The Hungarian Situation Explained by Prof. Vonyó

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In order to have a better understanding of the recent events which took place in Hungary, Tra I Leoni interviewed Tamás Vonyó, Associate Professor at Bocconi’s Department of Social and Political Sciences.

After graduating at Budapest Business School, Prof. Vonyó has earned a Ph.D. in Economic and Social History from Oxford University, he is also a former Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics. Prof. Vonyó currently teaches “Economic History” and “Global Economic and Social History” courses in our University.

Last week, the Hungarian parliament passed an emergency law that gave Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the right to rule by decree until the end of the Covid-19 crisis. In addition, the law imposes up to 5 years in jail on anyone intentionally spreading false information about the pandemic and similar measures that were strongly criticised by the Hungarian opposition and politicians all around Europe. How shall we interpret the situation in Hungary?
First, we need to put the facts straight. What has been written in the foreign press, including the widely quoted articles of the Guardian and the Financial Times, is not accurate. The Hungarian government cannot rule by decree and parliament has not been dissolved. The constitution is very protective of parliamentarism, stipulating that parliament has to be in session even during war. The new emergency law makes two critical conditions. First, the government can temporarily suspend legislation by decree only in areas necessary to respond to the pandemic and its immediate economic consequences. It has unrestrained power in managing the crisis. In all other areas of public policy, parliament retains legislative power. Second, since parliament remains in session, it retains the right to withdraw the emergency powers from the government at any time of its choosing, even during the emergency. Orbán is not constrained by parliament politically, where the governing parties have a constitutional majority and can push through any legislation, even amendments to the constitution. The new emergency powers are needed for two reasons. First, Hungarian parliamentary procedures are very cumbersome, which makes it impossible to enact new legislation very quickly. Second, the old emergency law was far too narrowly defined and, therefore, did not provide the government enough room for action in this pandemic. I have not heard responsible opposition leaders arguing that there was no need for new emergency powers. What they criticize is that the law stipulates no end date and gives parliament no effective control over the government in exercising its emergency powers as long as they are in place. However, given the constitutional majority of the governing parties and given their unwavering allegiance to Orbán, this criticism is pointless: parliament could and would accept whatever the prime minister proposes and would extend the emergency as long as he wants.
This does not mean that Orbán did not have political motives with this new legislation, but that the motive was not to enhance his constitutional powers. Guessing Orbán’s true motives is a bit like Kremlinology was in the Cold War: the pseudo-science in the West that tried to uncover the Soviet politburo’s intentions. Just as the deliberations of the politburo were top secret, Orbán’s inner circle is notoriously careful not to leak information. The only source of guidance we have is his past political behaviour. Orbán does not want to become a dictator. He wants to maximise political power and the economic resources under his control within the framework of the democratic constitution. The current crisis potentially threatens both. As a politician, his power has come from his ability to dominate the most critical topics of public discourse, such as the migrant crisis after 2015. Today, there is only one topic of relevance in politics, and he wants to own it. He achieves this in part with these emergency powers, but in part with drafting a law unacceptable to his opposition, which he now claims is unwilling to help the Hungarian people in their fight against the virus. Economically, his power rests on a group of oligarchs in his inner circle, whose assets are mainly in tourism and construction: two industries already devastated by the crisis. He may need the emergency powers to bail out his cronies, but not their competitors, and thus consolidate their power. Covid-19 is not yet pandemic in Hungary; corruption and nepotism have been for centuries.

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The day after the aforementioned law was passed, another draft law was proposed by the Hungarian government to the Parliament containing the prohibition of legal gender recognition for transgender people. Is Orban going to take advantage of the emergency in order to rule social spheres other than health? 
This was not proposed by the government, but by the Christian Democrat deputy prime minister in a draft legislation that he sponsored as an MP. Parts of the legislation had been withdrawn already. This and other measures, such as restricting the autonomy of theatres, follow the authoritarian and socially conservative policies of the last decade. Whether the governing parties sensed the timing since the right to protest has been suspended by the ban on public gatherings is hard to say, but given their power in parliament I do not think this matters much, sadly.

A worrisome precedent exists. In 2015, the Orban governmentdeclared the “state of crisis due to mass migration”, granting law enforcement authorities with increased powers when dealing with asylum seekers. 4 years later, on 6 September 2019, such state of emergency was extended until 7 March 2020. Why should the state of emergency related to Covid-19 be expected to be different?
This question understandably excites political critics, but I do not find it very relevant. The next elections are two years away. If we are still in this pandemic by then, we are all doomed. But, if not, then the Hungarian government, as any other, will have to attend to the usual list of public policies, where parliament retains legislative power and the opposition parties can fully exercise their constitutional rights. The new emergency laws have no effective power to silence either the opposition or critical press: the tone of the political discourse in Hungary since the passing of the law has only become even more vitriolic. As with the previous emergency that you mentioned, which for the last year interested no one in the country, the ability of the prime minister to maintain this new agenda for ever will be limited. 

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Many European citizens struggle to understand how Orban is actually perceived in his own country. Thousands of Hungarians protested at the end of 2018 against the so-called “slave-law”, that nearly doubled how much overtime employees could work. Nevertheless, he somehow appears to be still popular. Where is the truth?
This question is relatively easy to answer. First, Orbán returned to power in 2010, after a catastrophic defeat of the socialists following their mismanagement of the economic crisis in 2009. The left remains very unpopular in Hungary to the present day. A weak and fractured opposition means that the public does not perceive a strong alternative to the current regime. Second, since 2013, the popularity of the government has increased substantially because of robust economic growth, which brought very significant increases in wages and practically full employment. The upper middle class, which has traditionally supported Orbán, saw their living standards improve even more than the rest of the population. Under such conditions, any government would be popular. This also means, however, that Orbán will be judged on how he manages the crisis and especially how much he can limit the economic damage. If he fails, he can fall badly.

Hungary is one of the “net recipients” when it comes to EU Budget, meaning that it receives from the EU more than it gives back. A significant portion of the European public opinion believes that the EU should channel less funds to Hungary in order to undermine Orban’s power. Would this be a wise move from the EU, or would the situation get even worse?
This would be a terrible move and certainly not timely. The EU budget in the medium term will have to be dictated by the response to the crisis and its economic consequences. The EU must present a united front. Any proposal trying to tie transfers within the cohesion policy to the state of the rule of law or civil rights would fracture European unity as Orbán has strong supporters in eastern Europe. Countries like Italy and Spain will depend on the solidarity of all countries less severely affected by economic depression, including those in eastern Europe, who may be asked to limit their demands on EU support. Also, in times of national emergencies, any attack by the EU on national governments would be counterproductive.

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From our correspondents
Paolo Barone
Maria Francesca Martini (Culturit Bocconi)

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As a European citizen born in Portici, I'm interested in whatever deals with the economics and politics of our Continent. Sometimes I also pretend to understand philosophy.

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