Orbanomics and populist health crisis management in Hungary

Author: Gábor Scheiring

May 19, 2020

Hungary’s government was late with its first epidemic responses. Significant restrictions were introduced on 16 March, and a full shelter-in-place order was effective from 27 March. Other measures included less conventional steps, such as suspending the admission of migrants from transit zones on the southern border, expelling some foreign students, introducing military supervision into hospitals, care homes, and key companies in the food, health and pharmaceutical sectors, and centralizing testing along with the flow of information concerning the epidemic.

Measures targeting the restructuring of hospitals have been particularly controversial. On 9 April, state hospitals were ordered to free up 60% of their beds for the anticipated wave of coronavirus patients. Hospital directors who refused to comply were dismissed. In fact, like its neighbours, Hungary managed to avoid a mass outbreak. As of 17 May, 3,535 coronavirus cases had been registered, with 366 deaths.

The government’s socio-economic responses were also belated. Economic measures have neen dedicated to alleviating the financial burden of businesses in sectors where national capitalists loyal to the regime happen to be the most active. The government aims to keep the budget deficit for 2020 below 2.7%. Since the drop in the GDP is likely to reach 10% by the end of the year, this amounts to extreme austerity.

Support for workers has been offered in the form of a limited wage guarantee scheme. However, the unemployed and those working in the informal sector do not receive any help. Instead, to help companies identify ‘flexible solutions’, on 18 March the government effectively suspended the labour code, allowing employers to deviate from regulations concerning working hours and the minimum wage.

Parliament, where the government enjoys a super-majority, passed an act that allowed Orbán to rule by decree. Public scrutiny has been curtailed by making the spreading of ‘misleading information’ about the government’s pandemic response punishable by up to five years in prison. Dozens of people have been investigated already, and several were taken into custody for criticising the government on social media.

Although this emergency phase is scheduled to end  in June, other recent measures will have lasting effects on Hungary’s democracy. The government has halved the funding of political parties, under the pretext of reallocating money to the coronavirus responses, which impacts much more severely on the operation of opposition parties than on the well-lubricated mechanisms of Orbán’s party. The last bastions of the opposition in local government have also been stripped of what little financial autonomy they possessed.

Understanding populism

Dominant social science approaches to populism emphasise culture and populist political agency. This agency-culture approach sees populism as driven by a growing cultural divide between conservative neo-nationalists and cosmopolitan liberals. From this perspective, the unconventional nature of populist health crisis management can be explained by cronyism, the rejection of expertise and evidence-based policies, and the desire to exclude cultural outgroups.

This  approach has its merits (evident in the examples noted above) but it places too much emphasis on the dysfunctional character of populism.

The underlying mechanisms of populist health crisis responses can be better elucidated if we investigate how sections of the political and economic elite have capitalised on the disillusionment of workers to propagate a nationalist-populist version of neoliberal economics. Elsewhere and in my forthcoming book (The Retreat of Liberal Democracy, Palgrave, 2020) I show that Orbanomics and illiberal populism go hand in hand. The socio-economic policies of Orbán’s illiberal state facilitate the embourgeoisement of the upper-middle class. Capital accumulation by the national bourgeoisie proceeds in tandem with transnational capitalism in the export-oriented tech sectors. Orbán’s authoritarianism is  a corollary to his socio-economic strategy, designed to pre-empt the politicization of dissent and protest by those sections of Hungarian society which have lost out since 2010.

I argue that the government’s most controversial policies in response to the coronavirus are not merely the product of irrational populist whims or the desire to exclude cultural outgroups. With the exception of a restrictive wage guarantee scheme and the freezing of loan payments, the state has not proposed any new benefits that would go beyond existing workfarist social policy. The mandatory reduction of hospital beds exemplifies the health policy of the illiberal state, which has already reduced health spending significantly since 2010 and would have found it  difficult to push through further cost-cutting measures under normal democratic circumstances.

The policy logic behind the government’s responses to Covid-19 corresponds to the logic of Orbanomics: workfare, social divestment, capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich. This health crisis is just another opportunity to push ahead with this authoritarian capitalist agenda: democracy and political competition must be restricted to prevent a backlash from the victims of Viktor Orbán’s illiberal populism.

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