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Orban is politicizing Hungary's vaccine rollout

April 8, 2021

As Hungary struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus and forges ahead with its vaccination campaign, the government's opponents are being scapegoated.

Viktor Orban | ungarischer Premierminister
Viktor Orban has been in office since 2010Image: Johanna Geron/AFP/Getty Images

It began with a fake quote. In early January, government-friendly media outlets in Hungary accused renowned political scientist Peter Kreko, executive director of the think tank Political Capital Institute, of urging the opposition to encourage people not to be vaccinated against COVID-19 so that as many people as possible would die. The opposition could then blame Prime Minister Viktor Orban for the number of victims and bring about his election defeat. Orban even made a personal statement about the allegations, saying that evil had no bounds.

Headshot of Peter Kreko
Peter Kreko has received death threatsImage: Peter Kreko

But Kreko had said nothing of the sort. In December, he had spoken to the Brussels-based news organization Politico Europe and voiced concern that the government's drive to push the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine could jeopardize "general confidence in vaccination." The article was published after the prime minister announced that Hungary would be the first country in Europe to receive the Chinese and Russian vaccines.

Kreko had concluded that "if you undermine the willingness of the people to vaccinate themselves, (Orban) can suffer the political consequences."

'Death campaign'

Although Kreko's words were perfectly clear, the far-right, racist journalist Zsolt Bayer, co-founder of the ruling Fidesz party and a close friend of Orban's, launched an online petition against the political scientist and what he called his "death campaign."

Kreko and his family have since received numerous death threats and there have been hundreds of libelous articles in the media outlets loyal to Orban.

"This is very disturbing," Kreko told DW. "I've almost been transformed into a mythical evil figure."

Two courts have already ruled that the allegations against Kreko are unfounded but this did not stop a leading Fidesz politician from repeating them during a plenary debate in the Hungarian parliament in Budapest on Wednesday.

Such an attack on a political expert is unprecedented and marks the beginning of a new offensive against the Hungarian opposition. Since January, Orban, his government, his party and loyal media outlets have waged a relentless battle against the opposition, accusing it of conducting a "death campaign" against COVID-19 vaccines.

Zsolt Bayer
Hungarian journalist Zsolt Bayer spearheaded the smear campaign aginst KrekoImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Zoltan Mathe/MTI

Waiting for EMA approval

There is no such campaign. The country's six most important opposition parties, which have joined forces to form a united coalition in next year's elections, have all urged the Hungarian population to get vaccinated. But they have warned against using the Russian and Chinese vaccines before they are approved by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

Hungary's National Institute of Pharmacy and Nutrition (OGYEI) approved both Sputnik V and Sinopharm in January. However, some of the experts consulted had advised against approving Sputnik V and had recommended waiting for the EMA's expert opinion. Their objections were rejected.

Crates of the Sinopharm vaccine are unloaded from a plane in Budapest
Sinopharm is the first Chinese vaccine approved in an EU countryImage: Zoltan Mathe/AP Photo/picture alliance

Hungary is the only EU country to be using these two vaccines. EU law allows member states to use vaccines that have not been approved in emergency situations, but most states have opted to wait for the EMA's approval.

Government crises elsewhere

Slovakia and the Czech Republic are also undergoing major political crises as a result of the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. Slovakian Prime Minister Igor Matovic resigned last week after his decision to buy doses of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia triggered a coalition crisis.

On Tuesday, the Slovak State Institute for Drug Control (SUKL) said it could not back the Sputnik V vaccine due to lack of data.

On Wednesday, a Czech minister was dismissed because he had spoken out against using Sputnik V before it received EMA approval.

A close up of a hand holding a bottle of the Sputnik V vaccine
Orban has complained the EU takes too long to approve vaccinesImage: Sergei Bobylev/TASS/dpa/picture alliance

While Hungarian opposition politicians are not waging anti-vaccination campaigns but merely following a similar line to most EU member states, the attacks by government-friendly media outlets are out of control. Opposition politicians have been depicted as traitors and enemies of the state. The Daily Magyar Nemzet paper, which is the government's unofficial mouthpiece, recently said that they were "gambling with death and suffering."

Orban himself may use less aggressive language but his message is basically saying the same. In his most recent weekly interview, he described the supposed anti-vaccination campaign as a "sin" and asked how the opposition would square it with its conscience if people started to die because they hadn't been vaccinated.

A street scene in Budapest
A third wave of the pandemic hit Hungary in early March Image: Attila Volgyi/Xinhua/picture alliance

"This kind of government campaign has been intensifying for years," Kreko told DW. "Hungary is not the only one doing this in Europe and in the world. But what's particular is that Hungarian state institutions are being increasingly politicized to spread the messages of the government. This doesn't exist to such an extent anywhere else."

The prospect of next year's polls

The reasons for the latest campaign are obvious: According to the polls, Orban's reelection next year is in question. Many people are tired of his self-importance and the corruption scandals that have dogged his government. His handling of the pandemic has not helped, with the government zigzagging between lockdowns and re-opening. Hungary currently has one of the highest death tolls in Europe. The situation in hospitals seems to be dramatic although it is hard to provide evidence as the government has banned independent journalists from reporting from hospitals and vaccination centers, despite protests from various media outlets as well as the Hungarian Medical Chamber (MOK).

On the other hand, thanks to the campaign's vaccination campaign, one quarter of the adult population has already received a first shot of the vaccine. If the overall vaccination campaign is a success, Orban could kick-start the economy, which otherwise looks set to enter a crisis of unknown scale.

Hungary: Orban is rebuilding Budapest

In its search for scapegoats, Fidesz and government-friendly media have found another political expert to blame: Attila Tibor Nagy. A statement that he had made about the opposition's election campaign was twisted so much that he too has painted as a "death campaigner.”

"One year before the parliamentary elections, the atmosphere is increasingly heated," he told DW. "Reasonable political debate is no longer possible in Hungary. I'm now experiencing that personally."

Headshot of a smiling man with glasses and blond, curly hair
Keno Verseck Editor, writer and reporter