Dictators Near Us. How Authoritarian Leaders Used the Pandemic Crisis to Get Unlimited Power

[ANLYSIS Bulletin No 6] Dan Nicu | The pandemic that engulfed the entire world at the beginning of 2020 is an unique opportunity to see the behaviour of political stakeholders who govern in different countries of the world. Faced with the need to adapt to unique challenges in their political carrier, some of them turned to  quasi-dictatorial control measures – officially claiming that they needed them to avoid plunging their countries into chaos, but de facto – in order to make sure they would not lose their power.

The article below analyses two neighbouring countries that are very close to us geographically, officially democratic, where two leaders took advantage of the pandemic crisis and transformed their countries from shaky democracies into de facto dictatorships. The first case is Hungary and the second – Serbia.

Viktor Orban and Governance By Decree

At the end of March, the unicameral Parliament of Hungary received a draft law that allows the Prime-Minister Viktor Orban to rule the country by decrees for an unlimited period of time. The same draft law introduces criminal punishment of up to five years of detention for the deliberate dissemination of fake news about SARS-Cov-2 pandemic. Fake news fall within the scope of the law if courts believe they would affect substantially the capacity of the Government to manage the pandemic crisis. In order to be adopted the same week when it was tabled, the draft law had to be voted by 4/5 of members of the National Assembly, that is, 160 of 199, which is impossible due to the opposition parties that own 66 mandates. All the opposition parties were against the measures proposed by the new law, which determined the governing party Fidesz to wait for a new session of the Parliament during which they had the right to adopt the new law with 2/3 of the MP’s votes, which eventually happened on 30 March 2020.

During the debates regarding the adoption of this law, the position of the governing party, Fidesz, was very tough, unwilling to make one single concession required by the opposition: set a concrete deadline when the extraordinary prerogatives allowing Viktor Orban to govern on his own, without the involvement of the Parliament, will expire.

At the same time, several European countries empowered by law certain officials with increased prerogatives in order to fight the pandemic crisis, but all these measures were adopted with a deadline. For instance, the UK Coronavirus Act 2020, adopted in March and which expires within six months – unless the House of Commons decides to prolong it for six more months.

In France, the measures proposed by President Emanuel Macron are effective for two months, and this period can be extended if necessary. In Romania, the state of emergency was adopted for a month and was further prolonged for one more month and later on it was replaced with state of alert, which does not have a fundamental impact on the operation of state institutions.

Imposing in the middle of Europe and European Union a state of emergency that allows the state leader to rule without being able to stop him in one way or another, for an unlimited period, is an abnormal behaviour of decision makers in a state with a functional democracy.

However Hungary is moving very fast towards democracy degradation  — a process that did not start yesterday, but 10 years ago, since Fidesz party and its leader Viktor Orban has been ruling the country. It is true that in 2010, Fidesz returned to power on the basis of free and democratic vote of the Hungarian people. But, from a country with firm democracy strengthening trends, characteristic for the new members of the European Union from Central Europe in 2000s, Hungary ended up the only country in the EU with a governance that was pompously self-proclaimed as illiberal – and which is not ashamed to adopt measures characteristic to ‘social conservatism’ (some kind of fake conservatism) and to Putin-style ‘sovereign democracy’. Some of these measures include adopting an election system that can make it very difficult to change the governing party, by ensuring it (and a small satellite party) a supermajority of 2/3 of the parliamentary seats.

After 2010, the justice sector was gradually moved under the Government control, most of the independent media outlets were either taken by players close to the power or were closed, a large part of the economy was nationalised and non-government organisations that promote democracy and civic rights were classified as foreign agents, hostile to Hungary, and their activity was seriously limited. As regards human rights protection, Hungary has been falling behind the European Union quite rapidly. The quite hostile attitude of the Hungarian Government against migrants in 2015-2016 lead to paroxysm; also, with the help of the authorities a ‘civic guard’ was established, which together with the army forces patrolled the country’s borders, raising involuntary associations with fascist and Nazi totalitarian regimes that existed during the interwar period.

At the same time, the topic of LGBT minorities was transformed in an anti-Western scarecrow. From the economic point of view, Fidesz Government rather resulted in a stagnation than growth – which allowed a country like Romania, for example, which years ago was lagging much more behind Hungary in terms of personal income, to get very close to the latter.

The measures taken by the Hungarian authorities in March were criticised by representatives of human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, by representatives of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition, as well as by certain members of the European Parliament. The worries concern both the danger of an authoritarian governance and of imposing tougher repressive measures against the remaining independent media. Specifically, the authorities could use the new provisions of the law in order to accuse independent journalists of ‘anti-governmental’ actions by disseminating news that are regarded as fake by authorities. This opens the way toward self-censorship, that is, Hungary risks to go back where it began in 1989 – a totalitarian political reality.

On 18 June, the law offering extraordinary powers to the Prime Minister was abolished and a new law was passed, stating that a new state of emergency based on governance by decrees adopted by the Prime Minister, may be imposed by the Government without consulting the Parliament, at the recommendation of the country’s chief epidemiologist, appointed by the Government. Specifically, the law provides that the state of emergency and governance by decree may be introduced without any vote in the Parliament if the Government declares first ‘state of public health emergency’. Note that this law does not set any deadline until when the democratic governance will be suspended – this is to be established for an unlimited period of time, until new circumstances would justify its annulment (according to the Prime Minister, of course).

Thus, at present, the Budapest Government has one more tool that can destroy the democracy, in addition to those created since 2010. Orban regime used the pandemic crisis to successfully test what seem unachievable: establishing a de factor dictatorship. Now, by the law enacted in June, Fidesz obtains the red button it can press any time, after inventing some reasons for doing so, and thus throw the country’s constitution and laws in the garbage bin. The Hungarian Prime Minister is currently enabled to legally turn off the democracy and then to turn it back on whenever he feels comfortable. In an European Union Member State, this is something unthinkable and is against at least one of the Copenhagen criteria that should be observed by all EU Member States.

Aleksandar Vucic accuses ‘foreign agencies’ for not letting him become a dictator

During the second part of March, Serbia followed the example of its Northern neighbour, Hungary, and instituted an unusually tough for Europe state of emergency. The President Aleksandar Vucic, the de facto leader of Serbian Progressive Party, the governing party, announced the establishment of state of emergency on 15 March 2020, without indicating the duration of this measure. Just like the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Vucic gifted himself the prerogative to rule the country through decrees, going around the Parliament. Representatives of Serbian opposition drew the attention to the fact that President Vucic manifestly goes beyond the prerogatives provided by the Serbian Constitution, which are mostly ceremonial. A huge hall for exhibitions from Belgrad was transformed in a makeshift hospital with about 3,000 beds, which caused fear among the population.

President Vucic said he was happy that people were afraid because they would observe the orders to stay at home. Starting with May, the state of emergency was lifted and the President is not ruling any more by decrees. However, the successive relaxation measures were accompanied, since July, by a growing number of Covid-19 cases, like almost in the entire Europe. Thus, at the beginning of July, the Serbian Government and president Vucic announced their intention to reintroduce the state of emergency and all the provisions that it contained between March and May, including governance by presidential decrees. The same moment, the country engulfed in protests, which degenerated in violent confrontations between protesters and security forces in front of the country’s Parliament building. When the Parliament was about to be taken down by protesters, President Vucic announced that he dropped his intentions to re-establish the state of emergency. At the same time, he accused the protesters of being controlled by foreign secret services, extremists and murderers.

They had to organise violent protests in order to force Vucic give up on his intentions, but this does not mean that he will not repeat this at the first opportunity. The President’s party is leading a coalition that controls over 2/3 of the Parliamentary seats (188 of 250), which means that he can amend the text of the Constitution anytime he wants. Serbia has been facing a decline of democracy since 2012, that is, since the current Government is in power.

‘Providential figures’ who established a de facto dictatorship

This is the main common element of the evolution of political life in the two countries addressed in this article, Hungary and Serbia – in both of them political parties that came to power in a democratic way limited the democracy by subordinating independent institutions (justice system, media) and established de facto authoritarian regimes led by ‘providential’ figures. This spring, Viktor Orban and Aleksandar Vucic ‘tasted the prohibited fruit’ of dictatorship, and now they are waiting for the right moment to reintroduce the governance by decree. If the pandemic crisis worsens this autumn and winter, and at the beginning of the next year, both leaders will identify opportunities to implement their plans.

‘A little bit of a dictator?’

It is important that these two anti-models are not taken by other states in the region. We all know a character, who is very close to us and who became president by accident and worships leaders like Lucashenko, Putin or Orban. It is known that this character would like a lot to have the possibility to feel ‘a little bit of a dictator’. Maybe, if he manages to win the presidential election in November and to gather a parliamentary majority, his dream will come true. To the detriment of the country’s people who have the bad luck of having him as their leader.

Source of the photos: Reuters and Deutsche Welle

Dan Nicu graduated from the Faculty of Political Sciences and Master’s Program in Political Theory and Analysis at the National School of Political Studies and Public Administration of Bucharest. Both his diploma paper and dissertation analyse the post-Soviet transition of the Republic of Moldova. Author of two volumes: ‘Copiii vitregi ai Istoriei sau Se caută o revoluție pentru Basarabi’ [‘Step Children of History or a Revolution for Bessarabia is Sought’] (2008) and ‘Moldovenii în tranziție’ [‘Moldovans in Transition’] (2013). In the recent years, he has worked for several publications from Romania and the Republic of Moldova, including Adevarul, Cotidianul, Timpul. During 2019-2020 he studied at the Faculty of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Warsaw under ‘Lane Kirkland’ international scientific research program, studying the phenomenon of fake news as part of hybrid threats. In 2020 he became an associated expert for LID Moldova.

This material was developed by LID Moldova experts under the project The Best Way: Periodic Bulletin funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Opinions and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and the experts and do not necessarily reflect the position of the funder.

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