competence
    Even within those fields it is driven at base by the politics of the Council of the States, not the legal determinations of the Court, the administrative activities of the Commission, or the consultative role of the Parliament.

    It is nothing like the quasi-unitary UK or federal USA, a concept both British Brexiteers and American (Republican) europhobes find almost impossible to grasp.

  21. Radu says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: Something often overlooked: If you grew up under Soviet rule, Authoritarianism is what you know.

    When times are tough, the rally-round-the-flag moment becomes rally-round-the-strongman.

    Actually, Hungary had a longer tradition of democracy compared to other East European countries, most of which didn’t exist before WWI, and had at best a couple decades of pseudo-democracy before WWII. Which makes its path all the more disheartening.

    Countries like Romania or Bulgaria have a lot of gridlock and corruption too, and their politics are immature, they are nobody’s models to emulate. But at least they have political freedoms.

  22. Kingdaddy says:

    @JohnSF: Thanks for that information. I hope the EU makes explicit the conditions under which Hungary must revert to real democracy and the rule of law, if Hungary is going to stay in the EU, instead of letting the current regime decide what will be restored, and when.

  23. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:

    Something often overlooked: If you grew up under Soviet rule, Authoritarianism is what you know.

    I have a good friend that I met in China, who grew up in East Berlin before reunification. I was talking to him about dealing with different cultures, and asked if he had culture shock when he came to China. His response: “No. It was like coming home. I grew up under Soviet rule. This all seems normal to me.”

  24. Molnar says:

    Pointless article and bunch of babble in the comments from people who don’t know anything about the country, period. It’s easy to get people to fear and believe in something they won’t ever see in real life. Anyone that has ever visit the country would be shocked to see that rather than a dictatorship and population cowering in fear, the country is very much open, free, and busy. People am have more freedoms in Hungary than in most western countries.