National unity or authoritarian rule

Ever since the coronavirus outbreak, national unity has been the catchphrase all over Europe. It is logical too, as epidemics don’t distinguish people based on their ideologies. What we can learn from the pandemic is that it’s really democratic. No wonder politicians across Europe are now calling on their people to unite. If we can’t do it at other times, we should at least learn to rise above our differences when in trouble. This is also a great social and political test because it’s hardly easy to turn to someone with trust if you were separated by irreconcilable differences just yesterday. However, in a good scenario, there’s always a common ground we call political culture, which is clear for everyone and allows the community to cooperate in an emergency. In a good scenario, this common ground is given. In a bad scenario, what happens is what you see in Hungary right now.

Belgium, where I spend my days in isolation at home, had had no central government for months when the pandemic reached the country. The lack of a functioning central cabinet did not cause any significant problems for quite a while because the rule of law always applies here regardless of who is in government and most problems are managed at provincial or local levels, anyway. That’s why this country, despite the serious ethnic divide, is able to function and grow, too. Of course, the containment of a world epidemic is a different thing and Belgian politicians understood it. As soon as it was possible, they put their ethnic grievances aside and created a united government for the time of the pandemic. Since the governing parties form the minority in Parliament, there’s no need to worry that someone might forget to return the keys and give up the temporary special powers. These special powers enabled the government to lock down the country in two phases and, although the pandemic did take a serious toll, the news media says today that they can start considering gradually withdrawing the restrictive measures. This is a country that is far from perfect but has democracy deeply embedded it its daily life.

A few days ago I had a phone conversation with a Dutch acquaintance, talking about the coronavirus, of course. The Netherlands chose an utterly strange way to manage the epidemic; let me refrain from discussing the potential outcomes. I wish the best for them. However, the Dutch government didn’t come up with this idea on its own, even though the national laws would have allowed it to impose a much stricter rule by decree than Viktor Orbán did. Nonetheless, the Prime Minister never hid from the people what he was planning to do and also revealed why he thought it was a good solution. They didn’t shy away from the political debates, they spared no effort to address the concerns of those who disagreed with them, to the point where the healthcare minister fainted of exhaustion right in the middle of the Parliament’s session. After that, the Prime Minister put an opposition politician in charge of healthcare, clearly demonstrating that the containment of the virus cannot be a partisan affair. The situation is not good in the Netherlands but no matter what happens, they will continue working together. This is a country that is far from perfect but has democracy deeply embedded it its daily life.

Meanwhile, what’s going on in Hungary? At first, the Hungarian government kept spreading such lies that the virus will not get here but even if it does, it will be different and it’s a foreign virus anyway. When it was no longer possible to deny how big of a trouble we were in, Orbán made a coup and started governing alone. He swept the opposition’s cooperation offers off the table and sent the message that he refuses to rise above the daily political skirmishes because he doesn’t need anybody. Instead of managing the crisis, he launched a political campaign, he threatened people and he kept waging a war but, terrified to lose approval ratings even in the short term, he put off important measures and hid important data. When it came to responsibility, he blamed everyone from the opposition to Brussels, except himself of course, even though the state administration has come to the point where they hardly dare to replace a light bulb without his permission. As a result, in Hungary nobody knows even the magnitude of the coronavirus cases or how long the epidemic may last. There’s only one thing we know for sure: Viktor Orbán has more power than ever before. This is what a truly third world banana republic looks like. You can all draw your own conclusions.


Published on Márton Gyöngyösi's Facebook account