The ongoing pandemic of COVID-19 disease has brought about an extraordinary situation. Although the past decades have brought numerous challenges like terrorism or the climate change, the global spread of a disease for which there is neither a cure nor vaccination available is something that political leaders have no experience in tackling.
The uncertainty concerning COVID-19 and lack of reliable data cause that the governments are willing to introduce drastic restrictions in order to achieve their primary goal – protect their citizens as much as possible and limit the scope of damages brought about by the pandemic to the minimum.
With the attention of people (and thus media) focused almost solely on protecting the health of themselves and their loved ones, assessing risks and following the developments regarding the spread of the disease, other aspects of reality might vanish from the public radar. At the same time, given the sense of urgency, the public might be more open to radical steps taken by the government in order to better face the challenge.
In such an extraordinary situation, it is legitimate for certain mechanisms and processes pertaining to the regular democratic functioning of countries to be temporarily suspended or circumvented in order to enable the decision making and crisis management to be as swift and efficient as possible.
At the same time however, there is a danger that some of the political leaders might abuse the state of emergency and reduced public scrutiny for serving to their particular political interests. Never let a good crisis go to waste. In the European Union, among the countries deemed more susceptible to such a development are those whose political leaders have not always played by the rulebook.
In the past years, it was the Visegrad Group and especially some of its member states who managed to acquire such an image, e.g. because they have a track record of not always abiding to the traditional concept of liberal democracy or they have been under scrutiny because of their conflict of interest.
Hungary – first EU dictatorship?
Both of these examples are applicable in case of Hungary and it is also Hungary whose emergency measures pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic raise eyebrows the most. Arguing the need for the government to have sufficient flexibility to tackle the crisis and come up with necessary measures in order to protect the health and safety of the Hungarian citizens, the Fidesz government introduced a bill that would give them the mandate to rule the country by decrees and essentially without parliamentary oversight.
The most concerning aspect of the legislation is that there is no specific timeframe for which the law would be applicable, merely stating that the provisions should be in power “until the end of the emergency”. Apart from that, there is a number of other problematic aspects to the legislation, concerning e.g. putting even further into question the freedom of media in the country. The described measures are indeed controversial in themselves.
However, to assess them correctly, we need to look beyond the present actions of the government which to someone might be justifiable by the exceptional situation. It is the context of previous years of government and the steps away from democracy and towards authoritarianism that raise the question of their true intention and likely consequences.
Czech Republic – no positive surprises
In the Czech Republic so far, there have not been attempts similar to the ones in Hungary. That does not mean there were no controversies. The issue that raised the biggest attention and was even compared to the Hungarian case was a rather unfortunately timed proposal which – after it would pass through the legislative process – would enable the government or even just the prime minister – to declare the state of emergency or state of war without parliamentary consent.
The issue was quickly put into context as something that had actually been under discussion for several years, but somewhat of a bitter aftertaste remained – especially regarding prime minister’s communication about it and his willingness to sacrifice his co-workers in order to have good PR.
Due to the state of emergency, Babiš’s government also asked the European Commission for a postponement of the deadline to respond to audit on the PM’s conflict of interest regarding his ties to the companies he had founded. The amendment on anti-corruption legislation that might work in favor of Babiš regarding his alleged conflict of interest that was put on the agenda of the government meeting at the last minute was eventually taken off following criticism of the opposition and NGOs. All in all, some might say that what we currently see in the Czech Republic, including intra-coalition disputes about the oversight of the Central Crisis Staff, is nothing unexpected – but far from pleasing.
Slovakia – a difficult start for the new government
Slovakia, again, faces the situation under a completely different set of circumstances. The country is getting accustomed to the new government, which was sworn in in March, already amid the pandemic. Composed of four political parties and without clear (shared) ideological background, the government would stand before an enormous challenge even without the pandemic.
The critical situation might bring about the first intra-coalition quarrels about the necessary measures to be taken to prevent spread of the disease, with the new prime minister Matovič proposals going as far as what he calls a “blackout” of the country while the minister of economy standing categorically against such a step as posing a threat to the economy.
The ability of the government to deal with the pandemic crisis could serve as a preview of their ability to fulfill their main promise – to fight corruption. It can come out of the crisis strengthened and proven worthy of people’s trust – or it can fall apart even before it manages to start fulfilling their election promises.
Different but the same
Situation in the three countries is indeed different – as different as it was before the pandemic hit. It is not the pandemic that has impact on democracy – it only provides opportunity for certain political leaders to abuse it for their political goals. What we see is that instead of the crisis altering the developments, it might rather accelerate them. Not only should the public keep a close eye on the developments, but so should the European Union. Despite the ongoing crisis being unprecedented in its character and seriousness, the attention should not be taken away from adhering to the principles of democracy and rule of law because the pandemic sure will pass, but in its aftermath, they will be needed.