Virus-hit Hungary care home on frontline in Orban powerplay

Budapest (AFP) –


A Budapest care home ravaged by the novel coronavirus has become a frontline in an escalating battle between Prime Minister Viktor Orban, emboldened by new emergency powers, and Hungary's beleaguered opposition.

Orban and the Budapest municipality, run by a liberal mayor, blame each other for a COVID-19 outbreak that has infected at least 284 residents at the elderly care home operated by the capital.

Of them, 28 residents have died so far, more than 10 percent of Hungary's 239 COVID-19 deaths to date.

Orban has insisted his government can handle the coronavirus crisis without the opposition, a strategy that analyst Daniel Hegedus says consolidates the 56-year-old's already tight grip on power but also carries risks.

"A potential serious mismanagement of the pandemic poses a threat to Orban," Hegedus told AFP.

A powerplay between the nationalist premier and the opposition has intensified after parliament, dominated by the ruling Fidesz party, last month approved the "coronavirus defence bill" granting Orban powers to rule by decree without a fixed time limit.

With around 2,300 cases, 9.8-million-strong Hungary's infection rate is low compared to countries in western Europe, in part thanks to relatively early lockdown restrictions.

But it also has one of the highest mortality rates in Europe among those infected -- more than 10 percent –- and the second lowest testing rate, according to OECD data.

Reports also persist of shortages of protective equipment for health workers and inadequacies in the kit they have despite regular government announcements of millions of items arriving from China.

Although the government admits that more people are carrying the virus than are registered, it dismisses criticism of its approach, including evacuating half the country's 66,000 hospital beds to be ready in case COVID-19 infection numbers surge.

"The government's narrative is that only Orban can save the country," said Robert Laszlo, analyst with the think-tank Political Capital.

"So they need scapegoats -- the opposition, municipalities -- if anything goes wrong," he said.

- 'Lied through their teeth' -

What happened at the Budapest care home remains murky.

According to the government-appointed chief medical officer, no doctor was present at the care home for at least a week, and Orban has hinted at legal action in the future against the city.

Blaming the deaths on the mayor, an ironically-toned Facebook post from a Fidesz politician said "Thank you Gergely Karacsony".

The usually mild-mannered mayor alleges his accusers have "lied through their teeth" and that the chief medical officer has been forced to "play a political role".

Karacsony claims a doctor was always present and has published documents he says prove the state failed to provide the facility with adequate testing and protective equipment.

He has also joined 41 other non-Fidesz mayors in pleading in an open letter to Orban for more testing at care homes, especially of residents returning from hospital checks.

- Financial squeezes -

Since October the government has ratcheted up financial and administrative squeezes on Budapest and other municipalities.

Opposition parties joined forces then to propel Karacsony to a surprise win and also take mayoralties in 10 of the 23 main regional cities.

Now during the lockdown Orban has decreed that parking nationwide should be free and ordered municipalities to transfer some tax revenues to an emergency fund, both measures depriving them of significant monies.

An analyst with the Nezopont think-tank Agoston Mraz, however, points out that many municipalities hit with the orders are Fidesz-run.

"It suits the opposition to play a victim role ahead of the 2022 general election," he told AFP.

Another crisis measure removing decision-making powers from municipalities was dropped the same day it was unveiled, reportedly after protests from Fidesz mayors.

But another government decree last week targeted only the opposition-run town of God, just outside Budapest, transferring taxes from a Samsung electronics plant there to the Fidesz-run county council.

The government says the move will help create jobs at the plant, now designated a "special economic zone," but God mayor Csaba Balogh called the loss of revenue a "death sentence" for the town.

Budapest will soon be on the "brink of bankruptcy," Karacsony has also warned.

"Stripping the municipalities and opposition parties of power and resources on the one hand, and scapegoating them for any tragedies is a delicate balancing act," said analyst Hegedus.