Viktor Orbán in 2019. Photo: Wikimedia/Steffen Prößdorf Viktor Orbán in 2019. Photo: Wikimedia/Steffen Prößdorf

The harsh authoritarianism of Orban’s hard-right regime is a warning to the world, writes Anita Zsurzsan in Hungary

On 30 March the news of Viktor Orbán passing the bill that would grant him the right to rule Hungary by decree indefinitely hit the world by storm. As the world is battling the coronavirus outbreak, the political struggle of Hungary was trending news everywhere. It was suggested that the virus had killed its first democracy.

The Hungarian Parliament voted 137 to 53 to pass the so-called ‘Enabling Act’ that gives Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán absolute power with no end date. The shock and fear created by the coronavirus pandemic was an excuse for the Prime Minister to grab absolute power disguised as ‘emergency measures’.  While other European states are trying to take measures that ease the outbreak and its disastrous aftermath, for Orbán this is yet another opportunity to further expand his far-right authoritarianism project in Hungary.

The decision comes as no shock for Hungarians, since the ruling Fidesz party has two-thirds of seats in the parliament, yet the recent bill allows him to bypass the national assembly entirely. The Enabling Act was heavily criticized by opposition parties and civil rights organizations alike. According to the BBC, more than 100,000 people in Hungary signed the petition denouncing the bill and Orbán’s plot dismantling democracy.

Since the recent emergency measures ban people from protesting and taking to the streets, the opposition voices seemed more marginalised than ever. With people locked up in their homes, they have even fewer possibilities to speak up now.

While Hungary is still a member state of the European Union, the EU is failing to act on the recent developments and proves once again that it’s just a market project, not a progressive political project.  The EU fails at expressing solidarity with member states hit the hardest by the pandemic, and it fails even more at pretending that democracy is its core value.

Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders told Politico that they are verifying the bill, but there is no further action at the moment. The European People’s Party (EPP) is yet again threatening to expel the Fidesz party from its ranks, similarly to how they did after Orbán attacked Central European University and in response to the inhumane treatment of refugees at the detention camps.

Fighting the truth

The recent bill would allow Orbán to imprison journalists, doctors and lawmakers for publishing “fake news” or distort facts. This basically means that anyone who goes against the government’s official narratives is a target, and what can be labeled as “fake news” is entirely up to them to decide.

Given the Fidesz party’s long history of attacking press freedom and silencing opposition journalists, this is very alarming. Not to mention the irony of the fact that misinformation about COVID-19 was exclusively spread by the government itself by blaming it on migrants, spreading conspiracy theories and dismissing the threat as “just a flu”.  This is something most hard-Right leaders are doing from Bolsonaro to Modi and Trump.

During these past weeks, for example, Hungarian state propaganda has attacked scientists who recommend mass testing as a strategy to fight the pandemic. The Fidesz party rejects science and the scientific method: that’s not just about climate change denial, but also health policies.

Miklós Kásler, Minister of Human Resources in Hungary, had his moment of attention, when he notoriously stated that religious beliefs can cure cancer. Now he is one of the people in charge to handle the pandemic. Coronavirus denial had its moment within the Hungarian far-right establishment: just weeks after the first cases were reported in Europe, the Hungarian government was still notoriously sticking to xenophobic narratives blaming the outbreak on immigrants and refugees. Now the biggest concerns are that the bill would make legitimate criticism of the government’s methods impossible.

Class struggle and economic depression

The smear propaganda started when two Iranian medical students were tested positive for COVID-19 and their aggressive treatment was highlighting Hungary’s islamophobia and racism problems. But it’s not just the Muslim immigrants who have become targets of hate. The Roma population also remains a subject of stigmatization and oppression.

In Hungary Roma people are among the most vulnerable to the pandemic. Research proves that ever since the fall of Communism the Roma was facing brute poverty and still wasn’t able to catch up economically to their white Hungarian peers.

In many Hungarian villages washing your hands is a mere luxury: many communities don’t have access to clean water, and most fear starving to death more than the pandemic itself. Social distancing is not an option for families where sometimes ten people share a single bedroom.

Similarly to any other economic policies presented by the Fidesz party, the coronavirus-related economic measures yet again favor the oligarchy and upper middle classes, while letting down the rest. Some family members of the Fidesz party were also able to get richer by the pandemic: the Hungarian media outlet Átlátszó previously reported that they have been selling large stocks of face masks and hand sanitizers.

According to reports, it is very much likely they got the goods through government ties and favors, possibly re-selling direct donations received from other countries. Meanwhile Orbán’s son-in-law and best friend, Tiborcz and Mészáros, are growing their wealth by bagging business contracts for port developments at Lake Balaton. 

The plan presented in Hungary is centered on helping corporations and businesses, not workers. While some mortgage payments have been suspended, workers still have to pay rent, and there is no direct financial assistance to help them. The cynical response of Fidesz party representatives was that people left without a job and income should “consider getting a new one”, for example they have suggested that actors and artists should do farm work while out of job.

While the creative underclass (performers, writers, filmmakers, freelancers etc.) of Hungary is left in total despair, Orbán’s obsession with elite competitive sports is still a top priority. Professional athletes are tested for Covid-19 multiple times the past weeks, so they could return to “work” and trainings as soon as possible. For Orbán athletes and football players remain the ‘essential workers’ and are exclusively treated as such.

While the poster faces of Hungary’s elite – professional athletes – are tested on a regular basis, healthcare and frontline workers are begging to get tested and are constantly denied tests.  Similarly to the US and UK, healthcare workers are also denied proper protective gear, while non-corona infected ill people are being kicked out of the hospitals to free beds for future corona patients. For many of the sick, this is basically a death threat that puts even more pressure on unpaid domestic care workers, mostly women.

How the trans community has become a target

The draft bill passed by the government also contains a large number of issues not related to the coronavirus pandemic. One of them is that the Hungarian state would end legal recognition for transgender people.

This draft law would make transgender people much more vulnerable to discrimination in housing, healthcare and employment.  Prioritizing bigotry during a global pandemic came as another wave of shock: local and global LGBTQ+ organizations, journalists and activists condemned the government’s latest attempt to attack transgender people in Hungary. 

This government has previously made it part of the constitution that legalizing same-sex marriage in Hungary is impossible. Berlin-based Hungarian trans actress and activist, Adél Ónodi, was among the first people to call out the government, while she expressed her anger and pain that this decision would directly threaten the lives of trans people.  Last year, Al Jazeera featured her in a video report about the devastating conditions of trans people in Hungary that eventually made Adél flee the country.


Meanwhile, the Hungarian pro-EU pro-Macron opposition party Momentum is engaged in anti-China racism. They released racist ads on Facebook saying that the virus comes from China while the money comes from the EU. The banality of their smug liberal elitism is even more visible right now pushing their uncritical pro-EU agendas supporting Western market interests over people’s lives.

On the other hand, the newly elected opposition mayor of Budapest, Gergely Karácsony, is facing more and more direct political attacks from the government that makes his job of fighting the pandemic in the Hungarian capital even harder. 

While Orbán has absolute power, he placed the burden and responsibility on mayors entirely when it comes to lockdown measures. In a recent TV interview Hungarian Marxist philosopher G. M. Tamás compared Hungary’s treatment of the pandemic to the Soviet Union’s of Chernobyl.

According to Tamás, the first step of resolving any type of crisis is transparency: the government is preventing healthcare professionals from giving statements on the situation and there are no experts who can correctly inform the public. As Tamás stated: “We have no idea what’s going on. This is what it means when a country is not free. The public cannot be aware of what is happening.”

Obviously, there are lots of questions around whether or not Hungary is a dictatorship. For now, the coronavirus emergency devastates liberal democratic institutions even further. To rule by decree also means that opposition parties are more irrelevant now than ever, and the challenge remains the same: organising the working class.  

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