In Poland and Hungary, the Pandemic Crisis is an Opportunity—for a Power Grab | Opinion

Throughout history governments have exploited major crises for electoral gain or to inflict damage on opponents and critics. The Coronavirus pandemic is no exception and in Europe, one of the epicentres of COVID-19, two countries currently stand out as alarming examples: Hungary and Poland.

In the past month, extraordinary measures restricting everyday life have been instituted across the world. In many cases this has been by the best-intentioned leaders trying to get to grips with an unprecedented crisis and public support for them is generally very high. But regardless of where or by whom, all of these measures are problematic. Groups such as the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) are already monitoring where emergency powers are in force and where they could be being misused. As UN human rights treaty bodies made clear in a joint statement in March, "a state of emergency, or other security measures, must be exceptional and temporary, strictly necessary... and should not, in any circumstances be an excuse to quash dissent".

Hungary is one country that's succeeded in to run roughshod over all of these. It is now in a state of emergency, gradually implemented since 11 March. Schools are closed, events cancelled, borders are closed to non-citizens and non-essential travel is restricted. So far, so similar to other European countries. The problem is what happened when the legally permitted 15 days of emergency came up for parliamentary renewal: the sunset clause was in effect written out.

Instead, the 30 March "Enabling Law" granted sweeping powers to the government above and beyond those conferred by the state of emergency. Prime Minister Viktor Orban can now choose to govern by decree, bypassing parliamentary scrutiny. New powers and decrees will remain in force until he declares the emergency to be over, so in effect could be indefinitely. One of Orban's first acts using his new powers was to halve public funding for political parties, which, considering his party's (Fidesz) access to other resources and access to state apparatus, will have a disproportionate impact on the opposition.

It is also now a criminal offense to spread false information that could "undermine efforts to protect the public", which worries independent journalists. The idea the state could be a good arbiter on this seems absurd at best considering how Orban himself has been a source of misinformation about the virus, blaming the virus on illegal immigration in front of EU leaders without any scientific evidence and then making a point of deporting fifteen Iranian students who he claimed brought it to Hungary.

Ministers and ambassadors have been deployed to defend the government. But as Hungarian Helsinki Committee Co-Chair Marta Pardavi told me earlier this month, it's hard to have any confidence in Orban's intentions. "Can you trust someone who up to now has shown he's not interested in respecting checks and balances? Indeed, he considers them to be annoying obstacles." The Hungarian government's attacks on judicial independence and civil society and increasing state control of the media are by now well documented.

Poland's governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) has chosen a different approach. The country is in lockdown, the virus's impact is not due to peak before June and yet unlike Hungary, the government is refusing to formally declare a state of emergency.

A crisis like this doesn't automatically mean a state of emergency must be declared (the UK has not). But an added benefit to PiS is they can push ahead with the presidential election on 10 May (or potentially a week later.) To most observers it's a bizarre priority. Countries across Europe including France, Italy, U.K., North Macedonia and even Russia have all delayed elections on public health grounds. In America, Democratic Party primaries were delayed in fifteen states, as was the Democratic National Convention itself. And yet, President Andrzej Duda insists that in Poland, where churches were closed for Easter and a walk in the woods can be a finable offense, "if it's possible to go shopping, it should be possible to go vote". Except that even to the Polish government it quickly became inconceivable that millions of voters could be allowed to temporarily disregard social distancing rules at the height of a pandemic to stand in queues and use crowded polling stations.

The "solution", forced through parliament in a late-night sitting last week despite the resignation of a deputy Prime Minister and a united front from opposition parties, is to conduct the vote solely by post. The now so-called "Bavarian model" is meant to emulate the German province's last-minute postal vote in March. The director of the Polish Post Office was replaced by a deputy defense minister on 3 April in anticipation of the task. Germany, however, has long experience of postal voting that Poland does not. To illustrate, in last year's Polish parliamentary elections of over 18 million votes cast, only 1924 were sent in by post. It stretches credibility that the Polish Post Office would be capable of mobilizing the 26 thousand postmen estimated to be needed to securely deliver to 14 million households. Or that the many election staff still needed would be able to be recruited and kept safe. There are also several reasons to doubt how constitutional the law is considering, for example, how late the rules are being changed or how it effectively disenfranchises the hundreds of thousands of voters living abroad.

The real aim appears to be to ensure the government candidate wins irrespective of the cost or how fair the competition. And it will not be fair. Opposition candidates were forced to effectively end their campaigns weeks ago, while the President himself is visible daily, vocally backed by state TV. It certainly did no harm to his turnaround in the polls, which little over a month ago indicated even a second round run-off could be too close to call. President Duda is undoubtedly conscious that he confounded all polling five years ago and went on to win only because he was able to mount an active and visible election campaign, heavily reliant on intense travel around the country, something this year's candidates cannot do. For his party, electoral victory now would mean consolidating power and cementing their takeover of the justice system, begun in 2015.

All this could be different if the Polish government sought consensus, used the tool envisaged in the country's constitution and declared a state of emergency, which the country is effectively already in anyway. The election would be automatically delayed by at least 90 days. According to the country's human rights ombudsman Adam Bodnar, speaking to TVN24 in early April, the law is "clear that an epidemic can be a justification for a state of emergency and those in charge are very intentionally avoiding it".

Did Viktor Orban need extra powers unlimited in time? Is it absolutely necessary to hold the Polish presidential election now? The answer to both is no. Both governments are intentionally misusing procedures for their own political ends when their countries are facing possible public health disasters and certainly significant economic downturns. While some countries have started talking about a slow return to normality and the recovery process that will be involved after the Coronavirus, the damage to Poland and Hungary's democratic institutions will take a lot longer to recover from.

Janek Lasocki was formerly advocacy coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations and currently writes about Eastern Europe and the former USSR. He tweets @janeklasocki

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​