Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
26 March 2020

Democratic experiences in the coronavirus pandemic: Hungary

An analysis by Kim Lane Scheppele, Princeton Unversity

Welcome to the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s commentary series on the effects of the novel coronavirus on democratic experiences around the globe. The pandemic is not just an epidemiological phenomenon – it is also a political, economic, and social one. In this series, we examine how this general “emergency” translates into democratic and authoritarian practice - across scales, and in different facets of life, from the institutional to the intimate.

In the first contribution, Kim Lane Scheppele explores how the Hungarian Parliament has passed legislation that turns the country into a subject of executive fiat. Kim Lane Scheppele, Professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University, was recently invited by the Democracy Centre to give a public lecture in its series on “Dismantling the Rule of Law?”. Building on the argument that she made during her talk, her commentary explains that Viktor Orbán has declared the coronavirus an emergency (as reflected in the official justification for the law) and designed a law “that would give him dictatorial powers” for an indeterminate length of time. This law was waved through parliament by his party and their allies.

Even though states around the world are turning to emergency powers to strengthen the executive in the face of the coronavirus, Prof. Scheppele argues that Viktor Orbán’s response is particular and distinct. It is extreme in its curtailment of the freedom of movement and expression; it keeps these restrictions in place even post-emergency; and it allows Viktor Orbán to govern completely by decree and with almost no practical checks. Whether this is a defensive posture, allowing him to cling to power as the virus takes its human toll, or an opportunistically offensive one, allowing him to eliminate political opponents, remains to be seen.

Kim Lane Scheppele asks: Could anyone legally challenge this emergency law or any government action taken under it?  As I write, the trial-level courts in Hungary have already been suspended out of fear of spreading the virus, and if the ordinary courts are closed, no ordinary person can initiate a case that could get to the Constitutional Court. There are some other political actors who could take a case directly to the Court invoking abstract review but Orbán controls all of those offices. Though the Constitutional Court is required by the Hungarian Fundamental Law to remain open through an emergency (and the pending law makes much of honoring this “guarantee”), it is hard to see how any case could get to the Constitutional Court in the present moment.  The only possibility is that one-quarter of the Parliament, a number that would require the far-right and the left to act in concert, could challenge this law or decrees endorsed by it. But that is unlikely even now. 

Read her full post on Verfassungsblog


Kim Scheppele Kim Lane Scheppele is Laurance S.Rockefeller Professor of Sociology and International Affairs in the Woodrow Wilson School and the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University