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In the first weeks of March, as it became increasingly clear that Hungary would not be spared from the alarmingly rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the Hungarian government under Viktor Orbán remained indecisive. Buoyed by favorable economic indicators and only days away from launching a new political communication campaign, Orbán was reluctant to sacrifice the long-term political strategies his party had developed in response to worrying defeats in municipal elections last October. With these carefully crafted plans already in motion, Orbán resisted allowing the pandemic, still barely present in Hungary, to topple it all over.
As the number of cases in Lombardy reached 16 on February 21, the government began screening flights arriving from Italy and placed high schoolers returning from a school trip there in a two week quarantine. An Emergency Task Force was created on February 24, but government communication still downplayed the virus. Even as the World Health Organization was warning of the possibility of a worldwide pandemic, Orbán didn't mention the coronavirus publicly until a radio interview on February 28.
"Now the coronavirus is attracting all the attention, but migration remains the historical challenge,” he said during that Friday interview, where he also spoke about threats like George Soros and the "prison business" while assuring the public that the government was prepared to defend against the virus.
According to reporting for 444 by Pál Dániel Rényi, the government was aware at this time that Covid-19 would be a long-term issue, but opted to mount a subdued response in the hopes that its carefully orchestrated political plans could still be salvaged. "It turned out rather late that this will be a single issue which sets aside all other topics for a long time," one high-level ministry staff member said. "This wasn’t clear at the time of the first infections, but it became clear a few days before the declaration of the state of emergency."
In the first days of March, Orbán traveled to Slovenia to congratulate his ally Janez Jansa on his recent electoral victory, and to Prague to attend a summit of the V4. Meanwhile, the first two positive cases of coronavirus in Hungary were registered on March 4, which Orbán himself publicly announced upon his return.
Close to home
Orbán initially appointed Human Resources Minister Miklós Kásler (an oncologist by profession) to act as his personal liaison and to direct the healthcare response, but politicians within the Fidesz caucus reportedly expressed their dissatisfaction with Kásler's performance. It was then that the office of the Chief Medical Officer was tasked with coordinating epidemic protection measures, and it became the public face of the government's response to the pandemic.
In the days following the first confirmed cases in Hungary, representatives within the Fidesz and KDNP caucuses grew increasingly alarmed. According to one government undersecretary, older MPs, especially in KDNP, were particularly worried by the virus and began wearing masks to parliamentary sessions. Orbán assured them that there was nothing to fear: he was not wearing any protective equipment behind the scenes or getting himself tested for the virus, he told them.
If Orbán was able to assuage the personal concerns of the MPs, he was less successful in maintaining calm among the public. Governing coalition MPs were pressed by their constituents on where to get sanitizer and masks, which were increasingly difficult to obtain, and on what measures would be taken to assist the elderly in shopping for groceries. Unlike previous crises the government had declared were facing the country (immigrants, George Soros, anti-Hungarian bureaucrats in Brussels), both the public and politicians felt that this was a crisis which had the potential to affect everyone no matter where they were, and Orbán was reportedly pressured to act, especially by members of his own party.
Slowing the spread of information
As government officials realized they would have to develop a more comprehensive response to the crisis, the government bought needed time by controlling the flow of information through the Emergency Task Force and its daily press briefings. Rather than releasing the ages and locations of the first positive cases, the government released their nationalities (the first two cases were Iranian university students) and emphasized that foreigners had brought the virus into the country.
It would take three more weeks for more detailed information on confirmed cases to be released.
On March 6, when four cases had been confirmed, Orbán continued speaking about the importance of "defending the borders and stopping the migrants" as he equated the challenges of migration with the coronavirus. One day before the emergency declaration on March 11, Orbán said, "There is a clear connection between illegal immigration and the coronavirus epidemic, because several immigrants arrived from or through Iran which is one of the outbreak sites of the infection." (The Iranian students were legally studying in Hungary on student visas - ed.)
Internal government polling, however, showed that the public did not equate the virus with migration, which reportedly shocked Orbán. According to one of his aides, "he was not surprised by the speed of the epidemic but by how quickly the fear that went along with it spread".
Public alarm continued to mount as the government released meager information through press conferences and healthcare workers began reporting on a lack of sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). The Hungarian Chamber of Doctors called on the government to provide such PPE, saying that the surgical masks being provided could prevent someone infected with the virus from transmitting it but were ineffective in protecting healthcare workers from potential infection.
The Human Resources Ministry reacted to the doctors' requests by saying that they "were blackmailing and making false claims during a state of emergency".
Dissention in the ranks
The World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic on March 11, and the Hungarian government declared a state of emergency the same day, shutting down travel from epidemic hotspots, banning indoor events of over 100 people, closing universities and dormitories, and erecting border checks on the Austrian and Slovene borders. That day, Orbán travelled to Moldova to hold bilateral negotiations while Fidesz called for seven-party negotiations in Parliament.
The emergency declaration was supported by the opposition parties, but they pushed for additional measures like sealing off retirement homes and closing all schools. KDNP caucus leader Péter Harrach vocally supported the latter measure, but Fidesz continued to consider school closures unnecessary and refused. That night, the government issued an order prohibiting school directors or the Education Office from suspending classes: the prime minister's chief of staff Gergely Gulyás said it was unnecessary since children were only rarely affected by the virus.
The decision to leave schools open would prove to be a political miscalculation and a demonstration of the government's tone deafness around the public sense of alarm. While Orbán was in Moldova, the number of confirmed cases reached 16 and teachers, opposition politicians and parents protested against the decision to leave schools open. In Budapest, shops, bars and restaurants emptied out even before government orders to close them, and many people began wearing masks on the streets without being directed to do so.
On the morning of Friday, March 13, Orbán, now back in Hungary, gave a radio interview in which he declared that schools would not be closed, arguing that the only reason universities had been shuttered was because foreign students had brought the virus into the country. He warned that if schools were to be closed, teachers would not be guaranteed their salaries.
But at seven-party negotiations that afternoon, all caucuses including Fidesz asked the government to order the closure of schools. Orbán was reportedly not consulted on the request, and was only informed of it minutes before its submission. According to one person present, "nothing like this ever happens in Fidesz. The situation was tense."
Fidesz MPs saw that they had to act as risk mounted that the public would take matters into its own hands. Parents were contacting MPs saying they didn't want to send their children to school. In Budapest, 15 school directors told parents their children would be excused if they didn't report to school on Monday, and some schools told children and parents to take their belongings home on Friday in case school wasn't held the next week. According to one person familiar with the matter,
"the threat was that self-organizing would spread on the weekend and that many people wouldn’t allow their children to go to school on Monday. Then the government would be publicly forced into bringing up the rear behind public opinion. That couldn’t be allowed.”
Orbán announced the decision to close schools that Friday, catching pro-government media by surprise: TV2 aired a segment ridiculing the opposition’s proposal to close schools only a couple of hours before Orbán made his announcement.
A normal country
Following the inconsistencies in decision making surrounding school closures, Orbán took control of the government's coronavirus response and became its public face. By Monday, March 15, he was leading the Emergency Task Force and regularly posting videos to his Facebook page before the Task Force's morning meetings. Two days later, seven-party consultations were called in Parliament on a new piece of emergency legislation that would come to be known as the Authorization Act.
The draft bill, which would later ignite a firestorm of domestic and international outrage, was provided to opposition parties only two hours before the consultations. They opposed elements of the bill which would affect free speech, and unanimously declared that the emergency powers the bill would grant the government must include a time limit, which they proposed at 30 or even 90 days. Socialist MP Tamás Harangozó said that if the bill were accepted in its original form, "it would amount to a coup d'état".
The negotiations, at first, appeared constructive: several modifications proposed by the opposition were accepted, and Fidesz caucus leader Máté Kocsis asked the opposition parties to prepare textual amendments which Justice Minister Judit Varga said she’d present to the government. Two opposition figures said that it appeared that progress was being made and that negotiations could continue.
"For ten days it seemed like we were living in a normal country. Máté Kocsis, Gergely Gulyás and Judit Varga all showed their human side during the seven-party negotiations," Dialogue caucus leader Tímea Szabó said. "But then something suddenly changed.”
By Friday night, Varga had submitted a draft bill to Parliament which did not contain any of the modifications proposed by the opposition, and Kocsis declared that even if the opposition parties refused to vote for a change in house rules to accelerate passage of the bill the following Monday, the Fidesz-KDNP supermajority would pass it anyway eight days later.
At Fidesz's caucus meeting that Monday, Orbán had visibly regained his confidence. One person present at the meeting said that it was clear he had gotten control of the situation and had developed long-term plans to manage both the public health and political implications of the crisis.
Fidesz's refusal to modify the Authorization Act made it clear that the opposition parties would not vote to approve it in an accelerated procedure: Orbán knew they would not willfully hand him indefinite powers to rule by decree. Still, Orbán had to keep control of his caucus. There was still uncertainty among ruling-party MPs, and in a crisis situation where anyone could be affected—including the MPs themselves, their families and their constituents—it was crucial to ensure that there was no break in ranks.
That day, Orbán took the very rare step of appealing to his own party in Parliament, calling them "the 133 bravest people in the country" and urging them to support the government's emergency powers.
"Don’t waver, don’t back down, don’t get insecure, no matter what they say," Orbán told the Fidesz caucus. "Make those decisions that we believe will best help the country’s capabilities. Be brave!"
The vote was split along party lines, and the necessary four-fifths was not reached to approve the Authorization Act. Meanwhile, Orbán's strategy began to take shape. While the opposition continued to offer to vote for the bill if it included a 90-day sunset clause, Orbán refused, and blamed them for causing a costly delay in the government's coronavirus reponse. "Instead of political division, the time has come for cooperation regardless of party affiliation, my fellow representatives," he said.
The Authorization Act passed under normal procedures on March 30.
According to analysis by Pál Dániel Rényi, two different but not mutually exclusive strategies could have been at play in how the government unfurled the Authorization Act. The government needed a scapegoat on which it could place blame if the crisis got out of hand, and since neither George Soros nor migrants could be blamed for the coronavirus, the opposition would be the target. (Provisions of the act which could affect journalists have the potential to place responsibility on the media, as well.)
Secondly, some within the governing coalition think that Orbán believes he can handle the crisis himself, and that he doesn’t want to share the attention or the potential political rewards the crisis might bring. Orbán trusts that the government's communication apparatus can gloss over any mistakes, and since independent media is even more restricted than before, the public is now more dependent on the government than ever. This places more responsibility on Orbán, but also grants him more power.
According to some opposition politicians, Orbán retaking control of the situation has placed him back in his element, and he seems to be enjoying it. Dialogue MP Bence Tordai said it had been a long time since he had seen Orbán in such a good mood as after the opposition voted down the accelerated procedure.
Former Jobbik MP János Bencsik (Independent) said, “Last week, the day after the vote, I looked at Prime Minister Orbán’s face. Do you know what I saw? Serenity, balance, confidence. He was completely in his element, totally in his comfort zone. Do you know why? Because everything is happening according to his script. Everything that happens now is his master plan.”
This article is based on a piece by Pál Dániel Rényi, published in Hungarian at 444.hu.