COVID-19 Could Be A Harbinger Of Authoritarianism

Radical right governments are exploiting COVID-19 as an excuse to expand their power. There are few worse culprits than Hungary's Viktor Orbán.
Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán – February 16, 2020. (Elekes Andor/Creative Commons)

Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán – February 16, 2020. (Elekes Andor/Creative Commons)

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Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London.

In his televised 9 April Easter message, the Catholic Church’s spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Bucharest, Father Francisc Dobos, said that the disciples of Jesus ‘feared the Jews, and here in the bracket we should read: feared the virus.’ It is hardly surprising that anti-Semites have revived one of their favorite, oldest tropes: the association of Jews with disease, both as carriers of disease, deliberate infectors of other groups and, in the most extreme versions, Jews as a disease. As I have noted previously, this language shifts from metaphor to reality all too easily.

It is true that movements such as PEGIDA in Germany have embarrassed themselves by their response to the COVID crisis; as Sabine Volk shows, they remain fixated on migrants rather than safeguarding the people they supposedly represent. The same is true of right-wing populists in power. Hans-Georg Betz powerfully argues that the response of populist leaders, especially Trump, Johnson and, most notably, Bolsonaro, exposes the vacuous nature of the populists’ worldview.

That is quite true: Trump and Bolsonaro blaming the Chinese, with Trump referring to fears about the virus as a ‘hoax’; Johnson’s program of ‘getting Brexit done’ now looking irrelevant when it is obvious that the world faces a challenge that does not respect national borders and which demands international cooperation and a reliance on much-derided experts. Yet, whatever idiocy the coronavirus crisis has exposed in the populists’ slogans of national independence, anti-immigration, and disregard for science, the scope for entrenched and institutionalized right-wing populist parties to exploit the crisis remains strong. It is not the radical right movements which do not hold power that we should fear; it is the ‘mainstream’ which does that presents the real threat today.

In the US, Trump has already hinted at delaying the election this autumn. This is a highly unlikely scenario but provides cover for seemingly less extreme measures to slip through. Trump’s declaration, for example, that the president rather than the state governors has “total authority” to decide when lockdown measures will be eased, could have proved highly contentious, possibly even leading to legal action. Even if he performed a remarkable volte-face just one day later, to many Americans his assertion will not have seemed unreasonable. His position, however, represents an arrogation of power to the office of president that oversteps constitutional norms. No wonder commentators have been led to remark that the US has a president, not a king.

The most glaring case of opportunist authoritarianism, however, is Hungary. It has long been obvious that Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ was driving Hungary down the road to what Orbán calls ‘illiberal democracy’, with measures to close the Central European University on the specious grounds that it was not accredited in Hungary, and gradually restricting press and judicial freedoms.

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The COVID-19 crisis has come at a useful moment for Orbán, when his party has suffered its first serious defeats in ten major cities. The rushed introduction of the new law, ‘On Protecting against the Coronavirus’, has been called ‘a brazen attempt to establish an undisguised dictatorship’ by the Hungarian Spectrum. In that piece and in another by Vinicius Bivar in Fair Observer, the law, which grants Orbán the right to rule by decree, has been called an ‘enabling law’. This is a stark reference to Adolf Hitler’s so-called ‘Enabling Law’ – the Law to Remedy the State of Emergency of Volk and Reich of 24 March 1933 – which gave Hitler the power to rule by decree and thus brought about the end of parliamentary democracy in Germany.

The comparison is instructive, although it is not without dangers. On the one hand, making comparisons such as these makes it easy for the FIDESZ spokespersons to scoff at the absurdity of suggesting that Orbán’s government could have anything in common with one of the most reviled and criminal regimes in history. Yet, in March 1933, the Third Reich was not yet a warmongering, genocidal regime, other than in an incipient way (by which I mean that genocidal fantasies had always been present in Nazi thinking, even if there was no blueprint for war and genocide).

The comparison is meaningful insofar as we can see that the Orbán government is slowly chipping away at the norms of liberal democracy, attempting to quash opposition, and using this crisis in the way that the Nazis used the Reichstag fire, that is, to criminalise critics, or at least to attempt to do so. And whilst it might be harsh to compare the EU’s failure of nerve when faced with Hungary’s deviation from its rules to appeasement, in fact both rest(ed) on an inability to face up to the true nature of the regimes in question.

That is why the EU is being urged, for example by Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, ‘to wake up and take action if it wants to prevent the virus of authoritarianism from infecting other countries.’ Orbán is not Hitler, FIDESZ is not the NSDAP – that comparison is absurd. But if he has his way, Orbán will be sure to use the COVID-19 crisis as the harbinger of authoritarianism, dressed up as defending ‘the people’ but ushering in poverty for millions of Hungarians and more deeply-entrenched cronyism for the apparat.

The COVID-19 crisis, as with previous strains of coronavirus, has been brought about by human action. The desire to return to ‘normality’, which is a basic and hardly surprising response, is inadequate insofar as it was ‘normality’ which caused this virus to appear and to spread in the first place. One of the things that need to change is that the human race’s need to be fed has to be addressed in a more rational way, with the hugely unequal distribution of resources across the world being addressed as a matter of urgency.

What will also need to be addressed with no less urgency is the temptation for demagogues to respond by blaming certain groups for causing the virus, a stance which easily slips into rhetoric in which particular groups of people are themselves figured as a kind of virus. The emergence of fascism in the wake of World War I and the flu epidemic which followed it should be a warning. If the economic downturn which is likely to follow the lockdown is not to lead to a twenty-first-century form of fascism, then the voices of scientific experts need to be heeded and governments across the world need to work together to alleviate the hurt being inflicted on millions – possibly billions – of people who will be left unable to maintain a basic standard of living. Man cannot live by bread alone, said Brecht, especially when he has none.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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News // Authoritarianism / CARR / Hungary / Radical Right / World