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 COVID-19 triggered Open and Relaxed times in Hungary (II)

In my last blog, I have introduced Gourevitch’s (1986) description of critical juncture to analyse the COVID-19 crisis as a critical juncture in breaking the routine and the normality, which the large part of the World was enjoying since the WWII. 

While Gourevitch (1986) argues critical junctures are ‘open moments’ where political actors make ‘system creating choices’, Capoccia and Kelemen (2007) said: ‘critical junctures are characterised by a situation in which the structural (that is, economic, cultural, ideological, organisational) influences on political action are significantly relaxed for a relatively short period’. Drawing on this perspectives on critical junctures, I can argue that the COVID-19 crisis has so far resulted in an open and relaxed moment for political actors, where structural and institutional checks and balances on political action are weak or in some cases are almost absent. Such circumstances are conducive for political actors to make system creating choices. 

photo from GETTY.

Capoccia and Kelemen claim that critical junctures could last in a short period, the trajectory with the COVID-19 signals to the contrary.  One may argue that historical institutionalist scholars have overlooked how long critical junctures could last for and whether the duration of the critical junctures do determine the extent to which crisis affect existing political systems, institutional settings, and governing political actors’ power and functions. Perhaps the COVID-19 crisis is an excellent case to make such an assessment; this is because the COVID-19 crisis is predicted to be here for the foreseeable future, and the stringent measures taken by the governments in fighting off the virus indicate a long fight. Thus, we will all observe and assess the changes the COVID-19 will have around the World in the short-term and the long-term.

Capoccia and Kelemen point to two main consequences critical junctures may have: (i) the range of plausible choices open to powerful political actors expands substantially and (ii) the consequences of their decisions for the outcome of interest are potentially much more momentous; contingency, in other words, becomes paramount. I think Capoccia and Kelemen play down the kind of choices expands to powerful political actors where they refer to them as ‘plausible’. If anything, a crisis is the most favourable circumstances for powerful and power-seeking political actors, they could go as wild as possible to please their power-crazy inner worlds. Their hunger for more political power, control and manipulation tend to be stimulated further during a crisis. My observation is that during these crisis power-seeking political actors resort to their most advanced political toolkit and lobby, pass and implement policies, which usually would create a new political system, if not a new political and institutional setting, where the former regime may feel distant past. Additionally, I agree with Capoccia and Kelemen that the choices made by the powerful political leader are most favourable outcomes, and contingency is paramount since the future is full of unknowns for them.

Below I will briefly assess if the COVID-19 have so far resulted in an open environment in Hungary, whether Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s policy choices are plausible, what impact these have on the Hungarian political system and for whom these policy choices are favourable and what does it mean in terms of contingency, drawing on Gourevitch and Capoccia and Kelemen’s perspectives on critical junctures. I will also raise questions about the implications of these policy choices on democracy and Rule of Law in Hungary.

Hungarian PM Viktor Orban, Photograph: Reuters

As soon as Coronavirus hit Hungary, Orban stretched to his political toolkit and called for a state of emergency straight away, while his administration prepared the ‘Bill on Protection Against Coronavirus’. Regardless of sharp criticisms from various circles including the opposition Hungarian political parties, the remaining of the independent media and the EU, the Bill was adopted by the end of March.

First of all, this legislation extended the state of emergency and then, in this an open and relaxed environment, Orban’s Fidesz-led government made a set of system creating choices. Below are some of the features of the new regime:

  • Orban could rule by decree for an indefinite period;
  • Parliamentary functions, elections and referendums are suspended for the duration of the state of emergency;
  • Obstruction of official efforts to combat the pandemic are criminalised;
  • Jail terms are introduced for those spreading ‘falsehood’ or ‘distorted truths’ about the pandemic and the government’s response to it— prison sentence can go up to five years;
  • Parliament can only discuss matters related to the coronavirus pandemic while the state of emergency is in effect

Under the new open environment, a wide range of policy options was available to Fidesz-led Hungarian government, from partial to full lockdown to the state of emergency. However, Orban’s power-seeking inner world meant that the introduction of a full-blown state of emergency was most desirable, that consisted of the drastic measures outlined earlier. Since the EU and the opposition political parties did not have teeth concerning Orban’s preferences, his two-thirds majority in the Parliament granted him the green card. The impact of these measures on the Hungarian political and institutional settings and the powers of the leadership will be significant, and future research will highlight these in greater detail. 

However, right now Orban governs Hungary with a decree in the name of fighting the COVID-19 with little scrutiny. Using these new powers, Orban’s administration has already started to force local governments (particularly those controlled by the opposition) to give up on top revenue sources and (ii) force opposition political parties to give up half of the public funding to Corona fund.  

Two related points I like to make associated with the above actions taken by the Hungarian government. The first is that there is clear evidence that policy choices made are most favourable to Fidesz and Orban’s administration. They have unlimited control of revenues, but not a point of answering about their expenses on COVID-19. The second point is that there is a clear breach of power. Reducing revenue sources and asking already poorly funded opposition political parties to make a considerable contribution is not more than penalising and weakening the opposition at the first opportunity.

Yes, Orban wants to govern with a decree indefinitely, but surely one day this will all be over, this is where contingency comes in. We do not know how long the COVID-19 crisis is going to last. Thus it is essential to pay attention to the longevity of this critical juncture when we are studying the effect they may have both on the governing political actors and opposition political parties. Since a glance at Orban’s policy choices can tell us about where he and his administration will be during and at the end of this crisis in terms of their priorities and political power-grabbing initiatives they introduced. 

However, it is difficult to say the same for the opposition political parties. Whether the opposition political parties will survive the COVID-19 era under Orban’s strict rule is a pertinent question. Moreover, what repercussions these will have for the consolidation of democracy and respect for Rule of Law in Hungary is another one. 

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