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Why the Media Pounced on Poland and Hungary’s Coronavirus Measures

Has either government taken any steps that go beyond what Western Europe has done?

As the deadliest pandemic since the Spanish Flu sweeps the globe, the media have been understandably focused on the novel coronavirus and the way to stop it. All the more surprising then, that they have gratuitously attacked right-of-center governments in Central Europe, particularly Poland and Hungary, not for failing to address the health crisis, but for exercising the same emergency authority as other democratically elected leaders around the world.

And what precisely are the two governments doing with all that new coronavirus-fighting power? Both Poland and Hungary diagnosed their first cases on March 4. Hungary closed schools seven days later, and Poland followed suit the next day; social distancing was introduced six days after the first case in Poland and seven in Hungary. Poland closed its borders 11 days into the pandemic, before any life was lost; Hungary did the same a day later. Shelter in place went into effect in Poland 21 days after the first case was diagnosed, Hungary two days later. To put these numbers in perspective, it took Italy 35 days to close schools; it took France 53 to shelter in place; Spain implemented social distancing only after 44 days; and Germany waited 48 days to close its borders. It looks like Polish and Hungarian governments have so far been using their authority to save lives. 

And yet the story of Poland and Hungary’s fast and effective response to the coronavirus is nowhere to be found: “Wannabe Autocrats Love the Pandemic,” says a Bloomberg columnist; “Populists Love the Pandemic,” says a Polish leftist. More creative editors contributed “Pandemic Power Grab,” “Coronavirus Coup,” and “Coronavirus and the Dawn of Post-Democratic Europe.” 

And this is just a small sampling off a multi-lingual editorial assembly line that’s surprisingly thin on details, but rich in bias and inaccuracy.

The articles proclaiming the end of democracy in Central Europe seem to multiply faster than the coronavirus itself, crowding out serious regional coverage of the pandemic. In the universe created by the likes of Bloomberg, CNN, The Washington Post, or The New York Times, coronavirus is nothing but a pretext for a dictatorial takeover by center-right governments, whose only interest in pandemics is seizing extraordinary powers as “a standard authoritarian move,” according to a Rutgers professor in the Post. There’s no evidence for it—yet—but Poland and Hungary’s quest for corona-power is already a journalistic genre. 

These formulaic “news” stories are highly contagious: Media attacks found a legal rejoinder in the European Court of Justice whose tone-deaf ruling against Poland and Hungary’s rejection of open borders and migrant quotas marked a pattern of mutually reinforcing institutional harassment and negative media coverage. Meanwhile, EU courts are under scrutiny for conflicts of interest between justices and NGOs notoriously hostile to Hungary and Poland.

The media assume that Hungary and Poland under conservative governments cannot be trusted: even in the face of the greatest pandemic in 100 years, right-of-center leaders would surely wield emergency authority not for public good but to gain power —which they will never relinquish. Why? Because they are conservative. Journalists see no such danger in, say, France or Germany, even though French government recently adopted an unpopular pension reform bypassing the legislature, held elections despite the pandemic, and canceled the run-off as Macron’s party was losing. Where is the outrage?

Never mind that governments of Poland and Hungary have so far used their emergency powers to fight the pandemic. Their numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths are lower—by orders of magnitude —than in Western Europe. According to Johns Hopkins data, Spain, with a population similar to Poland’s, has 30 times more infections and 108 times more deaths; Portugal, similar in size to Hungary, has 15 times more cases and seven times the deaths. For Bloomberg, though, Orbán and Kaczyński are just “wannabe autocrats” who “love the pandemic.”

Every democratic country is implementing similar measures, with leaders using emergency powers to combat the virus. Nevertheless, it’s only Victor Orbán whose state-of-danger authority inspires volumes of Cassandra-like warnings. And it’s uniquely the head of Polish Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, whose efforts to keep national elections on track The Economist dismisses as autocratic “epidemocracy” and The Financial Times as “follies” of “Covid-19 elections”—South Korea, meanwhile, wins praise from The New York Times for holding theirs.

It seems the leaders of Hungary and Poland should not have crisis authority comparable even to that of an American mayor or governor, not to mention any reliably progressive western head of state. Somehow, in the hands of Polish or Hungarian elected officials, power is implicitly suspect, not because of what they do but because of who they are —conservative politicians who believe in national independence and a sovereign nation-state. That’s why, despite fundamental differences between their emergency powers, Hungary and Poland are the villains of the pandemic.

This is not just a double standard – it’s a parallel universe.

And so Poland’s government is branded “undemocratic” for imposing a “state of epidemic”—and not a more far-reaching “state of emergency.” The latter would cancel the presidential elections scheduled for May 10, an outcome the progressive opposition heavily favors. Why? Because the popular conservative incumbent president, Andrzej Duda, is heavily favored to win. The government argues that imposing a state of emergency just to prevent a national election is profoundly undemocratic and clearly unconstitutional, proposing absentee balloting instead. Dismissing that solution as “electoral rigging,” Western media call it dictatorial—without explaining what gets “rigged” or how. One can only imagine the outcry if the opposition were set to win and the government were to cancel the elections under emergency powers. 

Meanwhile, Hungary’s government is deemed autocratic for precisely the opposite reason: It imposed a “state of danger,” analogous to Poland’s state of danger, which grants no powers that other European leaders lack. It doesn’t stop Vox from calling Orbán a “dictator,” even though the courts and parliament retain their authority: emergency powers authorized by a parliamentary supermajority can be revoked with a simple majority, and the electoral schedule is not threatened, contrary to what some western journalists falsely report

So while Poland is criticized for what The FT calls “the folly of national elections” and not imposing a state of emergency, The Washington Post lambasts Hungary for the opposite—imposing one and, as critics incorrectly claim, endangering future elections.

Nowhere is this schizophrenic perspective more visible than in the European Union. Donald Tusk, Poland’s progressive opposition leader, uses his EU bully pulpit to settle domestic political scores with the Polish government that defeated his party in elections —twice. Formerly the EU president and now head of the European People’s Party, Tusk often pontificates about unity in the face of the pandemic, and yet, he threatens Hungary’s Fidesz, an ally of the Polish government, with expulsion from the EPP for passing the coronavirus “rule-by-decree.” That is the power that Victor Orbán has in common with, for example, the German chancellor and the French president —both members of Tusk’s EPP —which they exercise through their own pandemic legislation. 

Most of the hysteria is based on a “what if” —what if “they” win while the virus is here or won’t relinquish power once the pandemic is gone. The only way to settle that argument is to wait. Let’s see whether Hungary, a land-locked democratic member of the European Union and NATO, bound by treaties, subject to vicious scrutiny by NGOs and hostile media, will indeed want to burn every political bridge and risk international alienation to keep powers designed specifically to combat a health emergency.

The media— and their readers—need to ask themselves: why would a popular leader want to do that two years before national elections? And good luck to the Economist and others painting Poland with the dictatorial brush for trying to keep national elections on track, despite a pandemic. Just because the opposition isn’t getting its way in opinion polls or at the ballot box, doesn’t mean Polish democracy isn’t working. The leaders elected in Poland and in Hungary may not be to German or French tastes, but they have a democratic mandate and listen to the voice of their people. 

Instead of conducting what amounts to an all-out regime change operation against Europe’s most outspoken right-of-center, democratically elected governments, the media could drop their alleged demise of democracy narrative and look at the story of the EU’s eastern flank with curiosity. They might discover the part of Europe that’s proud of its national traditions, that vividly remembers its Soviet captivity and its fight for freedom, and never again wants to lose its independence—to anyone. 

Anna Wellisz is senior director at White House Writers Group, a strategic consulting firm in Washington, D.C., whose clients included the Polish National Foundation from 2017-2019.