On Monday 3o March, the Hungarian parliament approved sweeping emergency powers for the government, in its response to the Coronavirus. With no end in sight, no checks and balances and vague legal terminology, the Coronavirus-bill puts Hungary's democracy at an enormous risk.
In this interview series, we take a closer look at how the measures to halt the spread of the Coronavirus are impacting our democracies around the world in different ways, good and bad. Today we are talking about the situation in Hungary with Professor Zoltán Tibor Pállinger of the Andrássy University, who specializes in Political theory and European democracy, and Csaba Madarász an expert in e-democracy and an activist.
Let’s start at the beginning. What is the situation like in Hungary right now? Are there many cases of people who have been infected with Corona? What are the measures that have been taken to stop the spread of the virus?
CM: It’s day-by-day changes, what we see going on in the country. One thing is that most of the countries in the world are releasing data on those infected by the Coronavirus. But in Hungary we have a limited amount of data about who became sick where because of this virus. Of course, there are some data privacy issues to consider, but I think on the general situation - to know what is going on where and how - this has changed a lot since the virus entered the country. And most of the information is coming from a daily virtual press conference, which is run by an operational body that is mostly made up of policemen, members of public administrations and politicians and they’re holding their press events. As it became virtual, many of the online and offline media are sending their questions to these officers, who are only responding to some of them. So one thing that we clearly see, it seems that a selection of questions is still going on. They are differentiating between one or the other medium in Hungary. It seems that it’s more likely that your questions will get answered if they were coming from a government-friendly medium. It means that there are still a lot of questions unanswered.
ZTP: At the moment, as we know the numbers, Hungary is not affected as much as other countries. The hope is that the government has acted relatively quickly to prevent the spread of the epidemic. But we also have to concede that we have not had many tests. At the moment, we have had 15.000 tests and we have more than 500 people who are infected. I don’t have the newest number about the people who died. As Csaba pointed out, we have a very strong centralization in politics now and also in information. So the government tries to centralize information and, as Csaba has said, they answer the media that are close to them and they don’t answer so much other media’s questions.
What we can say on the political situation, is that the government has declared the so-called “State of Danger” on the 11th of March and they had to prolong it, because this state would end after 15 days. They introduced an act on the 24th of March and the aim of the act was to prolong this “State of Danger” and to create some measures against the Coronavirus. This was very problematic because it conferred the right to the government to govern by decree. It forbids snap elections, it forbids referendums at the local and national level and it also changed the penal code, and those measures regarding the penal code are not temporary measures. The penal code will be changed permanently. They have new measures against the obstruction of authorities during the curfew and they also have some measure against, in simply terms, “fake news.” People may be punished up to five years in prison under this measure. That was criticized in Hungary and also internationally.
The second thing that is criticized, there is no time limitation on when this “State of Danger” would end. To enact this law with the special procedure it would have necessitated four-fifths of parliament, but the opposition resisted and so they had to enact it yesterday. Yesterday it was enough to have a two-thirds majority. And so, this is the current state of the legal affairs.
The fact that this “State of Danger” does not have a sunset clause, it’s for an indefinite amount of time, is of course worrisome to people because, if I understand it correctly, Hungary was still under the last “State of Danger” that was called in 2016 because of the immigration issue?
How do they differ exactly? Is it a procedural difference or a thematic matter?
ZTP: It’s mainly a topic matter, because one concerns only the defense of the border, the border control regime. The “State of Danger” we have now is much broader. The government is arguing that in fact there is a limitation regarding the purpose of the whole thing and a time limit: it will be in place until this epidemic ends. So, when the president signed the law, he said he did a constitutional check and it doesn’t violate the constitution, because it is limited to the time of the epidemic and all the measures are allowed to combat the epidemic. But these are unclear legal terms. What is “necessary” to combat the epidemic? It can be interpreted. The government also pointed out that the constitutional court is working during this “State of Danger,” but I see a legal problem there. You can only address the Constitutional Court as a citizen if you have gone through the other instances, the other courts. And at the moment those courts are closed. So, I don’t see how to address the Constitutional Court.
CM: If I can add something. The problem is the consequences. The “pandemic and its consequences”. It means that there is no body that can decide when the consequences end, except the government itself. So of course, it is a huge ask form the citizens to give such trust into the hands of the government, with very limited possibilities of exercising citizens’ rights over them. It is not a regular thing to have this kind of blurry possibilities and there no assessment body has been designed to assess the question and be able to say “OK, it’s over.” Because of course, life will never be the same after COVID-19. So, there is a certain fear that this can go for ages.
ZTP: May I add something which came out today? Today a new law was proposed and actually they are taking away the competences of the Mayors and conferring them on so-called defense councils. Now during this “State of Danger,” Mayors could substitute for the local parliaments. They could take on the powers of local parliaments and with the law that was put to the national parliament today, they would put the Mayors under the control of these defense councils.
As you know we had local elections last autumn, and in the big cities Fidesz lost many mayoral posts. So, now we have the situation that these mayors would be under the control of these councils that are dominated by the government. That is also a problematic aspect we have at the moment.
CM: Apparently, Zoltan… I have good news! Because since we started our conference the Government has withdrawn this law. I just got news that they will not submit it.
ZTP: Great! So my information was not so up-to-date. I looked at it at noon and so thank you, Csaba, for the good news!
CM: It just came out three minutes ago.
Exactly, everything changes by the minute, it’s really surprising and a little bit crazy. My next question was going to be, what the dangers to Hungarian democracy in the long run are?
ZTP: I think we have to differentiate, and Csaba will certainly add other aspects. One thing is that the whole battle against the Coronavirus fits well into the narrative of the Hungarian government. When the Coronavirus started to spread in Hungary, it was reported that the virus was brought in by foreigners, Iranian students. When you looked at the statistics, for days they always showed how many foreigners were infected. One problem is that during those times of crisis, you rally the people behind you, and you have this strong narrative. So that is one danger for Hungarian democracy, this xenophobic line of argumentation. It’s very deep-rooted and now it gains some more traction.
One other aspect is that at the moment the streets are more or less empty, so it is hard for civil society to organize. We have electronic means, I think Csaba can tell you more, there are petitions against this law. But it is quite hard. At the moment when you listen to the official statements, this whole fight against the Coronavirus fits well into the story of Hungary defending itself against liberal forces, Soros and so forth. That it is attacked unjustly, not just here in Hungary by the opposition, but also by these liberal forces. I think that is also a problematic aspect that will damage the public discourse in Hungary.
Csaba, can you tell a little bit more, what is it like for civil society now in this situation? Is it possible to keep on working? Are there still ways to mobilize despite the challenges?
CM: First of all, civil society has a much bigger pressure now on their shoulders generally, also in social care and family care. There are much more serious issues happening in each city and village, since people are closed in together, families are closed in together. And local governments have a responsibility to deal with elderly care and social care issues. So, they have much more work to do. There is the very interesting situation that the whole of society seems to be starting to collaborate, which is a rarely seen thing in Hungary. Other than some of the negative things taking place, it seems that society is moving a little bit closer towards each.
Obviously, there is a big group of programmers and helpers, who are sharing their time, sharing their professional knowledge. Whether there is a need in education to teach students and teachers, or even parents, on the new skills that are required for digital education, which has now become a necessity in Hungary. Or whether it is getting computers to villages where students don’t have computers or internet, to organise this. You have this organization going on, from hackathons to different events, where, even when we are closed in to our homes, we try to collaborate and find out how we can make an impact where we live, or elsewhere. This is what is most noticeable and what anyone can see on Facebook. The sharing economy, the way people are attached and how they value what they have is going through a big change. We have to appreciate what we have and where we are. Which is going a bit against the direction of the previous era, which was based on not feeling good where you are and going somewhere else. This has both emotional, physical and social challenges that societies try to respond to in their own rhythm, and civil society is playing a very active role in this.
For example, in response to this law, there was the first online protest that was organized by aHang. It wasn’t a very big event, but we got at least 65.000 or 70.000 people who watched the video or took part in it. And we also felt that even if we are closed in, we try to find ways to organize ourselves. But of course, the questions are just getting bigger: how can society respond to the current new laws or the proposed laws which are definitely affecting many of our lives? There are some new laws regarding Budapest, and the highly debated construction of the park Városliget, which was the first park in Europe. So there are new challenges in how to respond in these situations. And of course, everyone is learning how to organize video conferences and how to run effective meetings. These are some of the challenges all of us are facing and I think civil society is on a good track to find an adaptive way of answering the challenges whether they are coming bottom-up or top-down.
I have one last question then. “Never waste a good crisis” is the old saying. It seems that the government has certainly taken its cue from that, but are there any opportunities for democracy? As you mentioned, we are learning new things, we are learning how to organize ourselves. Is there anything Hungarian democracy can take away from this to become better?
CM: For sure in the long run, but first of all we are facing the repression. With these kinds of measures, if someone is spreading fake news, who decides what is fake news? History will decide what is fake news. So, it obviously becomes a tool, so that somebody who understands the law and how politics work must pay a lot of attention. Yes, I think this state is not a democratic state. Of course, its form is democracy, but in this position no one can judge, only history can judge what is going on - whether the decisions are good and necessary. But currently it feels like probably we don’t need such a serious punishment and we don’t need that serious centralization. But I’m not a fortune teller, so history will tell who has the right answer. But yes, for civil society there is definitely the feeling that this kind of boundaries are not helping in the longer run.
ZTP: Yes, nobody can foresee the future that is true. The future will judge if the government will misuse the powers vested upon them. But what was interesting, is that we saw a broad cooperation on the side of the opposition. This did not start when this law was discussed, but it started last year. And I think that this insight, that they have to cooperate against the government, they will continue to do this. The second thing is that the government was quite good at trapping the opposition. Because they built up this narrative that we must stand together in order to battle this virus. Actually, the opposition would have been ready to do so, they would have voted in favor of the act if there would have been a term limit. But at the moment the government is using this narrative to denounce the opposition and my hope is that the opposition will continue their work. Finally, what Csaba mentioned, hopefully this self-organization of society will continue. The prospects are bleak, but perhaps there will be better trends in the future. But I’m not a fortune teller.
Thank you very much to both of you for this interview, I was just wondering if there is anything else people should be aware of or that’s important to know.
CM: Well I think it does make sense to keep a sharp eye on what is going on in Hungary, no matter where people are living. Because we have very clever people anywhere in the country, but mostly in the government - whether they are doing their job right or not. There is a certain cleverness which each democracy can learn a lot from. That is why it is good to see Hungary as a democracy lab. Mostly it is about reducing and shrinking democracy, but the way it is going on in Hungary is definitely worth a deeper examination since they seem to show a pathway for various regimes on how to carry on with their direction. I hope civil society can rise to this challenge. Something most people don’t know about, is how Hungarian citizens are lacking basic citizen education and the skills to practice their citizenship. That is definitely one of the most deeply-rooted historical paradigms, and we need this education very much to go against the shrinking of democracy.
ZTP: Beautifully said, I have nothing to add!