We spoke with the editor of the Hungarian weekly Mandiner Zoltán Szalai about the state of democracy in Hungary, Hungary’s actions in times of coronavirus pandemic and the attacks that the neighboring country has received from MSM and international organizations.
Zoltán Szalai (Budapest, 1981) is publisher and editor-in chief of the Hungarian weekly newspaper Mandiner. He studied german language and literature and human rescourse management in Budapest, Heidelberg and Pécs. He holds a PhD summa cum laude in cultural studies from 2016. He is also active in the education sector and writer and editor of several books in Hungarian, German and English.
The Hungarian government has been under attack by mainstream media and international organizations in recent days. They claim that democracy is threatened in Hungary because the parliament has given the government a mandate to declare a state of emergency. What really bothers them about this?
By the Coronavirus Protection Act, Hungary follows the path of other democratic countries of the world, in order to mitigate the effects of the global health crisis imposed by COVID-19, and most importantly, to save lives. Frankly, the whole hype around the new law passed by the Hungarian parliament is smoke and mirrors, and neglects crucial facts. The ‘dying democracy in Hungary’ is no more than baloney, as the Washington Post put it, which was perfectly demonstrated in the interview of CNN’s Chif International Anchor Christina Amanpour with Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó. The FM pointed out that the Hungarian Parliament did not cease to work, as Amanpour stated, moreover, on the week of the interview it even gathered together on three days.
Major allegation in the harsh critics was that the Hungarian government seized unchecked and unlimited powers, marginalizing the Hungarian Parliament. In fact, these are simply not true, and the special powers the Hungarian Government ‘grabbed’ are much more limited than even the ones the French president is granted within ordinary circumstances.
Fifteen countries in the EU declared a state of emergency because of the Chinese virus, but there was no excitement in any country other than Hungary. Why?
That’s right. The United States and numerous European states such as Italy, Spain, Malta, the United Kingdom, just to mention a few democratic countries, all passed emergency decrees and legislation, some even did dissolve their parliament, unlike Hungary. Even Sweden recognized the backlash of ‘herd immunity’ which was their previous strategy and their government has lately been granted special powers to mitigate the effects of the virus.
In the UK, legislation is seeing parliament close for four weeks this month. It also guarantees extraordinary competences to the British government’s cabinet ministers, bypassing parliament, deviating from normal procedure. The government has never passed such measures during peacetime before, that could be in effect for up to two years.
In my opinion, the major cause for stumbling is the very fact that the Hungarian government has a 2/3 majority in legislation as a result of free and fair general elections, the very basis of democracy, for the third time in a row. It’s peculiar in the whole democratic world, since most parties and party alliances can hardly convince the majority of people, some even form government with relative majority or in a grand coalition with serious compromises. The massive support behind the Orbán government creates more appropriate circumstances to deal effectively with the current crises.
England-based Hungarian sociologist Frank Furedi points out the absurdity of how the mainstream Western media draws parallels between Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Adolf Hitler, who built his autocratic empire in 1933 when the Reichstag gave him the green light to run amok by passing the “empowerment law.” Today’s Hungarian government simply does not need this kind of extraordinary granting of power, especially when compared to other European countries, as it already has the exceptional democratic legitimacy to tackle the current health crisis.
As far as I know, the Hungarian Government has explained in detail the procedure and the safeguards regarding the declaration of a state of emergency. Supposedly MSM and the European institutions are not so stupid not to understand?
The Act on the Protection Against the Coronavirus extends the “state of danger” and the existing extraordinary measures and enables the government to introduce additional ones explicitly and exclusively ‘to prevent and respond to the human epidemic of COVID-19’ – pertinent to the epidemic defence. It does not, however, dissolve the National Assembly, unlike in other European and American countries. Moreover, the law clarifies that a two-thirds majority of Parliament is still needed if the government wants to introduce laws and decrees that go beyond the Disaster Management Act. It’s not “without limits”, so clearly not a golden ticket for every political endeavour, nor a shift towards, like many name it, ‘dictatorship’ or ‘autocracy’.
Nor does the law allow the government to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. It focuses outspokenly on extraordinary measures “to prevent, treat, eradicate and remedy harmful consequences” of the ongoing human epidemic that we are fighting against. Government regulations are in effect until the end of the “state of danger”, as it is referred to in the Fundamental Law of Hungary. The parliament may revoke its authorization pertaining to the effect of the extraordinary decrees, and—as it will be in session in the forthcoming period—it can withdraw the entire act any time, even before the end of state of emergency. Actually, when the coronavirus finally comes to an end, these extraordinary regulations will lose their effect immediately, as they are only needed to protect the population from the pandemic. Therefore the legal force of the law depends merely on practicalities and not legalities.
Even in France and the USA – two cradles of human rights -, if lawmakers consider it to be of national interest, some human rights can be limited. In Hungary, the Constitutional Court is still operating without restrictions and the executive power has no authority to restrict fundamental human rights. The government is still obliged to answer to parliament, which has all legal instruments to do the “usual” legislative work itself. Although many tend to ignore this, “measurements of the Fundamental Law cannot be suspended, the work of the Constitutional Court cannot be curtailed and fundamental rights are not to be narrowed down” due to the Hungarian laws, not even in state of emergency.
And if they understood, then why were they criticizing, initiating proceedings and troubling a government trying to protect its people from the dangers of a pandemic?
The current situation is part of struggle that has been going on for years now. Vague and unfounded allegations worrying for democracy in Hungary have been pretty much the same at time of the migration influx in 2015. It’s quite destructive and cynical to pull out the very same criticisms from the magic hat of liberal populism time and again, and to cry over ‘the death of democracy in Hungary’ when similar measures are taken in other democracies all over the world, in the West and East alike, and when vast majority of Hungarians have lined up behind the government.
How do Hungarian voters view the measures taken by the Orban government to fight the virus?
Based on the figures of a recent poll conducted by Hungarian think tank Nézőpont Intézet “90 percent of all Hungarians” who are actually living in the country, and “94 percent of pro-government and 80 percent of anti-government voters agree that the >>state of emergency that has introduced the emergency law in Hungary<<, should be prolonged”. On the question of how long, nearly 60 percent of Hungarians “would authorise the cabinet to introduce special measures until the >>end of the epidemic”<<, and 72 percent agree with the specific tightening of the penal code”.
The majority of Hungarian citizens comprehend the grave situation and fully abide and cooperate with the government measures. As a result, the growth in the number of new cases in Hungary is still gradual, not exponential.
Do you think that this is an organized attack on the Visegrad countries, since criticisms of “threatening democracy” are also directed to Poland, which has not declared a state of emergency at all, but has taken only some extraordinary measures?
Most criticism Hungary and Poland have got for years by now, can be traced back to standing for national sovereignty. Defending national competencies was the clear message of the regional cooperation during the migration crisis as well. However, neither Slovakia, nor the Czech Republic have received much negative comments on their rather strict measurements against the coronavirus which were among the first ones in the EU (except Italy).
The attacks on the Hungarian government have been going on for some years now, what do you think has upset the globalists so much?
Beside of being a vocal advocate of national sovereignty, the Orbán Government has stood up for traditional values such as family, faith and national culture consistently since their election 10 years ago. In the ‘Europe of nations’ these can flourish without hurting cooperation which would create the dream of »unity in diversity«. On the other side of the coin, endeavours which want to tear national borders down and sweep cultural, legal and identity differences under the carpet, will necessarily confront them.
How do ordinary Hungarians comment on the attacks that your country has received from MSM and international organizations?
According to the latest survey carried out by the research institute of Századvég Foundation, 70% of participants expects the EU to put political disputes aside and support member states, and only 23% of them are worried by the excessive governmental power of which debates shall be carried out. The majority of people – who also voted for the current goverment – are tired of being stigmatized for loving their country, traditions, and for seeking the interest of their own people. Most of them do not wish the end of the European Union either, since in Hungary the concept of a strong Europe of nation states is still quite popular.
Don’t you think that complaints about the state of democracy in Hungary are extremely hypocritical? The Macron government in France beat protesters on the streets all year, they were even a few dead, but MSM and international organisations were silent in the case of France.
In the current situation in France, President Macron did not exclusively take measures against the pandemic crisis but also pushed through his explicitly unpopular pension reforms in a rather “draconian” way, bypassing the parliament in early March. France has also declared a state of emergency before, in November 2015, following the Bataclan terrorist attacks, in the country, that had a range of restrictions on civil rights, with the measures lasting more than two years until November 2017. “Expansion of the executive government’s powers in order to deal with a public disaster or a serious threat to public order” also allowed “prefects or the Minister of the Interior to limit or prohibit traffic in certain places, to prohibit certain public assemblies, to temporarily close certain public spaces, to requisition private property or services, to prohibit certain persons from staying in French territory, to put people under temporary house arrest, and to issue “administrative” search warrants” – for two whole years. It really is surprising how underrepresented these facts are in Western media, although deeper understanding of the legal and political European context give a much more realistic picture on the measurements of each countries, thus on the ones of Hungary as well.
In the end, despite attacks and criticism, Fidesz won the Constitutional majority in the last few elections. Do you think this will happen again in the next?
The beauty in democracy is that it’s constantly changing inside dynamics provide room for changes, even unexpected ones. The Fidesz-Christian Democratic alliance won 2/3 majority for the third time in a row two years ago which shows clear and massive support from the Hungarian people’s side for their policies. However, one can never know what will come next, in 2022. What we see now based on public surveys that the people rely on the crisis management of the government.