The streets of Budapest feel peculiar for a sunny spring day; empty roads, shut restaurants, and worried looks on the occasional pedestrian walking past the closed windows of shops. The deafening silence is only broken by the occasional sirens of emergency services and the silent voice of residents speaking through surgical masks. You can almost smell the fear in the air; it’s a fear of the virus, not a fear of a looming dictatorship.
The Hungarian capital turned to a different phase in its history at midnight on 30th March. On this day, the Hungarian Parliament passed a bill – which the President immediately signed – proclaiming the 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. As it often happens with historical affairs, they arrive without a bang, with people on the ground barely noticing the change in the immediate aftermath.
Viktor Orbán is a gifted political leader who appreciates the crucial importance of timing. During a period when the whole world is preoccupied with fighting the worst pandemic of the last century, when uncertainty and fears are at an all time high, 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 move the country even further down an authoritarian path, will only hit later.
All autocrats have to rely on popular support and Orbán is no different. He has a high alertness for public opinion and does everything he can to shape it according to his own needs. Using the fears of his citizens about the virus has provided him with the 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% of Hungarians support the extraordinary measures taken by the government. Even the undoctored numbers would be very high, as Orbán has effectively taken over the media landscape during his decade-long premiership. Maintaining popular support is a cornerstone of his power. Orbán indirectly influences 150 newspapers, major TV and radio stations, and online outlets through his oligarchs whose livelihood directly depend on him.
The cautionary tale about his long-time friend, Lajos Simicska, who lost everything from one day to the other because of a fall out between the two men, serves as a warning sign for everyone questioning the authority of the prime minister. The message is clear: your power, wealth, and lifestyle depend on one man only – and the privileges can be taken away just as easily as they were given.
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 & employees of state and oligarch owned enterprises, who were strongly encouraged to keep quite on political affairs. In a mild autocracy, 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?
If Hungarians are lucky, Orbán only introduced these emergency powers to gain further popular support. The media framing in the country for the last two weeks was all about the Hungarian opposition ‘siding with the virus’ and the government doing everything it can to save lives, only to be hindered by the international community that uses the opposition as its shield. The fact 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. If Orbán eventually returns (some) of the powers, he can pose as the saviour of the nation who fought on the right side of the battle against the virus, despite the hindrance by self-serving opposition parties and international institutions. 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. This further centralisation of power ensures that the handful of 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 and overriding the municipality of Budapest by starting a construction of museums in a public park that was vehemently opposed by the capital’s electorate. This has been a long-time tactic of the government to gain public support for its actions. 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’. Companies, such as Tesco, T-Com, utility and pharmaceutical corporates are amongst them. The government indicated that there are potentially another 60 companies on their list, but they are not releasing the names of companies until the soldiers actually arrive.
The political situation of the country is certainly bleak, but residents feel their lives are impacted by the virus – not the high-level political manoeuvring that is going on. 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 their autocrat. Neither will be easily won.