The divisive pre-war German philosopher Carl Schmitt famously argues that democracies are not able to handle emergencies. As crises require the exercise of absolute power, liberalism will always have to yield to authoritarian rule.
With the exception of 9/11 and the 2015 migrant crisis, his theory has rarely been put to the test. But the coronavirus pandemic has created an unprecedented state of exception, touching all corners of the globe. In reaction, we have seen government after government pass emergency power legislation. While warranted in large, the extent to which democracy is being suspended is concerning.
Possibly the most ominous example is the recent ‘authorization law’ passed by Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, who is being accused of abusing the situation to reinforce his authoritarian grip on the country. The law gives unconditional power to the Prime Minister during the period of danger, essentially benching Hungary’s parliament. While the government stresses that such powers are in no way a tactical ‘power grab’, there are strong signals suggesting otherwise.
The repercussions for Europe could be fatal. Prior to the outbreak, Hungary’s government has come under scrutiny for its authoritarian nature, its MEPs even being suspended from the European People’s Party in 2018. Speaking with the government’s international communications office, I was told that “those voicing unfounded claims about our management of this crisis threatening democracy and the rule of law in Hungary are fighting an imaginary enemy. False claims of a power grab in Hungary are just that.” They expressed their intentions of using the powers only to stop the spread of the virus and protect their healthcare system from ‘dysfunction’.
Most of the opposition in the country’s parliament view the emergency powers as heavy-handed. Unsurprisingly, they’re struggling to trust a government that has repeatedly—and almost always successfully—eroded democratic checks and balances over the last decade.
But Gábor Fodor, the leader of the Hungarian Liberal Party (Liberálisok)—a former colleague of Orban’s and now an opposing politician—doesn’t believe the authorization law is a power grab.
“I don’t believe there is a real danger, it is not realistic that Orbán wants to build a dictatorship.”
According to Fodor, Orban is simply taking advantage of the situation to discredit the opposition and claim sole credit for the handling of this crisis. “Orbán wants to fight because he wants to create a greater base for his policies. He wants to say, our government will solve this problem, this crisis, and the opposition was not important. It would have been an intelligent type of gesture, in Hungarian, we say ‘gesztus’, to the opposition, if Orbán had said ‘okay we want to cooperate in this very dangerous situation’. But his message was, I don’t want to cooperate with them, I want to fight.”
Others aren’t as dismissive of the threat to democracy posed by the recent law. Dr Ágnes Vadai of Hungary’s Democratic Coalition (DK)—a socially liberal pro-Europe party—expressed genuine concern over the legitimacy of the exceptional law: “The past decade, while he [Orbán] was in power, showed that every time he had the possibility he chose to destroy very important parts of the democracy with laws, like removing checks and balances, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and of course this time we believe he is going to use it [the law] to build his own power, not for the sake of the Hungarian people.” Dr Vadai describes the authorisation law as unnecessary, pointing out that the constitution (written and passed by this government) had sufficient legislation to deal with the crisis without raising the necessity for additional laws.
Power grab or not, the concern over Hungary’s emergency rules do pose a disturbing premise and illustrate a wider problem. While you may think restrictive laws like these are justified in such circumstances, we should be aware of their permanent potential. Across the pond, we can point to the famous example of the Patriot Act which is still in place today, 19-years after its original implementation. Dr Vadai points to her own country for a more recent example of the state of exception becoming permanent. “In 2016 they introduced an emergency situation because of mass migration. That emergency situation is still on in Hungary. It has been on for almost four years and there is no mass migration in Hungary.”
Yet the case for a more lenient response to the crisis isn’t clear cut either. On the opposite end of the emergency spectrum, Sweden’s moderate response has raised more than a few eyebrows. The country, which is known for its liberal values, has preferred to rely on voluntary precautions to ‘flatten the curve’. However, recent data and criticism has forced the Swedes to reassess this approach and implement more stringent measures.
Dr Anna Khakee, the author of Securing Democracy?, explained her thoughts on the pandemic’s threat to democratic liberalism. “We have a few leaders across Europe and beyond that have never been very keen on democracy and democratic liberties in the first place”. These democracies will be under even more pressure as the crisis roars on. “Ultimately it is always up to the population to protect democracy,” says Khakee. But in this state of lockdown it might be hard for populations to mobilize as they usually would. “There are a number of things that the governments and politicians, if they are unscrupulous, can get away with now.”
Only time will tell if the restrictive measures being implemented in countries across Europe will have lasting damaging effects on democratic liberalism. In Hungary, Dr Vadai believes the government has already shown its ‘unscrupulous’ hand.
“The intention one day after the law entered into force was to take away the power from the locally elected authorities [many in the hands of opposition parties], that was the intention. I think that speaks much louder than my words.”
Undoubtedly, 2020 will go down in history as the year of COVID-19. But hopefully it will not cause the demise of European liberalism or the dismantlement of democratic rights. Hopefully, Carl Schmitt will be proven wrong.