The recent introduction of the Enabling Act in Hungary has been interpreted by some as a sudden authoritarian turn, designed to meet the unique challenges of the coronavirus outbreak. But, argues Attila Antal, Victor Orbán’s government has merely used the crisis as an opportunity to build on an existing project of neoliberal autocracy, with a view towards the consolidation of power in the post-pandemic world.
The Orbán regime has found a way to capitalise on the pandemic situation. Contrary to the assessment of other commentators, the coronavirus did not bring about or even finalise the authoritarian turn. Rather the conditions of authoritarian rule pre-existed the crisis and were certain to define how the government would respond to the crisis.
There is no question that by enacting the Enabling Law, which grants absolute power to the Prime Minister, the Orbán regime has irretrievably become an authoritarian political system. Of course, this represents a massive danger to the European Union, one that has existed for some time but has become heightened in the context of a fresh eurozone crisis. But the unholy use of the coronavirus situation is just the latest stage of exceptional government in Hungary.
The main social and political outcome of this permanent state of exception is the subjection of society to the forces of neoliberalism. I am arguing here that not just the new Enabling Law, but also the neoliberalisation of public services puts Hungarian society in an incredibly difficult position for dealing with the threat of an epidemic.
The state of exception a long-lasting reality
According to Giorgio Agamben there has been a fundamental transformation in the idea and practice of government in Europe, ‘which overturns the traditional hierarchical relation between causes and effects. Since governing the causes is difficult and expensive, it is safer and more useful to try to govern the effects.’ Authoritarian populist regimes have typically sought to manage the effects of crises caused by them and this is a considerable shift not just in the concept of government, but towards penal politics.
The use of emergency measures in normal circumstances is not a new practice in Hungary. Since 2015 the Orbán regime has constantly been using extraordinary measures to maintain its political power, for instance during a prolonged biopolitical hate campaign against refugees and migrants. This reality puts the new Enabling Law into a different light, because the real danger, in my view, is not just the untrammelled power of Orbán and rule by decree, granted by the new regulation, but the fact that this form of exceptional governance has existed for nearly half a decade and promises to endure beyond the crisis. This situation is especially worrisome because it will compound the impacts of the neoliberal measures applied before and during the crisis.
Managing pandemic as a political crisis
The Orbán regime did not expect such a crisis (pandemic related information available here and here) to evolve and spread as it has. On 28 February he argued that the virus had attracted all the attention, but that the historical challenge facing Hungary would remain that of migration: ‘we must prepare for migrant flows, we must prepare for regular mass attacks at the Hungarian border fence’. At this time Orbán and his staff had in mind a totally different political agenda in the long run up to the election of 2022: they were about to create a new chapter of hate campaign against migrants, the judicial system and opposition forces.
Although Orbán was able to change his political strategy and started to take the pandemic seriously, initially this was not down to his political instincts, but to the exceptional pressure from his own ruling party and smaller coalition partner, the Christian Democrats. This delay, if the pandemic had exploded in Hungary with the same rapidity as in Western Europe, could have been fatal. For a moment, he proved unable or unwilling to switch strategy.
The Prime Minister understood the political risk in economic rather than epidemiological terms, which is why he introduced measures to protect the economy first and not the workers. Introducing these measures, Orbán argued that ‘We should fight against this crisis by not giving up our goals … the workfare economy and the possibility of a proud life’. Anti-immigration rhetoric has also been persistent from the outset. On 6 March, Orbán once again spoke of migration and the coronavirus as twin challenges. Just a few days later, he argued that ‘there is a clear link between illegal migration and the coronavirus epidemic’.
Nevertheless, Orbán has now discovered the political potential of the pandemic and started to manage it using military and policing methods. Above all, the Prime Minister and his communication strategists came to recognise that they would have to respond to the real fears and concerns of the Hungarian people and factions behind the government, who understood there was no link between immigration and the pandemic. On 11 March the regime combined its own agenda with the need for action on the coronavirus by declaring the state of emergency, restricting mass events, visits to institutions and deciding on increased border control. This state of emergency put new powers into the hands of Orbán, now positioned as the ultimate authority in Hungary.
By this time Fidesz and the Christian Democratic faction had started a conversation with the opposition political groups in the Hungarian Parliament, and this created a more constructive atmosphere. The most delicate issue was the closure of schools and Orbán was put under pressure by the people, the opposition parties as well as his own political allies. It was remarkable that on the morning of 13 March the Prime Minister argued that ‘they have not closed public education institutions because the virus does not seem to infect children … if they close schools … teachers would have to go on unpaid leave’. Within days, this position too had been reversed and the schools were closed.
Negotiations between the government and the opposition were interrupted because it was widely understood that the regime was preparing for the seizure of emergency powers without any political or time constraints. This dispute came to a head when Prime Minister’s Office charged the opposition parties with irresponsibility on account of their refusal to endorse these steps, Orbán’s propaganda arm claiming that ‘many measures to combat the virus will not be in force’. In pushing for emergency powers without any restrictions, Orbán was able to blame the opposition for the lack of national unity in a time of crisis. At the same time, he needed to ensure that the political factions in government fell in behind his agenda. The Enabling Law was therefore necessary for Orbán, not just for the restriction of the opposition, but also to regulate and sustain his insecure political coalition.
It suffices to say that helping the working people is not a priority for the Orbán regime. This is clear from its shift away from welfare to workfare concept and the neoliberalisation of public services in recent the past years. This neoliberalisation goes hand in hand with the concentration of political power, because emergency powers are effectively maintaining the neoliberal agenda which characterises the Orbán regime.
As argued above, the Orbán regime has always been much more afraid of the economic consequences of the crisis than of its epidemiological ones. A neoliberal and state-capitalist approach has been central to the Hungarian government’s agenda since 2010, involving the strengthening the private health sector and a huge withdrawal of funds from public health. One consequence of this is that significant number of Hungarian doctors and nurses work abroad. In addition, the regime has gradually dismantled the universal insurance system and expelled the poorest from access to vital healthcare services. These are well-known phenomena and reveal how, in Hungary as elsewhere across Europe, neoliberalism has intensified deep social and economic problems.
This ‘embedded’ neoliberalism has remained intact from the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis. Most of the government’s economic measures are about saving employers and capital, instead of protecting workers. Across Europe, many states have introduced wage subsidies to help workers and avoid mass unemployment, some covering 80 percent or more of average wages. But not in Hungary. The Orbán regime has resisted calls to ease the suffering of the people, only introducing a one-time supplement for health workers due to public pressure. This attitude has already resulted in significant social tensions, generating hopelessness among the coronavirus unemployed.
A tax exemption for small businesses and moratorium on loans will hardly be enough to save the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian workers who lose their jobs and have no savings. While the callousness of this may be surprising, it fits the pattern of neoliberalisation under the Orbán regime. Following the introduction of the workfare concept in 2014, a punitive counter to the concept of social welfare systems, it would not be out of sorts for the government to use the pandemic as an opportunity to eliminate the last remnants of the welfare state.
Preparing to rule in a post-pandemic world
Because of the permanent state of exception that exists in Hungary, the Enabling Act is not an authoritarian moment but rather an opportunistic move to consolidate power and reinforce the existing balance of forces. This does not mean that the Enabling Law is not an important turning point; it is in three senses. First, Orbán has always governed alone, so the law was not needed to for this purpose, but more so to intimidate and discipline those political factions within government which had become uneasy.
Secondly, the Enabling Act put Hungarian society into a political quarantine. The situation is extremely paradox, because social uprisings on the streets will weaken efforts to control the pandemic, but without a strong protest movement the permanent Enabling Law will define the post-pandemic situation. This is the greatest danger of the current moment: through the Enabling Act Orbán will be able to maintain a state of emergency even when it is no longer required.
Finally, Orbán has found a way to advance political aspirations that do not serve to tackle the pandemic, but to build a post-pandemic Hungary in his image. The regime has already started to implement its political agenda under the cover of epidemiological measures: stripping powers from mayors (which was eventually withdrawn); forcing the continuation of a contested construction investment project in Budapest; escalating the cultural war through tightened control of the theatres; classifying public data about a Chinese-funded railway project for a decade (in which Orbán’s most important oligarch, Lőrincz Mészáros, got involved); continuing to systematically clamp down on academic freedoms at state universities; financially plundering the opposition parties and municipalities; and denying state recognition of gender transition, to name but a few examples.
None of these measures relates to the management of the pandemic. Meanwhile the regime has detected remarkably few coronavirus cases due to having one of the lowest test rates in the European Union. That is to say, Orbán is trying to manage the coronavirus crisis politically, because his aim is to consolidate power, deepen neoliberal reforms and ensure that the state of exception remains in the post-pandemic world.
Attila Antal has a PhD in Political Science and workers as an assistant lecturer at the Faculty of Law Institute of Political Science, Eötvös Loránd University. He is also coordinator of the Social Theory Research Group at the Institute of Political History, and editor of Eszmélet (Consciousness) Journal.