As the world battles the global coronavirus pandemic, Budapest stands accused of using the crisis to enshrine authoritarianism via parliamentary vote—by giving conservative prime minister Victor Orbán extraordinary powers forever. An angry clamor has gone up, calling for Hungary to be expelled from NATO and the EU. Such calls are premature, however. There is no plot to destroy democracy on the Danube. As Orbán himself put it, “We are at war—and the country is operating on a military plan.”
The Hungarian government’s response is rather common sense. It generally conforms to the self-protective pattern followed by America and others, with some important sui generis Magyar characteristics. But before we turn to domestic Hungarian issues, let’s see how the Danubian parliamentary republic measures up to other nations.
Globally speaking, there are six basic kinds of national responses to the COVID-19 emergency. First, in a category all its own, there is that of North Korea which, claims its dictator Kim Jong Un, is free of the virus. This is because the Communists there reportedly shoot anyone infected. In fact, so far only the Arctic can boast of zero infections—and without any executions.
Second, there is the post-totalitarian model of Communist China and post-Communist Russia. It is essentially authoritarian. Beijing has paved the way, with forced quarantines and a population movement ban for anyone caught in the broadly understood ‘infection zone’ (Wuhan, in particular). It also includes random temperature and symptom checks for all subjects; obligatory isolation for suspected carrier; and forced treatment, real or alleged, for everyone infected.
Russia, in turn, has sealed its border with China, seriously constrained travel, raided Chinese expatriate residences in Moscow, and deported a number of Chinese citizens (including foreign students) as health hazards. The Kremlin has further instituted a variety of emergency measures that go far beyond fighting the virus. Some of them appear benevolent and beneficial—for example, a ban on firing workers during the pandemic. Others are more menacing and target whatever liberties remain in the Russian Federation.
Third, there is the Swedish way: ignore the pandemic and go about the nation’s business as usual. Sweden is a low-density country, so the countryside (at the very least, the frozen northern parts) probably won’t be infected for now. But the coastal cities most certainly are threatened, and, in fact, are already contaminated.
Belarus has emulated Sweden, seemingly remaining in denial about COVID-19. But Minsk’s close links to Beijing will eventually—perhaps sooner rather than later—provide a reality check for Moscow. There are already ‘hushed up’ reports of hundreds of cases in the eastern part of the country, where Chinese workers and experts are employed on a variety of projects.
On the other side of the world, Brazil wants to be like Sweden and Belarus, and has even rescinded its policy of ‘freezing’ the country to contain the spread of the virus. Against all warning signs, it optimistically asserts a return to ‘business as usual’—perhaps prematurely. It’s worth noting that whereas Sweden and Brazil are both parliamentary democracies, Belarus remains a post-Communist dictatorship. In the case of Minsk, there is a disconnect between its long-standing ‘thuggish’ system of governance and heavy-handed political rule, and its current ‘liberal’ not to say lax response to the coronavirus.
The fourth approach or model is that of “Club Med” neglect, which has now turned into paranoid fear. Its representatives are primarily Italy, Spain, and France. Their governments ignored all the early warning signs, and later, after belatedly adopting measures and issuing warnings, their citizens ignored them with gusto. By then, it was too late. The pandemic metastasized. The “Club Med” trio became hysterical. They imposed rolling quarantines; and helplessly watched their death tolls rise higher than anywhere. (Incidentally, the British response to the pandemic initially followed the “Club Med” model, but then London finally got serious with a quarantine, tests, and treatment.)
Fifth, there is the Japanese and South Korean approach. It consists of vigorous monitoring, identification, and isolation of suspected cases, as well as meticulous treatment of the sick. Both nations are parliamentary democracies, yet their governments have both undertaken harsh administrative measures to contain the virus. Furthermore, they have both appealed, rather successfully, to their ingrained sense of social responsibility and self-discipline to stem the tide. Westerners have voiced concerns about possible human rights violations, but neither the Koreans nor the Japanese seem to pay them much heed in light of the threat of the deadly pandemic. Thus, they have dealt with the crisis through a combination of administrative and cultural tools.
Germany has followed something close to this Japanese/South Korean model, particularly as far as profiling, testing, and isolating those infected and those potentially infected. Snitching is back in vogue, as neighbors help the police enforce laws to contain the virus. Yet Germany’s government still lacks the political will to implement serious enforcement mechanisms, so the anti-coronavirus dragnet is not fully airtight—and the infection, although seemingly contained at home, had spread to neighboring Poland. (Parenthetically, Denmark which at first responded like Germany, has now reconsidered its approach and seeks to emulate Sweden, even promising to have children back in schools by the end of April.)
The sixth approach is represented by the United States. It has reacted gradually to the outbreak of the virus, with limited bans on movement that have now turned into a ‘cold turkey’ approach. There is now a general ‘lockdown’ in most (but not all) American states. The national borders have been closed; most businesses are shuttered; and stay-at-home orders abound in many localities. Thus, the most robust response to the pandemic has stemmed from federalism. Although the Trump administration and the rest of the federal government have continued to carry out their constitutional duties to protect the U.S. from the clear and present danger of the virus, it has been correctly left to the states to implement the details of their respective anti-COVID-19 battleplans.
Several nations have either emulated the United States (sans federalism) or have chosen a similar ‘cold turkey’ approach even before America. Two stand out for their success at containing the pandemic: Hungary and Poland. Both have instituted stringent measures early on (measures that New York now wishes it had implemented, too, when the writing was fresh on the wall).
It is important to note that as the virus spread across the European continent, the European Union was mostly watching from the sidelines. Brussels did practically nothing, either for the “Club Med” countries or the rest of EU member states. Europe’s nation-states essentially had to take over the task of fending for themselves.
And that is precisely what Hungary has been doing. Yet, most Western pundits only see this as a teleological progression of Orbán’s efforts to achieve permanent political control. Hasn’t he always (at least the past 15 years or so) been accused of trying to create a dictatorship? Doesn’t he control state TV and other media outlets, and oversee a vast patronage system, as well as the nation’s financial system? It’s all rigged, the pundits cry. He’ll always win.
But I do not recall any liberal commentators, back in the 1990s, expressing any concerns over the fate of Hungary’s nascent democracy when the Communists, who had transformed themselves into post-Communists, appropriated—along with their liberal collaborators—the nation’s banks, industries, and media in an orgy of embezzlement. They also monopolized all contacts with the West, feeding off of the generous credits and grants provided by western NGOs and other special interests. Thus, the post-Communists and liberals were able to essentially control the government, winning elections practically unopposed. The ‘reds’ and the ‘pinks’ were thus able to rotate in and out of power for about 15 years.
But the ride is over. Impunity is no more. Orbán’s Fidesz—which used to earn liberal kudos in the West when it meekly collaborated with the post-Communists—has since shed the liberalism that crippled it and ousted its former masters. It has successfully—and legally and democratically—broken the post-Communist and liberal monopoly on power.
This, indeed, has been the pattern in Hungary. Orbán has consistently won parliamentary elections (and, usually, local elections, too). He thus has a solid democratic mandate, entrusted by the majority of Hungarians, for better and worse, to rule as he sees fit for the nation. Thus, the parliament—which his party, Fidesz, controls—can vote the way the majority of voters expect. Right now, the Hungarians, like the rest of us, are truly scared. So most of them do not mind “extraordinary measures” being taken—just as they did not mind the similar measures being taken back in 2015, when Orbán moved swiftly and decisively to stem the tide of illegal migrants invading the country (and Europe).
Given the outcry over its recent “extraordinary measures,” it’s worth repeating: Hungary remains a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional republic. Although there was no plebiscite there was a parliamentary vote, in which the super majority agreed to grant the prime minister emergency powers to contain a dangerous virus during a global pandemic. Although the law is being made to sound dangerous, primarily because it apparently includes no time limits, this is an oversight that will be rectified so that it expires as soon as the current emergency is over. In the meantime, the Magyars will continue to fight the coronavirus pretty much the way we in the West do: the nation-state way.