Outside Hungary, other parliaments and assemblies have found ways to keep working. It’s true that Britain’s Parliament is in early recess; members departed for Easter six days earlier than they otherwise would have. But they have a designated date of return, and they are already setting up systems to conduct some business online. The European Parliament, meanwhile, is physically unable to meet: Many of its members—my husband is one, from Poland—literally have no way to get to the parliamentary chamber in Brussels, since planes have stopped flying and borders have closed. Nevertheless, members managed to debate and even to vote last week, using a bespoke online system. A variety of other parliaments, from the Danish Folketing to the German Bundestag, have set up special procedures to continue operations.
Few lawmakers, at least so far, expect their government’s emergency measures to be abused. If, by contrast, his European counterparts have little confidence in the Hungarian prime minister, that is his own fault. His government has had an “emergency” anti-migration decree in place since 2015, though anything resembling an immigration emergency has long passed.
Yet criticism, both domestic and foreign, can have a positive effect, even in Budapest. Alongside measures about museums, theaters, and sex changes, Orbán also issued a decree that would remove powers from local governments, many of which are led by opposition politicians. This was not only an egregious power grab; it may well have complicated the pandemic response in municipalities. In the wake of that edict, outrage was so loud and so sustained that the government withdrew the measure a mere 16 hours later.
So ignore the Hungarian-government propagandists. Also ignore anyone else who tells you that their policy is above criticism, that politics don’t apply in a pandemic, or that accountability and transparency need to be suspended for some indefinite period of time. The opposite is true: All of the decisions being made right now, whether medical or economic, deserve widespread scrutiny and debate. As Francis Fukuyama has written, there is no evidence that authoritarians are better than others at controlling disease; several democracies—South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and perhaps Germany—look like they have control of their coronavirus outbreaks. Nor does any evidence show that secrecy produces better outcomes; quite the contrary.
There is evidence that effective bureaucracy, good information and good data will help us survive. If we are not only to get through this global crisis but come out on the other side better prepared, we also need to keep track of which decisions were made and when, and to remember who was responsible for them: in the United States and the United Kingdom, in China and Taiwan, in Germany and France, in South Africa and Brazil—and in Hungary too.
This article has been updated to include new information.