Hungary is a landlocked European nation of nearly 10 million that operates under a parliamentary government system. Historically, the political divide in Hungary led to highly competitive elections, with the prime minister and presidential positions democratically grappled over. Elected as prime minister in 2010, Viktor Orbán is an outspoken Eurosceptic, self-proclaimed illiberal and member of the right-wing Fidesz party. Orbán has slowly centralized government powers, squashed political opposition and threatened freedom of the press for nearly a decade. Orbán supporters point to the prime minister’s rapid response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, which hit Hungary in March 2020 but has experienced near-eradication from the country, as evidence of his effectiveness. Implementing a five-year jail sentence for promoting misinformation about the virus, closing borders and shutting down non-essential businesses early, Orbán undoubtedly contributed to Hungary’s successful containment of COVID-19. However, the power he indirectly obtained from the virus also contributed to his controversial ambitions to redefine politics in Hungary.
5 Ways COVID-19 is Changing Politics in Hungary
- The Effects of Unilateral Decisions: In March 2020, Hungary’s Fidesz-dominated government approved a law allowing Orbán to make unilateral decisions concerning COVID-19 resources, response funding and guidelines. Orbán has since exploited this ruling, taking steps to weaken the platforms of opposing politicians, largely from left-leaning mayors, as the 2022 parliamentary election approaches. While this legislation was to bolster local responses to the virus without needing approval from parliament, its loopholes enabled Orbán to also reallocate municipal funds, neglect transparency about vaccination updates and control the media more tightly.
- Flawed Communication: Orbán has failed to provide local leaders data about vaccinations, case numbers, hot-spots and other vital public health information. As mayors lack this data, they have struggled to decide if and when their constituents can return to normal economic and social activities. Although parliament formally ended the Hungarian state of emergency in June 2020, the March legislation remains. Orbán and future prime ministers, through another legislative loophole, will still wield many of the unilateral decision-making powers that enable poor communication and vertical collaboration within the government.
- Targeted Tax Cuts: A contentious component of Orbán’s COVID-19 response strategy has been the tax cuts on both public and private businesses that stimulate local level economies. Before the pandemic, the Hungarian economy was relatively stable, with increased wages, low unemployment and steady growth despite the looming issue of inflation. Almost immediately after COVID-19 hit Hungary, Orbán cut taxes on several municipal services by making public parking free. With urban cities like Budapest already losing revenue from public transit and other public services, Orbán’s parking tax cut appears to assist citizens but drains local funding vital to the efficiency of politics in Hungary and virus containment.
- Economic Zoning: In another unilateral decision, Orbán categorized certain businesses as “special economic zones.” Under Orbán’s plan, revenue and taxes that businesses generated, qualifying as “special economic zones,” go toward the national COVID-19 response fund instead of stimulating local economies. Projections determine that working-class and factory towns, like God, could lose up to $170 million over the next four years as a result of Orbán’s zoning legislature.
- Refugee Restrictions: For the last decade, Orbán has vocalized his conservative stance on refugees and migrants. Using his newly acquired emergency power, Orbán, like many world leaders, has slowed the influx of all immigrants, even vulnerable refugee populations. In May 2020, despite low COVID-19 infection rates, Orbán further threatened the institution of asylum in Hungary. Justifying his actions with the pandemic, Orbán ordered the relocation and detainment of refugees and continued to build a fence at the country’s Serbian and Croatian borders. A product of unsound politics in Hungary, Orbán’s refugee policies leave former citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran more vulnerable to the virus and with even fewer options for obtaining asylum in Europe.
With an election approaching, approximately half of Hungarians approving of the Fidesz party and Orbán’s approval rating at an all-time high of 57%, the stability of politics in Hungary is in danger. As partisan leaders have largely failed in efforts to hold Orbán democratically accountable, NGOs like Freedom House are stepping in to influence politics in Hungary. Freedom House collects data on political overreach and provides educated reports and quantitative scores on the status of democracy in Hungary, where critical press coverage of the government is punishable. The reliable and in-depth assessments that Freedom House generates provide crucial evidence for Orbán’s political opposers. If these opposers, who advocate for democracy and decentralized government, can regain parliament seats in 2022, Hungarians in the political minority will likely regain a voice.
– Caledonia Strelow
Photo: Wikimedia Commons