international analysis and commentary

Threatening opportunities: Hungary’s Covid-19 response

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The dominant narrative of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has for years focused on external threats and depicted the government as engaged in a battle to protect its supposedly endangered citizens. The prime shape this narrative has taken since 2015 centers on migration and the need to defend the country’s borders. However, not even the shrillest of this xenophobic propaganda has proposed a sudden closing of all national borders, which would nonetheless come to be swiftly implemented in the spring of 2020 when Schengen regulations suddenly lost much of their relevance. From this controversial angle, few European governments could be said to have prepared the ground better for their initial COVID-19 response. However, the unfolding health and economic crisis also has the potential to gravely weaken Viktor Orbán’s deeply entrenched regime.

Members of Parliament debate the pandemic in Hungary

 

To grasp why the spread of the pandemic to Hungary could prove such a threat to the ruling party requires us to look at the current constellation of opinion. The spring just saw the tenth anniversary of Orbán’s return to power with a supermajority; with no elections planned for another two years, April was meant to be a time for retrospectives on a decade of major political transformations and democratic backsliding. Research coinciding with this symbolic anniversary has revealed that while the recent performance of the Hungarian economy has been key to legitimizing Orbán’s regime in the eyes of its supporters, a majority of citizens were clearly worried about the worsening quality of democracy. What is more, shortly prior to the spread of the coronavirus across Europe, members of the Hungarian public singled out the deteriorating healthcare sector as one of their chief concerns, viewing it as a damaging failure of Orbán’s extended rule.

In other words, with the spread of COVID-19, an underfunded healthcare system would be required to perform way beyond its capacities just when the fortunate economic conjuncture of recent years would be sharply reversed. A pandemic and its economic consequences were, thus, always likely to worsen people’s perception of government performance whereas an even more forceful assertion of executive authority would only further alienate a majority already concerned about democratic norms and values. At the very same time, a pandemic-related state of emergency could also provide a unique opportunity to further disadvantage the opposition – an opposition that has recently found a way to unite and gained some unexpected victories in the 2019 local elections, including in Budapest.

 

A major response to a crisis that failed to materialize

Until now, the spread of the pandemic has only reinforced the impression that the two halves of the European continent may be more closely integrated than ever before, but key structural differences between them have nonetheless remained. Without exception, the newer member states of the EU have reported rather low infection and casualty numbers. In Hungary, lack of intense international circulation and exposure of residents, infrequent testing and the resulting underreporting, pre-cautions due to fears of hospitalization, as well as sheer luck, have combined to produce remarkable results. While hundreds of people had been declared victims of the pandemic at the end of June, overall death rates do not appear to have increased as compared to previous years.

However, this fortunate mix has also been advantageous from the point of view of the Orbán government’s long-standing agenda of centralizing power and the distribution of resources: It enabled a state of emergency without a major health crisis. Never the one to let a crisis go to waste, Orbán has further radicalized his platform of institutional authoritarianism and neo-liberal populism (Gábor Scheiring) in recent months.

Displaying a slow and somewhat chaotic response in the early months of the year (onsite education was not called off until mid-March, nor was the Hungarian football league halted until then), the government soon went on the offensive. By late March, Fidesz rejected the opposition’s perfectly reasonable demand of a time limit to the proposed rule by decree. The introduction of such a controversial state of exception left a docile Constitutional Court on top of a gravely weakened Rechtsstaat as the only force that could still potentially challenge Orbán’s willful decisions.

By early April, it became clear that the Prime Minister favored a military-style action plan with himself as the hero in the new script. Orbán has chosen to take on greater responsibilities in exchange for even more powers, preferring to communicate his key decisions and war-like propaganda through his personal Facebook page ever since.

 

Power and responsibility

Sending clearly worded threats to the opposition while pretending to be offended at the predictable international accusations of having introduced dictatorial rule, ironically, Orbán was ready to return his special powers within the time frame he had rejected. However, there is no guarantee whatsoever that his emergency measures would not remain in effect.

Beyond bringing media, educational and cultural institutions under stricter control, the changes introduced over the past three months appear to have had three main goals: to make the lavish possibilities of public procurement more centralized and even less transparent, to undermine the institutions of self-government by depriving them of critical resources (with the city of Budapest being a key target), and to shift the operative management of the crisis towards the Ministry of the Interior and military authorities.

Tapping deeply into public resources, consciously distorting fair political competition and assigning a marginal role to the Hungarian Parliament are far from new elements in Orbán’s politics. The recent shift of power away from Human Resources Minister Miklós Kásler – who should have been responsible for a health crisis – is more newsworthy. Since March, Innovation and Technology Minister László Palkovics has increasingly assumed control over professional questions related to healthcare while Interior Minister Sándor Pintér has assumed operative control over the relevant institutions.

Victor Orbán and Sándor Pintér

 

Pintér, whom Orbán has kept in his governments for their entire length of over 14 years now, has clearly managed to further expand his sprawling portfolio. He has recently appointed 109 “hospital commanders” (kórházparancsnokok) who supervise both hospital data and resources. It would be difficult to argue that such steps have been proportionate or necessary in a country where the numbers of the infected have fortunately never exploded.

While Orbán has taken political decisions to employ his special powers, his government has until now failed to develop an equitable strategy to manage the looming grave social and economic consequences of the crisis. The economy protection action plan of the Hungarian government is exceptionally limited, especially when it comes to offering extra social support to those in dire need. Such a discrepancy between an elaborate political strategy to tackle a major health crisis that luckily hasn’t quite hit and the weak response to the accompanying but deeper socioeconomic crisis is likely to yield further polarization in the months and years ahead.