IT’S said that in any crisis, you discover who people are and what countries are. This past week Hungarians have certainly been left in no doubt as to the true nature of their prime minister Viktor Orban and their country’s political direction of travel. To say that it’s not pretty would be a gross understatement.

In fact it would be no exaggeration to describe Hungary as being in the process of turning into the European Union’s first fully fledged autocracy.

It was on Monday under the pretext of addressing the Covid-19 public health emergency that Orban gave himself almost unlimited power, for an indefinite period.

Under the so-called “omnipotence” law, Orban, who has governed for a decade, will be able to take measures without parliamentary approval for as long as he sees fit.

There is no so-called “sunset clause” built into these measures. While opposition parties tried to set a time limit on these new “emergency powers”, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party pushed through his motion without restriction.

As one Hungarian political commentator warned, “the government’s will to destroy, limit and exhaust democracy is permanent”.

Faced with this threat, there have been protests from the UN, Council of Europe, European Parliament and a raft of fellow EU member states, not to mention a petition of more than 100,000 people who have opposed Orban’s moves, but to date this has not stopped him.

With elections and referendums in Hungary now suspended indefinitely, the law allows for new criminal penalties of five years in prison for publishing vaguely defined “false” or “distorted” facts, another blow to media freedom in a country where it has been under attack for some time. It will almost certainly also be used to neuter any other critics of the government’s approach.

And Orban’s measures don’t stop there. Political analysts have also pointed out that his government has already used emergency powers to establish “a military taskforce to oversee the operation of 140 companies providing critical services” during the coronavirus crisis.

Orban’s regime, it seems, has a blueprint already drawn up to take ownership stakes in companies that it bails out, suggesting that the Prime Minister may use this opportunity to increase his control of the economy.

Let’s be in no doubt about what all this actually means. In effect, Hungary has taken a sharp authoritarian turn and is now the first country in the EU to virtually abolish all democratic checks and balances. In other words, the coronavirus has killed its first democracy.

That’s not to say the writing was not already on the wall before the pandemic. Orban, after all, has form, having never hidden his desire to consolidate his position in power. For some time now this autocratic leader has treated the rule of law process with contempt even though by doing so he ran the risk of Hungary’s EU voting rights being suspended.

According to the latest annual report by Freedom House, the New York-based human rights watchdog, Hungary held on to its dubious distinction of being the only EU member state to be ranked “partly free” for the second year running.

For some time under Orban the country has also been a subject of an internal EU disciplinary investigation under article seven of the EU treaty, following legislation previously introduced by Orban curbing the judiciary, media and other bodies.

As far back as 2010 before taking office, Orban was ominously confirming how he intended to play his political hand.

“We have only to win once, but then properly,” he announced, before rewriting the Hungarian constitution, and riding roughshod across the country’s courts and media.

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IN 2013 came more clues, too, when he remarked in an interview that “in a crisis, you don’t need governance by institutions”. In other words, all the dangerous tell-tale signs were there.

For many of us looking on from within our own democracies, there are lessons to be learned from what is unfolding in Hungary right now.

To many in power, the cry of “national emergency” can be an intoxicating one. At its worst it can be an exhilarating release for some political leaders from the need to consider the rights of others.

Among citizens of many countries there is an accepted level of understanding that fairly radical measures are necessary in times of extreme emergencies like now.

But even in the best of times there must be a healthy dose of suspicion of government action, not least when the world has been effectively capsized and we are flailing around in the waters of uncertainty.

This is not the time to follow blindly without asking questions and giving up our civil liberties and constitutional rights without proper explanation and thought.

Presented with such an uncertain and rapidly changing scenario, it’s incumbent on governments to be as transparent about their intentions as possible.

In this way suspicion is laid to rest that leaders, such as in Orban’s case, are not pursuing their long- term political ambitions at the expense of the public at large. In other words, now is precisely the time when our political leadership should be even more mindful to go out of its way to protect our democracy.

By passing measures ostensibly to tackle coronavirus, Orban cynically exploited the moment to take Hungary’s democracy apart, piece by piece. He knew that now is the perfect moment to act, given that every country is preoccupied with how to save the lives of their own citizens and avoid economic collapse.

He knew also that, in such times, countries look inward and that human rights and the rule of law elsewhere are of little importance for most politicians and citizens preoccupied with their own backyard.

The lesson for us all from Hungary this week is that vigilance is vital if our democratic structures are not to be eroded in the name of dealing with a national emergency.

Many observers have long since concluded that Hungary under Orban ceased being a democracy some time ago. Any lingering doubts on that score all but vanished these past few days.

Hungary no longer deserves to sit as a “democracy” in the EU, and elsewhere many of us must take heed of how the coronavirus crisis can be abused for authoritarian ends.

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