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Hungary and COVID-19

Hungary and COVID-19

By Sinéad O’Brien Butler

Young Lawyers Young Persons 

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The LIV presents a series of opinion blogs from various LIV Young Lawyers members relating to governments around the world using COVID-19 as justification to abrogate human rights. The first blog focuses on the expanded power of Victor Orbán’s Fidesz party during the pandemic.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his political party Fidesz – Hungarian Civic Alliance (Fidesz) have governed Hungary since 2010.1

Fidesz is a socially conservative, nativist party. In power, it has incrementally transformed Hungary into an “illiberal state”2 by systematically undermining its democratic institutions, the rule of law and civil and political rights.3

Fidesz has been largely successful in achieving its agenda because it has enjoyed widespread popularity and faced a weak, disunited opposition for most of the past decade.

But before the pandemic, it seemed to be losing the advantage of both. It suffered a partial defeat in municipal elections in late 20194 and polls suggest it may lose out in 2022 parliamentary elections.5

COVID-19 arrived at a critical moment, allowing Fidesz to take unprecedented action to consolidate power and rally voters by attacking human rights.

Human rights

In March 2020, before Hungary had a single COVID case, Fidesz invoked the pandemic to effectively ban migrants and asylum seekers from entering Hungary.6

Shortly afterward, Fidesz escalated its assault on LGBTQI rights, taking advantage of the ban on public protesting.

In May 2020, it blocked the ratification of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence claiming it promoted destructive gender ideologies. The same month, it passed a law preventing transgender people from legally changing their gender.7

Later, in November 2020 (on the same day Hungary’s second lockdown restrictions were introduced) Fidesz introduced several bills targeting LGBTQI rights, including a bill proposing to effectively ban LGBTQI people from adopting children and to enshrine children’s rights to an identity in line with their assigned sex at birth. The bill was passed in December 2020.8

Consolidating power

On 30 March 2020, Orbán was granted the power to rule by decree for an undefined period.9 By the same Act, the conveying and disseminating of “untrue fact[s] or misrepresented true facts” was criminalised. Supposedly introduced to prevent scaremongering, the new crime has been used to target opposition figures sharing verified information critical of Fidesz.10

Since then, Fidesz has taken several more steps to both weaken opposition parties and to secure its grip on power.

In April 2020 it announced the details of COVID stimulus package. Ostensibly designed to protect jobs, the package stripped billions of Forints from municipal authorities and civil society organisations deemed undesirable.11

In June 2020, Fidesz terminated the state of danger and declared a newly created state of medical emergency, under which the scope of the government’s emergency powers was significantly expanded.12

This pattern has continued as Hungary experienced the highest COVID-19 death rate in the world in April 2021. On 27 April 2021, Fidesz enacted a law effectively passing control of Hungary’s main universities to Fidesz in perpetuity. 13

Sinéad O’Brien Butler works as a law graduate at Arnold Bloch Leibler and is a member of the YL Law Reform Committee.

 

  1. Though Fidesz officially governs in a coalition with the Christian Democratic People’s Party, the latter party is, in actuality, Fidesz’s satellite party – see Dr Agnes Batory, Europe and the Hungarian Parliamentary Elections of April 2010 (Election Briefing No 51, European Parties Elections and Referendums Network), p3.
  2. Matthew Kaminski, interview: “All the terrorists are migrants. Viktor Orbán on how to protect Europe from terror, save Schengen and get along with Putin’s Russia”, Politico, online 23 November 2015 <https://www.politico.eu/article/viktor-orban-interview-terrorists-migrants-eu-russia-putin-borders-schengen/>.
  3. Freedom House, Nations in Transit – Hungary, report, 2021.
  4. Peter Kreko, “Hungary’s Municipal Elections: the Beginning of the End for Orban?”, Balkan Insight online 11 November 2019, <https://balkaninsight.com/2019/11/11/hungarys-municipal-elections-the-beginning-of-the-end-for-orban/>.
  5. Reuters, “Hungary's ruling Fidesz falls behind unified opposition in polls”, online 23 December 2020, <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-politics-polls-idUSKBN28X11Q> .
  6. Central European Initiative, Coronavirus: Hungary suspends admission of asylum seekers, 2 March 2020, <https://www.cei.int/ansa/78458>.
  7. Omnibus Bill T/9934; Council of Europe, Statement of the Standing Committee of the Conference of INGOS of the Council of Europe Adopted on 27 April 2020, 2020.
  8. Hungarian Helsinki Committee, What Happened in the Last 48 Hours in Hungary and How it Affects the Rule of Law and Human Rights, report, 12 November 2020, pp1–2.
  9. Act XII of 2020 on the Containment of the Coronavirus.
  10. “Hungary: First arrests for "spreading fake news", Warsaw Business Journal, 17 May 2020, <https://wbj.pl/hungary-first-arrests-for-spreading-fake-news/post/127074>; Alasdair Sandford, “Hungary: Critics silenced in social media arrests”, 15 May 2020, <https://www.euronews.com/2020/05/14/hungary-critics-silencedHungary-in-social-media-arrests-as-eu-debates-orban-s-powers>.
  11. Ágnes Kövér, Attila Antal, and Izabella Deák, “Civil Society and COVID-19 in Hungary: The Complete Annexation of Civil Space”, 2021, 12(1) Nonprofit Policy Forum 93, p109; Freedom House, Nations in Transit 2021: Hungary, https://freedomhouse.org/country/hungary/nations-transit/2021; The forint is the national currency of Hungary.
  12. Act LVIII of 2020 on the Transitional Provisions related to the Termination of the State of Danger and on Epidemiological Preparedness; see also Kata Karáth, “Covid-19: Hungary’s pandemic response may have been worse than the virus”, 2020, p371 BMJ.
  13. “Viktor Orban seizes control of Hungary’s universities”, 2021, The Economist; Anita Komuves and Marton Dunai, “Orban extends dominance through Hungarian university reform”, Reuters, online 27 April 2021, <reuters.com/world/europe/orban-seen-entrenching-right-wing-dominance-through-hungarian-university-reform-2021-04-26/>.

 


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