New State of Danger in Hungary

Winslow Homer: Looking out to Sea, Cullercoats (1882) // Public domain

As far as power goes, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán cannot complain. His party, Fidesz recently won its 4th consecutive elections, with a supermajority no less. He had ample time to exercise power since 2010, as since then all of his government enjoyed a two third majority support in the parliament.

However, one of the first measures of the new parliament has been the introduction of a new state of danger, due to the war in Ukraine, which gives extraordinary powers to the government. Hungary is not new to this measure, as it had previously been implemented during the Covid-19 crisis. However, the question remains: why does a new government that won the elections by a landside need these privileges.

Fidesz as Great Protector against External Forces

Hungary held general elections in early April and government critics had high hopes that the opposition might have a chance after 12 consecutive years of Fidesz rule. Primary elections were held among opposition parties that agreed to form a coalition, which selected the most popular candidates.

The opposition was led by someone who did not belong to any parties, and thus did not suffer from the negative stigma attached to opposition party-politicians. Even the most pessimistic analysts mostly agreed that Fidesz, the governing party, would not achieve a supermajority this time. They were, however, wrong.

The opposition campaign was plagued by election laws that favour the sitting government, internal conflicts and unimaginative promises that failed to attract voter enthusiasm. The opposition simply forgot that whatever they could promise, Fidesz promised something that resonated more fundamentally with voters in times of war, inflation and uncertainty: protection and stability.

Viktor Orbán and his party were shrewd in recognizing that whatever happens, be it the state of corruption in the country, the influence of pro-oligarch policies in the economy, or the concern of the international community over the state of rule of law in Hungary: it all comes down to perception.

If the government can distort facts and control the narrative, by attributing any good developments to Fidesz, and any bad ones to the influence of external forces, such as the opposition, the EU, the refugees, or the war in the neighbourhood, then Fidesz can pose as a great protector that shields people from these malevolent external forces.

The new state of danger must be examined from this perspective. Its main benefit is not the extraordinary legal powers, but the marketing opportunity to blame an external force against which Fidesz can protect Hungarians.

Ever since Fidesz gained power again after a brief hiatus in 2010, the government’s communication always identified at least one enemy. It is not a new concept. German political theorist, Carl Schmitt claimed that politics can be summarised as a distinction between friend and enemy. Identifying an enemy that threatens the current existence of a group of people can unite these people against the external threat and thus is a strong political tool.

Fidesz has identified many enemies that wanted to change the way Hungarians live. Migrants, who are culturally incompatible, Hungarian born American billionaire and philanthropist, George Soros, who supports the opposition so that his ideas of a free society will be realised rather than the Christian-conservative society Fidesz is claiming to maintain.

Then, there is the European Union, which wants to force its ideas of democracy on Hungary, or the opposition which wants to take away benefits from the poor and send youth to the frontlines in Ukraine. The government uses these propagandistic  messages to show people, how the government is protecting Hungarians against these “horrors” and how if any other government is voted to power, the current safety of people will be in danger.

The State of Danger as Yet Another Decoy

The legislative recognition of an external danger is also not new in Hungary. A state of crisis, due to mass migration was introduced during the migrant crisis and extended even when the number of migrants did not justify it.

In addition, a state of danger was introduced during the pandemic and gave the government the right to rule by decrees, which led to increased prosecution and silencing of the free mediaand spread of government-induced disinformation. While the current state of danger, which came into effect on May 25 and will initially last 15 days, gives the government extraordinary powers to rule through decrees and to suspend the application of certain laws, the Covid-19 predecessor will run out on June 1.

The new state of danger focusses on the current economic hardships, and blames the EU as well as the war in Ukraine. To compensate for this, the government now announced that the “extra profit of big companies and banks” will be taken away, and the additional money influx will be used to protect the government mandated utility price reduction (such as gas as electricity) of households, and benefit the military.

These are measures the government could have introduced simply with its supermajority. However, in order to better justify the economic meddling, an external force had to be blamed and this had to be codified. The state of emergency is therefore a two-way red herring. On the one hand, Fidesz can distract from its blunders by shifting blame to external forces.

On the other hand, while activists fret over its ramifications (which is not unjustified), the debate will concentrate on the state of danger rather than the measures that are blamed on it. How the measures are introduced will therefore be more important to critics than what the measures entail.

In the end, Fidesz is a master in communication, and with the new state of danger he hit the jackpot again: New laws can be passed and blamed on the “external danger”. The state of danger should therefore be seen as more of a communication tool rather than a policy aid.

Unfortunately, however, the extra powers are looming over the already tattered rule of law in Hungary, and the fact that they have not yet been abused doesn’t assure that they won’t be.

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Mate Hajba
Free Market Foundation
Liberal Voices Syndicated