Reversing power grabs during a pandemic

Hungary’s leader gets a lesson on why electoral legitimacy is needed to deal with the coronavirus.

Police officers talk to a man on his bicycle in Bekescsaba, Hungary, March 31.

To deal with the coronavirus, governments across the world have either taken emergency powers by fiat or been granted them democratically. Either way, the curbs on liberty have generally been accepted – if seen as both temporary and effective in ending the pandemic. But what if they are not seen that way?

A good example occurred this week in Hungary when a leader went too far in making an opportunistic power grab at a time of heightened fear.

On Monday, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán persuaded Hungary’s parliament to give him the right to rule by decree for an indefinite period. Parliament suspended itself with no sunset clause to reverse it. A new law virtually ended rule of law at the national level. The move was a major step in a decade-long erosion of civil rights and freedoms under Mr. Orbán, who has openly said he does not believe in liberal democracy.

But on Tuesday he went further and introduced a measure to strip the country’s mayors of political autonomy. Municipalities would have to answer to local “defense committees” largely controlled by Mr. Orbán. The outcry was instant. Hungarians knew that the tough steps needed to gain public compliance in combating the virus required the electoral legitimacy of local leaders.

“This proposal is dangerous not only for our democracy, but it also makes the fight against coronavirus very difficult,” said Budapest’s mayor, Gergely Karácsony.

Within 24 hours, the ruling party was forced to withdraw the measure. In order to maintain cooperation from the people, mayors across Hungary have set a roadblock on Mr. Orbán’s march toward autocracy.

The prime minister’s extraordinary power to rule by decree still stands, a step that the European Union has rebuked. The EU may find a way to force Hungary to revise the power grab. “We will take action as necessary,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Yet for now, democracy at the local level remains alive and well in a country at the heart of Europe. The public’s embrace of the principles that hold society together was greater than its fear of the coronavirus.

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