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The Case with Strongman Leaders: Hungary

Published by Foreign Affairs Bulletin by IDSA on

In part one, I wrote about three strongmen leaders ruling over countries with many controversies. In the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte established a military task force to stop the coronavirus. Rather than helping the general public, the government is taking care of the elites, to ensure his political position. Make no mistake: Duterte is the government. And he is ready to stop this pandemic, even if it costs some human lives. The authorities can even shoot those who don’t obey the new protection laws. In Turkey, Erdogan is busy holding on to power. As more and more people are getting sick, the government granted amnesty to 90.000 detainees, except those whoe are behind bars due to political reasons. After all, it is much safer with criminals on the streets and the opposition behind bars. Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil still believes that the country is facing a “simple cold”. Firing the health minister and campaigning with masses against social distancing is the best recipe for this problem, according to him.

Now let’s move on to a vastly different country. It is led by a strongmen leader and is facing the pandemic as well. But the reason its important lays in a very different ground from the ones I have mentioned above.



Hungary is a small country, it doesn’t have a particularly strategic position like Turkey or Brazil. And it doesn’t have a “big bad neighbor” like the Philippines. It is not threatening its citizens with weapons nor putting its opposition behind bars and it takes the virus seriously enough. Still, it is a very important player, especially in the region of Central Europe.

Hungary became vital as a country led by a strongman because of how Viktor Orbán uses the pandemic as an excuse to further consolidate his power. I can say it with confidence that he is the perfect example for any strongmen wannabes.


After winning the 2010 election with a 2/3 Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did not only form a new government but rather pursued a regime change. So he started “his thing”, transforming. He won the 2018 election as well, starting his third consecutive term with a supermajority. By 2020 he consolidated his position with strong personalization and centralization of power. Not to mention the drastic changes regarding media in general. Hungary’s position on World Press Freedom List has plummeted from 23rd in 2010 to 89th this year. With all this in mind, one might ask who needs more than a 2/3, almost complete control over media and public funds? Well, Orbán does.

On March 11 the government announced the “state of danger”, then they submitted a Bill of Protection to battle with the Coronavirus, and extend the “state of danger” that would give the government the power to rule by decree, without the opposition as well as institutionalizes censorship. First, they wanted to accept it with a 4/5, for this they needed the opposition, but they failed as the opposition already warned the ruling party that they won’t accept it without a time limit. In fact, this was the plan all along. Knowing they won’t vote for it, Orbán could show the public that the opposition doesn’t want to help the government to battle with the pandemic. Not even a week later they accepted it on their own, with a 2/3. This law creates two new crimes:


Anyone who publicizes false or distorted facts that interfere with the “successful protection” of the public – or that alarm or agitate that public – could be punished by up to five years in prison.   And anyone who interferes with the operation of measures that the Hungarian government takes to fight the pandemic could also face a prison sentence of up to five years, a punishment that increases to eight years if anyone dies as a result of the interference. Both are fair, to be honest, the order must be kept. But there are some questions one must ask:


As for the first one the question is clear: is it aimed at destroying the last remnants of not state-owned press?

The second one, is somewhat more complex, but it points to one direction: that military uniforms have become the norm in the country. Soldiers can make us feel that everything is in order, and we are safe. But not against a virus. The government deployed army units, so-called “control teams”, to 84 strategic factories, to ensure secure operations in telecommunication, transport and health care. And there is this so-called “operational unit” which is the main source of information regarding the Coronavirus. We can usually see them in three: one of them is always Chief Medical Officer Cecília Müller, and two others (usually vary) are persons from police or military (Kristóf Gál, Róbert Kiss and Tibor Lakatos). What about Secretary of Health Ildikó Horváth or Miklós Kásler Minister of Human Resources who started firing chief executive officers from hospitals around the country, saying they opposed the effective protection against the virus because they couldn’t make at least 60% of hospital’s bed capacity available in time.


As for the opposition, Orbán is a real strategist. The government made public parking free making further losses for local governments. When Hungary’s “arch-nemesis” George Soros gave 1 million Euro the response from Orbáns Fidesz party was swift:”Gergely Karácsony, oppositional mayor of Budapest sold the capital to Soros”. They also cut the state funds for parties , making it pretty hard for those who don’t have external money funds.

Lesson learned: a real strongman doesn’t leave a crisis behind without gaining more political power from it.


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