No time for democracy in Hungary

In his open letter addressed to Secretary General of The People’s Party at the European Parliament, PM Viktor Orbán replied he had „no time” to discuss „fantasies about the intensions of other countries.”

The fantasies he referred to were the actual worries about the state of democracy in Hungary, expressed by leaders of the People’s Party of the European Parliament, Orbán’s political party family, which has temporarily suspended the membership of Fidesz.

The leaders of the EPP also suggested the termination of Fidesz’s membership – they see the recent developments in Hungary as a „clear violence to the founding principles of liberal democracy and European values.” While the disease has severely hit Europe, PM Orbán still speaks about agents of George Soros manipulating Brussels, and the “enemies” of the Hungarian nation. The international press (such as The Guardian, Washington Post, the Frankfurter Allgemeine or Al Jazeera, among many other) has widely criticized the new, special measures that the government has introduced to respond to the pandemic – warning that Hungary is turning into an autocratic regime.

The special law passed by the Parliament at the end of March in Hungary is hardly exceptional in Europe, however, it gives extraordinary power to the government and the PM himself, while at the same time this is the only country that has introduced the special measures without putting an end date to them in prospect. The opposition, after their request for putting an end date to the emergency law was denied, was immediately blamed as an obstacles to the country to fight coronavirus and save the lives of Hungarian people. At the same time, the government argues that the Parliament could put an end to the emergency state at any point, however, the government has already a supermajority in the legislation. This could technically mean that the rule by decree would last throughout the whole year, and it would lead to the elimination of the last safeguards of democracy in the country. The emergency law includes a severe sanctioning of “fake news” and spreading “misinformation,” by up to 5 years in prison, which seriously endangers what is left of independent journalism in the country. With Hungary ranking among the worst in the EU in regard to media freedom (according to Reporters Without Borders and other international media watchdogs), this law can seriously endanger access to information about the state of the virus.

The information is now concentrated centrally, and even the national chief medical officer asked medical workers to stop giving out information. This has resulted in a general lack of trust and health workers being reluctant to speak to the press, whether nationally and internationally. And while the statistics on coronavirus for Hungary are relatively comforting with 733 confirmed cases and 34 deaths by the 6th of April 2020 (which could be partly due to the timely preventive measures and the late arrival of the epidemic to Central and Eastern Europe), there are several unsettling details in the handling of the situation. The first and foremost problem is the low number of testing, which has not increased in line with the spread of the disease. Currently Hungary ranks among 21st within the EU concerning number of tests per capita with less than 200 tests per 100 000 inhabitants. Another serious problem is the lack of equipment – not only for the population, but more importantly, for the health care workers and professionals, who make up for 12,5% of the registered positive cases.

With the emergency state, the government has also announced a new economic action plan aiming to protect the workers and the economy of the country. This has also taken health care workers into account, promising them a once time extra salary and a 20% raise from November on. In a statement reacting to the news, the Hungarian Medical Chamber has acknowledged that the extra salary would mean a generous contribution, but has also reminded that a serious raise would be necessary in order to ensure stable working conditions for the health care workers and could possibly keep Hungarian doctors from emigrating abroad.

The government has also announced a common crisis fund, consisting of contributions from multinational companies, banks and local governments. This decision puts extraordinary burdens on the local governments, which have already been delegated extra obligations due to the pandemic in the sphere of social care, such as the care for the elderly or the homeless, without allocating funds for that. A new decree has now announced free parking throughout the whole country, which also means a serious cutback in resources for the local governments. The oppositional mayors in Budapest, have expressed concerns about the lack of information and lack of resources, and have called the crisis fund a new austerity measure.

Just like everywhere else in Europe, Hungarian workers are also threatened by the current instability of the economy, but unlike in rest of the EU, the Hungarian state has taken over 0% of the wages for workers, whose jobs are under risk due to the crisis. 30 000 people have lost their jobs in the last few weeks since the outbreak of the pandemia in Hungary, and as several researches have shown, Hungarians have very little savings, while the social security system provides an aid for 3 months only. The massive unemployment is expected to increase in the coming months, and this number could only grow with the return of Hungarian employees losing their jobs abroad, who are expected to return home in the coming period. The massive unemployment has severely affected education as well. In the poorer regions of the country, distance education means a serious problem – 20% of the pupils do not only have no sufficient infrastructure (pre-paid Internet or a pc), but do not even have electricity in their homes, and don’t have a personal space to complete their home works, as they have to share their room with other siblings, or even with family members from other generations.

With the outbreak of the COVID-19, the virus has found the Hungarian health care system in a critical condition, with overworked and underpaid doctors and nurses. While exhausted teachers and parents try to overcome the challenges of distant education without being provided with the necessary conditions, tens of thousands of workers from various branches slip into a generally precarious situation. At the same time, the spread of coronavirus has only deepened political tensions, and caused instabilities in the last strongholds of democracy – local governments, and independent media. Voices suggesting the exclusion of Hungary from the EU have strengthened internationally, and suggest that the country has stepped on the path towards a dictatorship. From the inside, the impression is not very different, and Hungarians now not only fear the virus, but also the regime that is supposed to protect them from it.