The streets of Budapest feel eerie for a sunny spring day; empty roads, closed restaurants, and worried looks on the occasional pedestrian walking past shop windows. The deafening silence is only broken by the occasional sirens of emergency services. You can almost smell the fear in the air – a fear of the virus, not of a looming dictatorship.
The Hungarian capital transitioned to a different phase in its history at midnight on 30 March. The Hungarian parliament passed a bill – which the president immediately signed – proclaiming a state of emergency and giving prime minister Viktor Orbán the powers to rule by decree for an unlimited period of time, without any parliamentary oversight. History was made not with a bang but with people on the ground barely noticing the change in its immediate aftermath.
Viktor Orbán is a gifted political leader who appreciates the importance of timing. During a period when the whole world is preoccupied with fighting the worst pandemic in decades, when uncertainty and anxiety have soared, his measures could be presented as a determined approach by a strong political leader who looks out for the interests of his citizens during uncertain times. The reality that his political manoeuvring will put the country even further down an authoritarian path, and only hit later.
All autocrats rely on popular support and Orbán is no different. He is alert to public opinion and endeavours to shape it according to his own needs. Covid-19 has handed him a golden opportunity to further tighten his grip on power and expand his sphere of influence without major public backlash.
According to a government-friendly polling company, 90 per cent of Hungarians support the extraordinary measures taken to control the outbreak. Other polls would likely deliver similar results: Orbán indirectly influences 150 newspapers, major TV and radio stations, and online outlets.
The cautionary tale about his long-time friend, Lajos Simicska, who overnight lost everything after a fallout with Orbán, will deter many from questioning the authority of the prime minister. So far, this authoritarian attitude has only impacted the few, not the many. Entrepreneurs, who are not in the good graces of the leader, academics and artists, who question the authority of the government, and civil servants and employees of state and oligarch-owned enterprises, who were strongly encouraged to keep quiet on political affairs.
Learned helplessness is a common phenomenon in authoritarian systems. Everyone knows their place and if life does not get bad enough to sacrifice your livelihood for the greater good, most people just go along, trying to cope with everyday challenges. However, the ever-expanding nature of autocratic powers will eventually end up impacting everyone, even if some hope they are too small a fish to fry.
The bill on emergency powers was approved, the support for the Orbán government is at an all-time high, and the EU didn’t bother to mention Hungary in its press release that emphasised the need for the rule of law. So where does this leave the country? Governments across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing authority with little protest. Orban has placed himself above criticism, with the media spending the past two weeks framing the Hungarian opposition as “siding with the virus” and the government doing everything it can to save lives.
That Orbán forced the opposition into a situation where they either side with the virus – and vote against the emergency measures – or approve the emergency measures without any reassurances that they will ever end is a clever political tactic. Will Orbán return (some) of the powers? Based on the last 10 years of governance, there is little reason for such optimism, as the dark clouds are already looming on the horizon.
After the opposition-led municipality of Budapest received one million euros from George Soros – a former resident of the city who escaped the Nazis in 1944 – to fight the pandemic, the Hungarian government introduced a new bill, that would strip local mayors of their power to provide the first line of emergency response. It ensures that opposition-led towns and cities cannot provide better care for their residents than the rest of the country. In less than 24 hours, the government made an unusual U-turn and retracted parts of the bill – at least for now.
The very same bill also introduced completely unrelated points – such as outlawing the change of genders for Hungarians. This has been a long-time tactic of the government: mixing seemingly irrelevant issues with fundamental legislative changes helps the government to portray dissenting voices as radicals, out of the comfort zone of ordinary Hungarians. The government also assigned soldiers to direct “national efforts at 84 strategic companies”, among them Tesco and T-Com.
The political situation of the country is certainly bleak, but residents feel their lives are impacted by the virus – not high-level political manoeuvring. The spring sun will rise tomorrow, the fears of Hungarians will not be gone, and neither will Orbán’s ability to use the crisis for his own advantage. Freedom-loving Hungarians will have two parallel battles to fight: one against the virus and the other against an autocrat. Neither will be easily won.