Any threat is a godsend to talentless politicians whose only forte is fearmongering and propaganda. And we have a lot of those politicians these days. Orbán is definitely one of them.
So when a crisis occurs he jumps at it without fail and milks it for its full fearmongering potential. But the best crises (for strongmen) are the ones they fabricate themselves. The ones that are genuine are more difficult to control.
Such is a virus.
The spread of a public health threat may still be a great opportunity for strongman-posturing. It is also a great opportunity to strip away the next layer of civil liberties, to send the military on the streets and to introduce “temporary” legal and security measures that may or may not be lifted when the crisis is over. At any rate, such crises make populations used to the sight of soldiers on the streets, they make people used to being monitored and bossed around, they make people aggressively give up their own (and each other’s) privacy. People may even learn to associate emergency measures with touching care from their tough father figure, who keeps them safe and secure – even when he cancels every civil liberty imaginable.
Yet, it is not obvious whether any particular strongman can benefit from the corona scare. Regimes can deploy extreme measures that will break in a huge part of the population even if they fail to prevent a single infection. But autocracies also have to face a credibility crisis – not being very forthcoming with actual facts. But even if their populations start to distrust the Chinese or Iranian regimes, they can still rely on heavy-handed interventions to step into the place of trust in public services.
But Hungary’s case is slightly different. There may have been a shocking display of uniformed military leaders at Orbán’s latest party event – a completely novel thing in Hungary – but Hungary is not yet a military regime. No one even suspects that it would become one. (Not yet, anyway.)
The real challenge for Orbán is that the corona scare is directly related to the state of healthcare – an issue in which he is failing.
And Orbán really, really, REALLY doesn’t want cameras near hospitals.
During the last ten years of his unlimited reign he purposely and proudly underfunded healthcare in favor of his pet projects and hobby horses – such as professional football and fattening up a group of politically connected cronies. As a result the country’s healthcare system is failing in every possible measure, even in official statistics, not to mention the everyday experiences of average people seeking medical help.
It got so bad, even surveys conducted by Orbán’s own pollsters measured a serious discontent with his healthcare record. Many of his own voters consider the opposition (!!!!!) more competent in healthcare and environmental issues. And to see this opposition competent in anything is a sign of extreme desperation.
So far, all of Orbán’s communication efforts to re-take these fields have failed as they were been dripping with contempt for both healthcare and the environment. Whenever Orbán talks about healthcare he can’t help but to betray his contempt for the plebs who use it. He put the blame on hospital managers, on producers of medical supplies, even doctors. He regularly appoints health ministers who blame patients for their health issues. One oncologist-turned-minister recommended the ten commandment as cancer prevention.
It looks like populists’ anti-reality irrationalism is genuine, not faked. (It is alarming, but not really surprising, since they are not good at reality – they only excel in communication.)
If Orbán ever wants to regain ground on the healthcare policy field he first has to put aside his disdain for it and for his people. Or at least find a way to stay silent while his men pretend that they care about healthcare. It is not happening yet.
And corona – albeit a godsend to every strongman seeking a threat to theatrically protect from – came at the worst possible moment for Orbán.
He had just lost the municipal elections and criticism against his policy failures is growing. To many, their grievances are just starting to feel legitimate. Orbán may have been able to stifle the discontent for the state of healthcare for longer – had his rule been unchallenged. All it takes is pointing at his majority and claiming that it proves everything. But after October 2019 even his followers are realizing that they exist, they are their own opinions about healthcare – and know that they are not alone with it.
The gaslighting-by-2/3 tactic is not working its magic when Orbán needs it the most: in the face of a crisis that is not his own fabrication.
So far no corona case had been confirmed in the country (but it appeared in neighboring ones) and Orbán attempted to redirect people’s fear from corona to the new wave of migrants being released by Erdogan. But it hasn’t really worked. Migrants have been Orbán’s go-to bogeymen for five years. They worked as a political power tool even in the absence of any actual migration to the country.
But people don’t seem to have the capacity to be scared of two things at the same time, at least not with the intensity necessary to maintain their blind trust in and dependence on the strongman. And even though some are furiously trying to link corona with migration, the panic buying of groceries shows that the top threat people are currently fixating on is the virus – not the nasty, nasty migrants.
Thinking what happens if one gets into a Hungarian hospital is scary enough without corona – and the panic is amplified by seeing quarantines and other emergency measures elsewhere in the world. How it will put Orbán in a good light is hard to see. Maybe if he manages to refocus the panic on migration.