Viktor Orban Can’t Eradicate the Coronavirus by Decree

Hungary’s authoritarian leader has granted himself dictatorial powers, but his neglect of the country’s health system and his powerlessness in the face of a depreciating currency will come back to haunt him.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (center) votes with other representatives in the Hungarian parliament in Budapest on March 30.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (center) votes with other representatives in the Hungarian parliament in Budapest on March 30. ZOLTAN MATHE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Since coming to power in 2010, the man they call the “Viktator” has wrapped his brand of authoritarianism in a semitransparent gown—transparent enough to show his clients and enemies where the real power was, but with just enough substance for his friends to pretend he was just another democratically elected head of government.

This pretense has allowed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban to resist most threats to his power. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) has refused to join other European parties, now including Poland’s large and influential Civic Platform, in calling for Orban’s expulsion from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) alliance. Yet the brazenness of his latest power grab has finally exposed the limits of Hungary’s democratic facade.

Like Google or Facebook, Orban built an effective monopoly in a formally competitive environment. Other parties could fight in elections; they just could never win them—and Orban has used his emergency powers to siphon 50 percent of political parties’ state funding to a coronavirus fund. Independent media are allowed to operate in Hungary; they just find it hard to make ends meet because of taxes on private advertising. Somehow the companies belonging to Lorinc Meszaros, a childhood friend of Orban’s, have done so well from public contracts that the pipe fitter has become a U.S.-dollar billionaire.

Thanks to an electoral system that entrenches majoritarianism and suffers from electoral fraud (exposed by Unhack Democracy, a nongovernmental organization which I chair), Orban has obtained the two-thirds majority in parliament that gives him legal power to change the constitution at will. The opposition’s meager parliamentary representation prevents it from acting as any kind of check on the executive.

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After 10 years in power, his arrogance is showing. A culture war against the Central European University founded by George Soros drew international opprobrium and provoked the European Parliament to demand the start of proceedings, under Article 7 of the European Union treaty, against his government. The ramming through parliament of a labor law brought the opposition together, enabling it to win the mayoralties of five of the largest Hungarian cities, including Budapest. Now, by exploiting the coronavirus epidemic to give himself broad powers to rule by decree indefinitely, Orban has thrown his chiffon gown away, forcing his friends to see him as the naked autocrat that he is.

Included in the package of emergency measures was the creation of a new criminal offense: spreading misinformation about the coronavirus. Many observers see it as a device for intimidating journalists who might report on inadequate hospital facilities or doctors not being given proper protective equipment. This evokes neighboring Serbia, whose political system suffers from many of the same ills as Hungary’s, and where journalist Ana Lalic was arrested for reporting on “chaotic working conditions” at a Serbian health facility.

Orban didn’t need to give himself indefinite emergency rule. He could have kept up democratic appearances by including a sunset clause, requiring a vote of his rubber-stamp two-thirds majority to extend the emergency. Instead he’s made it impossible to deny the truth: that until the 2022 elections, which will be competitive as long as the opposition presents joint candidates in Hungary’s 106 single-member districts, he holds absolute power in Hungary and no domestic actor can stand in his way.

Abroad, however, the picture is different. His enabling act drew immediate criticism: from the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee; from Norbert Röttgen, an outsider candidate to lead Germany’s center-right CDU; and from the governments of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, fracturing the Visegrad Group alliance (which also includes Hungary and Poland).

The European Parliament had already demanded the invocation of Article 7 procedures to punish countries that violate democratic values, though as long as Poland vetoes their application these cannot proceed further. The case of the European Commission is more nuanced. It issued a veiled statement stating that measures could not be indefinite, but the commission is constrained by the convention that all member states are considered to be in good standing, and didn’t mention Hungary. When at least 13 member states signed a diplomatic letter (which, being diplomatic, didn’t name names), Hungary promptly ridiculed it by endorsing it.

Orban even responded to a demand by EPP members that he be expelled from the party by claiming he was busy with the epidemic and had “no time for this.” How much can he continue to taunt his fellow European leaders?

EU law is a more formidable opponent. The commission’s mildly written letter was in fact a coded legal threat, effectively telling him: We’re watching you, and if you use these emergency powers illegitimately, we’ll take you to court. The European Court of Justice has been increasingly tough on Orban, deploying assertive legal arguments against his anti-NGO legislation. The scope of EU law is now so wide that many emergency measures, insofar as they apply to EU citizens or companies, would fall under the court’s jurisdiction.

Orban’s second front is the currency markets. The Hungarian forint lost nearly 10 percent of its value against the euro after the emergency powers were announced. This is the direct result of Orban’s hostility to the single currency. As a state outside the eurozone, Hungary won’t be able to benefit from the policies being developed to safeguard eurozone members’ financial systems. The Hungarian economy is heavily dependent on industrial production for sale in Western Europe, and that demand has now dried up. And, with a depreciating currency, Orban can’t easily afford to borrow to support afflicted workers or deal with a long-underfunded health system without putting further pressure on the currency.

His third, and most serious, enemy is the virus itself. Hungary is ill-prepared for the epidemic. Its health system is so stretched that one of the opposition Momentum party’s favorite campaign stunts was to distribute toilet paper to hospitals. It is desperately short of intensive care beds, with even Orban admitting that the country has only 2,560 ventilators, which means capacity could be expected to run out with a caseload between 25,000 and 50,000.

Hungary currently has 1,512 cases detected using the limited testing at its disposal. Correcting for underreporting using a model developed by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which estimates that Hungary tests only 7 percent of those with the virus, it is likely to have more than 20,000 cases already.

Even if the disease spreads at a slower rate than in other countries, this could see the country’s health system come under severe pressure in the four weeks it will take for social distancing measures to have an impact. More worrying still is supply of medical personnel. Hungarian doctors have left to Western Europe in large numbers in search of higher salaries and less political interference. The staff shortage is so severe that Orban made an exception to his normal hostility to immigration from Muslim countries and has supplied state scholarships to doctors from Iran and the Arab world in recent years. (True to form, he recently deported some of them back to Iran.)

Orban is a master of exploiting public fear of his own creation. He manufactured a supposed threat from refugees to consolidate his power in 2015 and, when his doomsday warning didn’t materialize, he took credit for protecting his people from it. This time the threat is a real virus, and he’s put himself in charge. He’ll try to blame George Soros, the EU, and anyone else he can think of, but he won’t be able to hide his neglect of his country’s health system over the past 10 years. The depreciating forint stops with him.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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