Day 6

Hungary's COVID-19 measures could lead the nation to autocracy, warns Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff says Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long used strong-arm tactics to consolidate his power, but recent sweeping COVID-19 measures are the first time he's done so in such an unconstrained way.

'The damage this will do to what remains of Hungarian democracy is a really, really serious matter'

Michael Ignatieff, former leader of Canada's federal Liberal party, is now president and rector of Central European University in Budapest. (Zoltan Balogh/MTI via AP)
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Michael Ignatieff, former leader of Canada's federal Liberal party, says Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has long used strong-arm tactics to consolidate his power, but recent sweeping COVID-19 measures are the first time he's done so in such an unconstrained way.

On Monday, Hungary's parliament gave Orban's government the right to rule by decree, bypass the elected national assembly and jail those who "distort" or publish "false" information on the outbreak — all of it with no expiration date.

"Some people are afraid that this will turn Hungary into the first outright autocracy in Europe," said Ignatieff.

Ignatieff is currently the president and rector of the Central European University in Budapest. Here's part of his conversation with Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

What does this latest coronavirus move by Viktor Orban say to you?

Well, Orban has declared an indefinite state of emergency, suspending basically the rule of law, parliament, democracy, the courts. And that's the culmination of 10 years of steadily increasing pressure on the democratic fabric in Hungary. And some people are afraid that this will turn Hungary into the first outright autocracy in Europe.

But the one thing I would say is that, you know, don't count out the Hungarian people. These are people with a long history of freedom. And they will support emergency measures as long as it keeps them safe from the national pandemic emergency. But I can't believe they're going to allow this to go on forever.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban walks out into the main press room to brief journalists during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels on Feb. 21, 2020. (Virginia Mayo/The Associated Press)

But the pretext for this is, is that COVID-19 is a killer. And here in North America, public health officials are calling this a war. Why shouldn't Orban's government get extra powers to fight it?

Well, look, Brent, it's true. I'm sitting here in Hungary, running a university with a lot of students, a lot of staff, a lot of people who are vulnerable. And I don't want this government to fail. You know, I oppose what they're doing, but I don't want them to fall. I want them to get this emergency under control.

I'm like everybody else. But the damage that this will do to what remains of Hungarian democracy is a really, really serious matter.

You are the rector of the Central European University based in the Hungarian capital, and you've been in an open conflict with Viktor Orban and his government for most of the time he's been in power.

When it comes to your university, the conflict there, though, is against George Soros, who's the founder of Central European University. And I know this is a big question, but how would you characterize the conflict between Orban and George Soros?

Well, it's a conflict between a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor in the first instance, Soros, and a radical populist of the far right. It's a battle between someone who is a kind of liberal internationalist, and someone who's a kind of national sovereigntist.

And it's a blood feud, in a sense, because it's almost got a father-son aspect because Soros helped to support Orban in the early years, even got Orban a scholarship to Oxford. So there's a kind of personal grudge match.

But it's also a very fundamental battle about the status of liberal values and liberal democracy in this part of the world.

Hungarian-American investor George Soros attends a press conference on June 8, 2017 at the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. (Ferdinand Ostrop/The Associated Press)

And how useful has George Soros been in helping Viktor Orban define his values and demonstrate them to his followers in Hungary?

Well, this kind of politics, Orban's politics, this kind of conservative right wing politics, lives and dies on enemies. It needs enemies like fuel to its fire. And so Soros has been the enemy that Mr. Orban needed. … My sense is that there's a limit to how long you can sustain a politics of enemies. Eventually it starts to not work.

But there's no question, let's be clear: Viktor Orban has popular support. There's 30 per cent of the public that supports him, believes he's done a good job. And so this is a national populist with a democratic support, using democracy to basically eliminate democracy. And it's something new under the sun. And it's dangerous and frightening.

He has a lot of power already. And you have called him in the past a master politician. What is Viktor Orban protecting with these new powers?

One of the things that's a serious wake-up call for everybody, is the ways in which, the COVID 19 crisis has revived the nation state. When you're in trouble, when you're in threat, when the bottom of the world falls out, where do you look? You look to your government.

Everybody is turning to Mr. Trudeau in Canada. Mr. Trump in the United States. Mr. Johnson in Britain. And God help us, Viktor Orban in Budapest and saying, get us out of there. The nation state is the ultimate guarantor of human security and safety.

And you can argue with it and wish you had a more international world. But at the end of the day, people go back to their nation states and they ask to pull up the drawbridge, and that's what he's doing, and that's one of the reasons why I think Mr. Orban at the moment can get away with a pretty well total demolition.

There is no sunset clause in these powers that he's given to himself. So when the COVID 19 crisis has passed, there's no guarantee that he'll relinquish these new powers. Were you surprised that he chose to make this move, which so many people have called authoritarian?

I shouldn't be surprised, but I was kind of surprised. You know, the standard of democratic form in an emergency is you have a time-dated set of emergency powers, but he's made it indefinite. And I think it's infuriated a lot of people who think: just how stupid do you think we are?

What are you seeing happening in Hungary that tells you that there is a future after Orban and it won't be more of this kind of politics?

All I want to say is that Viktor Orban is not Hungary. Hungary is bigger. It's got a greater national tradition than only one person. That's what makes me hopeful. It's what makes me hopeful everywhere — that fortunately, countries are bigger than their leaders.


Written by Jonathan Ore. Interview produced by Pedro Sanchez. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

To hear the full interview with Michael Ignatieff, download our podcast or click Listen above.