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As Hungary Emerges From Quarantine

The worst fears over Viktor Orbán ruling by decree have so far, not been realized.

There is something surreal about observing a global emergency from the relative safety of a house or an apartment, as hospitals overflow, ambulances wail, and helicopters pass by overhead. In rural Hungary, the experience is even more bizarre. It’s not just that people’s perception of the disease is shaped by secondhand accounts, news reports, and rumors of intensive care units under siege.

It’s that the physical manifestations of a pandemic are almost completely absent. Emergency rooms stand empty, entire villages haven’t reported a single COVID-19 case, and almost no one has been hospitalized. The coronavirus is felt only through its second-order effects: the lockdown orders, the business closures, and the fact that village life, though not particularly dynamic to begin with, has temporarily ground to a halt. 

Like many European countries, Hungary is about to embark on a phased reopening strategy. Budapest will remain under lockdown, but smaller towns and villages are easing quarantine restrictions. In Eger, a mid-sized town two hours outside Budapest, restaurants, cafes, and bars can reopen outdoor terraces and patios so long as they observe physical distancing rules. For a town that depends on regional tourism, the reopening order could mean the difference between a mild downturn and a prolonged recession. 

The scarcity of the disease within Hungary’s borders is at least partly attributable to the rapidity and forcefulness of the government’s initial response. But successful containment only raises more questions: How long can a small country in Central Europe endure an economic pause? Which businesses get to reopen and under what conditions? How will people behave with the threat of another outbreak hanging over their heads? And when will the political situation return to normal?

The irony is that the voters most likely to benefit from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s lockdown orders are those least likely to vote for him. Half of Hungary’s approximately 3,000 confirmed coronavirus cases are within Pest county. The outbreak has exposed the enduring fault line between urban, cosmopolitan Budapest and rural Hungary. The capital is a hotbed of anti-Orbán sentiment and a frequent venue for anti-government protests. It is also the most likely site for a major outbreak. The older and more conservative voters of rural Hungary overwhelmingly support Orbán’s Fidesz party. At least for now, those communities are almost completely untouched by the virus. 

Small town Hungary is unlikely to see the same sort of anti-lockdown protests that have rocked state capitals in the United States. The folk libertarian strain in American politics doesn’t really exist in Eastern Europe. Elderly people might vote, but they rarely march. The older generation was also socialized under late-period Hungarian communism, which implicitly promised less heavy-handed interference in exchange for political acquiescence. The habits inculcated by the previous regime have persisted across years and even generations. 

Protests may not erupt in Eger or Debrecen or Szombathely, but as the weather gets better and the threat of the virus recedes, non-compliance with quarantine orders and physical distancing rules will inevitably spread. The lockdown in rural Hungary was never observed with the same fervor as in big American cities or even Budapest. Home renovation projects in outlying villages continued during the height of the quarantine. In Eger, shoppers are required to wear a mask in shops and grocery stores, but people ignore the rules without legal repercussions or public shaming. Bike rides, group hikes, and gatherings in public spaces all seem to be on the rise.

As the country gradually reopens, political dangers loom along with the threat of another outbreak. Orbán will continue to rule by decree for the duration of the crisis. His authority is not time limited—only a vote by the Fidesz-controlled Parliament can restore the status quo ante. Opposition figures have suggested that Fidesz will use the prospect of a coronavirus-induced recession to extend Orbán’s power indefinitely. Outside observers darkly warn of a dictatorship within the European Union’s borders.

The political landscape, like the public health situation, is still deeply uncertain. The worst predictions made in the wake of the emergency legislation have not come to pass. Orbán has used his authority to score minor domestic political victories: a park renovation project in Budapest was pushed through over the strident objections of the city mayor, who happens to be a member of the opposition, and state ID cards are now required to list the holder’s gender at birth. These moves might be obnoxious or objectionable or nakedly opportunistic, but they are a far cry from enshrining authoritarianism. 

Other worrying emergency powers have not been used. Although the government can now bring charges against anyone spreading false or misleading information about the virus, no journalists have been imprisoned. The prospect of jail time has almost certainly had a chilling effect on Hungarian media, but independent websites and politicians continue to criticize Orbán. The opposition Mayor of Eger has taken to Facebook to snipe at the local state-run news website. 

Is the quarantine an interregnum? Or something closer to the new normal? The same could be asked of Orbán’s sweeping emergency powers. At the beginning of April, as the pandemic raged and the coronavirus legislation had just been adopted, the situation looked grim. Now Hungary is reopening and the most dire predictions of a government clampdown have not come to pass, although a secondary outbreak, a political crisis, or a prolonged recession could change everything. The political situation in Hungary is still uncertain. It’s not a particularly satisfying answer, but anyone peddling certainty at a time like this isn’t worth listening to.