Sense of Freedom in Hungary During COVID-19 Pandemic

Unbekannter_Künstler_-_Ansicht_von_Budapest_-_4533_-_Österreichische_Galerie_Belvedere
Anonymous: Ansicht von Budapest // Public domain

2020 was a special year because of the coronavirus pandemic. It was not only unique for healthcare, but also it really changed many areas of human life. The introduction of the restrictive measures had a negative effect on both human rights and the economy – which is true for both Hungary and the Netherlands.

When discussing human rights, it is best to compare two democratic states, as it makes analysis easier, although Hungary has been the subject of much criticism recently for its constitutionality. In a democracy, the rule of law and the constitution are very important, but the citizen’s mindset is the most vital.

Legal Conditions

Hungary first declared a state of emergency due to the coronavirus epidemic on March 11, 2020. This means, the Hungarian government can rule the country through executive orders and can make decisions alone. That is not necessarily a problem for the rule of law, because if we think about it, we can see that, in an emergency situation the government must make decisions quickly and effectively, while a debate in the parliament with the opposition about the decisions could cost lives.

This means, that the line between the executive power and legislation is blurred, but in Hungary it already was, because of the two-thirds majority, which the ruling Fidesz-KDNP coalition already has and because the two parties pursue a centralized policy and the autonomy of the factions cannot be interpreted in this way. So there is no real parliamentary scrutiny of the government.

One of the most common arguments in favor of autocracies is their effectiveness, because there is no need to consult with others about certain decisions. The Hungarian Government could therefore benefit from the pandemic in order to reinforce the steps it has already taken towards hybridization.

Restrictive Measures

There are some restrictive measures, which are important, for example social distancing, closing of schools or the restriction of the right of assembly. These are measures that governments in many other European countries have had to take, but the Hungarian governing party is undermining their citizens’ civil rights. The government also took measures that have nothing to do with the pandemic, now I would like to mention a few of these. First in May 2020., a measure that concerns the disclosure of data of public interest.

In Hungary, in case of a request for data in the public interest, the authorities have 15 days to release the requested information, but they have increased it to 45 days under the new regulation1. This makes it very difficult for journalists, who often request data regarding pressing issues about which the competent public authorities are otherwise unwilling to provide information.

So, it is harder to access the information, and it has negative effects on the press freedom. In the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic the Hungarian government introduced a new regulation to stop spreading fake news, which was explained by the coronavirus.

Fake news is a worldwide problem nowadays, but the regulation was not clear and the government attacked the independent media with their statements; for example, when the independent media wrote about tha lack of masks in hospitals or the lack of protective gears.

The authorities may interpret the regulation too broadly. That is problematic in terms of epidemic control, because people need to be informed2. A public debate on health and government measures is needed to maintain public trust.

As we can see, the rule of law is being undermined in Hungary, but the Hungarian people don’t really care about it. The discourse regarding human rights in Hungary is underdeveloped, and is yet to reach a wide audience.

The Republikon Institute published an analysis about the state of human rights in Hungary during the first wave of the pandemic. They came to the conclusion that about half of Hungarians don’t feel that the situation of liberties had worsened and only about a third of people feel that access to information and freedom of the press has deteriorated3.

This statement is quite interesting from the citizens’ perspective, as Hungary is usually mentioned as a hybrid regime is scientific circles. Recently, the European Union criticized Hungary for the state of rule of law in the country4.

The Fidesz party’s response was that the rule of law did not exist in the Netherlands either, because of the lack of the constitutional court. So in the eyes of the world Hungary is a hybrid regime and its democracy is constantly deteriorating, but most Hungarian people think that, there was no deterioration in terms of liberties during the virus.

Riots in the Netherlands

The Dutch government has introduced a curfew in January 2021. to limit the spread of the coronavirus, then protests began all over the country. One reason for this is that initially the Dutch government did not want to take strict measures, because it is foreign to the Dutch to adopt measures that interfere with human rights.

We cannot see a specific group behind violent demonstrations, so it is not a homogeneous movement5, but it is very interesting what the consequences of restricting certain rights might be in a state governed by the rule of law.

Before the curfew was introduced, there were restricting measures in the Netherlands too. These measures did not differ much from the Hungarian measures.

From September 2020, gatherings of more than 50 people were banned, catering establishments had to close at 01:00. From December 2020, even stricter rules were in place. Outdoor gatherings were limited to four people from different households, all food and beverage establishments were limited to takeout services only.

So strict measures were in place and people, as in other countries, were disappointed, but that wasn’t the only problem in this period. The Dutch government resigned in January over a child benefits scandal in which thousands of parents were falsely accused of fraud, but the Dutch prime minister had escaped relatively untouched6.

So there was a health crisis and also a political scandal, which made the situation and the confidence in the government very difficult.

Conclusions

The Netherlands is not the only country where protests began against the lockdowns. There have been no major demonstrations in Hungary yet, but it is no coincidence because the people feel less repression, thanks to Fidesz’s dominance over popular media.

I can highlight two demonstrations. The first was on the end of January, people protested against the situation of the catering industry because the restaurants and bars have been closed since November.

A few hundred people took part in this demonstration7. The second demonstration took place at the end of February. About 1,000 people took part in the demonstration, which was organized by a Hungarian COVID-19 denier. As soon as the police on scene started identifying people, the incident was over8.

It is interesting that there is a constitutional court in Hungary, but it is still easier to deprive people of their fundamental rights than in a country where there is no specific constitutional court. We have seen how the ruling party uses the life-threatening virus to maintain its own power while educating other countries about the rule of law.

I believe that the people’s perception of freedom, which is only thirty years old in Hungary, and lacks the historical support of civil society which can be found in western nations like the Netherlands, poses a serious threat to our democracy. Especially if a populist governing party alters the meaning of such pillars of democracy like the rule of law, civil society or freedom of speech, so it befits its own political agenda.

Adam Kefer
Republikon Institute