international analysis and commentary

Power overstretch: Orbán’s Hungary and the pandemic’s challenges

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In Hungary under Viktor Orbán’s rule, the first year of the pandemic and the accompanying crises have seen increasing levels of polarization and volatility. Ironically, just as the country’s borders have remained closed to international traffic for months, the political future appears more uncertain but also somewhat more open. While further cementing its oligarchic-national populist regime since the early days of COVID-19’s arrival, the odds of Fidesz losing its parliamentary majority in the next election have never been higher since the party first acquired its constitutional supermajority back in 2010.

Viktor Orbán has been inoculated against COVID-19 with the vaccine from the Chinese laboratory Sinopharm after Hungary become the first EU country to approve its use

 

Recent months may have constituted an abnormal period in many ways, with the second wave of the pandemic hitting the country more severely than the first, but beneath all the disturbing suffering and unexpected changes in everyday life, the regime’s flight forward and Hungary’s concomitant de-democratization have continued. And it continued with what arguably would have been the next steps even if there had been no pandemic.

The governing side has extended its control over numerous realms in the past ten months. It has done so most conspicuously when it comes to the media, educational institutions, and the cultural sector. Under the pretext of the pandemic, Fidesz has launched an equally consequential and more directly political attack on the financial bases of opposition-led municipalities, effectively depriving them of the means to develop successful alternatives to Fidesz’s detrimental combination of strategic communication and self-serving, if haphazard policies.

Unexpectedly, Viktor Orbán Fidesz has also initiated the militarization of public life, as a result of which soldiers and police forces have been appointed to head hospitals. Back in the spring of 2020, Orbán even toyed with unlimited emergency powers which, if kept in place, would have institutionally sanctioned and solidified his sustained authoritarian method of rule. In all probability, this was another conscious choice on his part to test the local and international waters at a time of unusual turbulence. Introducing and then handing back his emergency powers, which had no fixed end date, also allowed the PM to hit back at his critics for their “bad faith” and “malevolent accusations”. It is worth noting that such a bold strategy can only be politically expedient in an environment where democracy has been hollowed out and basic questions of why emergency powers are needed and what exactly they would be used for could remain undebated.

At the same time, and despite Fidesz’s overwhelming and still growing control over institutions and resources, the governing party currently faces a complex crisis – a health care emergency combined with worsening socioeconomic crisis – which it has not managed adequately, and which is likely to open a chance for the united opposition to win a narrow victory in the spring 2022 elections. Slightly ahead in national polls at the moment, despite restricted access to strategic resources, including channels of communication, the next fourteen months promise to be an uphill battle for the opposition consisting of six partners that are newly united against Fidesz – and, judging from previous cavalier changes to the electoral law, the slope might get even steeper as the race tightens.

Still, the prospects of the opposition forces have not been brighter at any time since 2010. More than any other factor, the country’s former economic dynamism – that objectively benefitted rather narrow layers of society – used to legitimate Fidesz’s political dominance in the eyes of many while a major complaint of voters has precisely been the governing side’s irresponsible and persistent neglect of the healthcare sector.

Kútvölgyi hospital in Budapest, one of the COVID-19 quarantine hospitals of the country

 

The health emergency and the related economic and social crises may therefore be viewed as key reasons why a united and strategically minded opposition could mount a successful electoral campaign – even if trying to govern the country effectively in the face of a party so closely intertwined with state institutions as Fidesz is today would doubtlessly amount to an arduous task.

There are clearly major hindrances along the path. A critical hindrance for them is the further shift of the Hungarian media landscape in favor of the government in what increasingly looks like a new kind of party state. The forced resignation of Index’s team in the summer of 2020, until then Hungary’s most popular and editorially independent news portal, has been the most detrimental recent development in this regard, even if members of the team have in the meantime managed to launch their new project Telex with the financial support of over 40,000 readers – a hopeful sign of civil society engagement rarely seen in recent Hungarian history.

It is worth noting that while Fidesz has been strategically building up its own media empire for nearly two decades now, it had previously appeared somewhat less eager to interfere with well-established independent or left-leaning media. Now that unpredictability, so feared by representatives of competitive authoritarian regimes like Orbán’s, is likely to increase, assuring seamless informational control over the politically uncommitted and less active segments of society – key supporters of the Orange Party who have clearly emerged as the party of choice for the elderly, villagers and the less educated in particular – appears to them all the more urgent.

In this narrowing media field, the crucial question of the future is not whether robust oppositional media can be developed to challenge the regime’s hegemonic control but rather how many initiatives outside the major public and private ones close to the regime can foster a more politically conscious and critically minded public.

If Fidesz was further tightening its grip over a largely compliant media to try and control internal volatility, what makes the near future look even more volatile from its point of view – and, in this exceptional case, also for the country as a whole – is that the ruling party no longer belongs among the mainstream actors on the European stage. While the European People’s Party has not only tolerated, but explicitly legitimized Orbán’s regime long into the 2010s (Manfred Weber was campaigning for Fidesz even ahead of the last parliamentary elections in 2018), the international controversies over policies to de-democratize the country, reject liberal values, and challenge basic standards of the rule of law have become sharper. They might soon find new resolutions in a manner unfavorable to the Orbán regime’s long-term prospects, a regime heavily dependent on generous European subsidies.

At the same time, aware that it would no longer find a way back to the mainstream of European politics, Fidesz has been searching and until now failing to find a suitable new role on the hard, illiberal right that would match the grandiose self-perception of its leader. Massive investments in Brussels, financed mostly by Hungarian taxpayers’ money, that will aim to establish an alternative framework to interpret the rule of law debate to counter “negative perceptions” provide clear signs of ongoing attempts to restore lost prestige without “compromising with the liberal mainstream”.

There is no reason for more than cautious optimism here since developments in Hungary and Poland, but also in less discussed countries such as Bulgaria and Slovenia, have caught the EU by surprise. The European institutions did not have the proper mechanisms or sufficient political will to act in time. Even today, with more than a decade of de-democratization behind us in the case of Hungary, the Union continues to lack a strategic plan to oppose de-democratization in its member states in an effective way.

In early 2021, Hungarian citizens in favor of liberal democracy and the country’s continued full EU membership could be forgiven for thinking they have a political choice only between unappealing alternatives, between acceptance of European hypocrisy, i.e. a compromised regime with continued full membership rights, or exclusion from the European core with little constructive concern for the country’s liberal democratic future.

This apparent choice is all the more saddening if we added that while Hungarians are sharply polarized about the existence and quality of democracy in their country (with one half of society believing that there is democracy in Hungary and the other half thinking the opposite), they remain overwhelmingly pro-European and trustful of EU institutions – despite ever more amplified Eurosceptic and sovereigntist voices in tightly controlled media.

In conclusion, as the socioeconomic crisis caused by the pandemic comes into full view, Fidesz’s 2022 re-election will seem ever less assured. It is unlikely that the regime would try to moderate its policies and tone down its confrontational rhetoric anytime soon. If recent months offer any indication, divisive questions of culture and identity might again be catapulted to the top of the political agenda.

However, as eager and as skilled as populist authoritarians have proven at manufacturing crises and fighting imaginary enemies in recent years, their attempt to control the political narrative through identity political mantras amidst the most complex crisis in living memory might as well prove insufficient.