Hungary’s ‘illiberal democracy’
Viktor Orban is leading Hungary away from the rule of law and human rights—but with popular support. How?
How has Orban changed Hungary?
He is turning it into a crony capitalist state with what is effectively one-party rule. Viktor Orban’s right-wing Fidesz party, which has had a supermajority in Hungary’s parliament since sweeping to power in 2010, has changed the constitution and enacted stringent laws guaranteeing it dominance. Fidesz controls all branches of government, including the judiciary. It has gutted the independent press, with the media now dominated by outlets that overtly support Fidesz and Orban. Businesses that are close to the party, or to Orban and his cronies, get favorable contracts, while those that are not face punishing taxes and regulations. “Authoritarian capitalism,” says Hungarian economist Gabor Scheiring, is the “new political economic model.” The takeover caught the opposition, and the European Union, by surprise. Fidesz got just 53 percent of the vote in 2010, but quirks of seat distribution gave it a two-thirds majority, and it quickly exploited its position to remake the country. In a 2014 speech, Orban explained that his vision for Hungary was an “illiberal democracy,” citing strongman states such as Russia and Turkey as models. He is well on his way to achieving that goal.
How did he do it?
By exploiting nationalism and fear of foreigners. Orban used government funds to wage a massive propaganda campaign depicting Hungary as under assault by Muslim and other dark-skinned immigrants and by liberals in the EU bureaucracy in Brussels. The campaign was effective because Hungary has had a long history of foreign domination, and just a few decades of experience with democracy, capitalism, and a free press; it was a Communist state in the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact until 1989. Orban changed the constitution to have judges appointed by a single person, instead of an all-party committee, and replaced experienced judges with his apparatchiks. He passed media laws imposing heavy fines on any press outlet deemed biased against the government, silencing those voices. Local TV stations were bought up by friendly oligarchs. Meanwhile, Orban installed political cronies in once independent bodies such as the state auditor’s and state prosecutor’s offices. Gerrymandering and biased electoral laws make it highly likely Fidesz majorities will continue.
Do Hungarians approve of this?
Mostly, yes. The election last week, giving Fidesz a third straight supermajority, had a strong turnout of 69 percent. The vote was free in that there were opposition candidates and ballots were counted correctly, although it was unfair because of regulations disfavoring other parties and the suppression of government criticism. Orban has succeeded in convincing Hungarians that only they can preserve Christianity in Europe from a rampaging horde of Muslim refugees, just as Hungary held the borders of Christendom against the Ottoman army in the 15th century—an image he invokes frequently. In service to this nationalist narrative, he has demonized Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros, who funds civil society groups across Eastern Europe (see box), and sealed Hungary off from the 2015 wave of more than 1 million migrants fleeing Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
How did he do that?
Orban closed Hungary’s border and built a 100-mile, barbed-wire fence he later electrified. A propaganda campaign ensued, warning that Muslim immigrants would bring crime and rape Christian women. After the EU struck a deal to resettle some of the migrants in each of the member countries, Hungary refused to accept its quota. More recently, the flow of migrants has stopped, yet Orban still used the threat of Muslim criminals as his main campaign theme. Before the election, television news repeatedly showed a video of 2017 terrorist attack in Stockholm, in which an Uzbek asylum seeker drove a bus into a crowd.
Who are his allies?
A fierce anti-Communist during Hungary’s Iron Curtain days, Orban is now pro-Russia and has eagerly courted Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last year Russia was awarded a no-bid contract to expand Hungary’s only nuclear plant, further cementing Russian control of Hungary’s energy supply. Orban has also praised and endorsed President Donald Trump, and cited Trump’s “America First” nationalism as justification for his own nationalist policies. “We have received permission from, if you like, the highest position in the world,” Orban said. Orban’s closest European ally is Poland’s de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is using Hungary as a model. Kaczynski is limiting press freedom and politicizing the court system, as Poland slides toward authoritarianism.
What can the EU do?
Theoretically, it could cut off transfers and subsidies to Hungary—some $6 billion a year—and suspend its voting rights. This “nuclear option,” though, would be vetoed by Poland, just as any penalty against Poland would be vetoed by Hungary. Though Orban’s authoritarianism has horrified the EU, it is at a loss over how to respond to his wholesale flouting of democratic norms and values. Former EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said the EU is designed to help members become more open and free, and doesn’t have adequate tools to punish members who seek the opposite. “We never thought that someone would go the other way,” Reding said. “It was unthinkable.”
The Soros bogeyman
Liberal American financier and philanthropist George Soros has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Hungary since 1989, financing educational and social projects, including Budapest’s prestigious Central European University. Orban sees this promotion of human rights and the rule of law as a threat, and has demonized the Hungarian-born Soros, who is Jewish, in a propaganda campaign filled with anti-Semitic code words and stereotypes. Parliament has taken up a “Stop Soros” package of laws aimed at banning non-governmental organizations, and last week, a Hungarian magazine published 200 names of “mercenaries”—including journalists and members of Amnesty International and of anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International—who it said were trying to turn Hungary into an immigrant, non-Christian nation. “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” Orban said. “Not open but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.”