Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy adviser to the Conservative Party.
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán likes to show off his two-third parliamentary majority.
What he doesn’t tell you is that it was obtained on less than half of votes within the country, and against an opposition that was, in 2018, bitterly divided – and therefore heavily disadvantaged by an electoral system in which just over half the seats are elected first past the post.
Opinion polls give his Fidesz party around the same share as last time, but the next elections, scheduled for 2022, were always going to take place in a markedly different political environment.
Last year, the opposition ran a single candidate against Fidesz, and gained control of five cities, including Budapest. Opinion polls in advance of those elections showed a small Fidesz lead, but overstated their support by about seven per cent, producing a heavy defeat.
In a 50-50 election, Fidesz, with its Christian-Democrat coalition partners, would likely win a slender majority of about 10 seats, thanks to the highly favourable constituency boundaries it drew when it changed the electoral system before 2014.
A predicted margin of 10 seats, is however a little too close for comfort, particularly in first past the post contests where a handful of seats in a few constituencies will be decided on extremely tight margins. A defeat and change of government could have serious consequences indeed, particularly in relation to investigations into the extraordinary successful careers of Orbán-connected business people.
Far from confident, Orbán has started to get jumpy.
This is explains his very risky Coronavirus gamble. He pushed through an emergency law, wholly unnecessary in substance, that includes an unlimited Henry VIII clause, giving his government indefinite power to rule by decree, suspend the operation of laws, and close courts.
Parliament stays open, but can be overridden by executive order. The constitutional court stays open, but cases are hard to bring, unless lower courts, which can be shut under the emergency decree, have ruled first.
But as Sherlock Holmes said of the dog in the night-time, the curious incident is what did not happen. He chose not to include a sunset clause in the in the law, even though his two-third parliamentary majority would guarantee that he could renew the emergency as long as he likes.
The prevailing theory doing the rounds in Hungarian opposition circles is that this was a wedge gambit, trying to paint the opposition as being distracted by constitutional niceties instead of pulling together to fight the virus. And it is certainly true that a further law, banning gender-reassignment surgery, at a time all elective operations are being cancelled, has precisely that purpose.
The same can presumably be said of regulations to give the central government control of municipal theatres. A more transparent attack, is on state funding of political parties, 50 per cent of which has been requisitioned for a virus-fighting fund.
Each, together with a law against spreading “distortions” about the epidemic, could have been passed by his two-third majority in parliament without the emergency decree. It is an attempt to distract the opposition from the main issue, which is the Hungarian government’s mismanagement and underfunding of the health system.
Hungary has an ageing population and shortage of doctors. Cancer survival rates are declining, and supplies so limited that the opposition, Momentum, took the opportunity to campaign by distributing toilet roll to patients because hospitals couldn’t provide it. A leaked ministerial letter suggests personal protective equipment in Hungary, as elsewhere, is in extremely short supply. According to a leaked diplomatic report claims the virus began to be transmitted in the community long before the Hungarian government acknowledged it.
Though Hungary’s is not the only government whose past choices have got it into Coronavirus trouble, this is a crisis that is especially difficult for the government to escape. It’s one thing to inflate an imaginary threat from refugees, quite another to evade responsibility for thousands of Hungarians dead. Hungary’s Forint has come under heavy pressure as the economic damage caused by the virus is clear, losing a tenth of its value against the pound. For the first time since 2010 a Hungarian government is facing major economic trouble.
The emergency law is a double-edged sword. While it allows Orbán to preset himself as decisive, it also personalises responsibility for the epidemic on himself.
Internationally, the effect has been counterproductive in the extreme, taking a bulldozer to the democratic facade he has left in place to conceal his de facto authoritarian rule. The problem is not that it changed anything much, but it made the reality that Hungary is under one-man rule impossible to ignore. It drew immediate condemnation in the United States, from Senate Republicans as well as House Democrats.
Fellow EU members issued a veiled statement criticising breaches of the rule of law when dealing with the coronavirus epidemic (Hungary was not, however named, allowing Budapest to show contempt for the diplomatic attitude it was given by signing up to the statement itself). More important, Poland’s Civic Platform has joined calls to expel Orbán’s Fidesz party from its European group, and the German Foreign and Finance ministers have reactivated a proposal to make EU funds conditional on upholding the rule of law.
The German tanks Hungary bought last year last year appear to have given him insufficient protection from comparisons with the Enabling Act passed by their largest twentieth century customer. Failing to include a sunset clause exposed him to charges of dictatorship. It is another example that he’s increasingly alone and losing his touch.