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  • Charlotte Luke

Checking in with Hungary

Viktor Orbán at the EU summit in Brussels, Belgium, in 2017.

First, some background. Hungary is a landlocked central European country with a population of nearly 10 million (1.7 million live in the capital city, Budapest). From 1945, when Hungary fell under Soviet control, to 1989, when Hungary negotiated its independence and formed a democratic, parliamentary republic, the country witnessed a series of leaders, uprisings, and reforms, both economic and political. In 1990, Hungary became the first former Soviet-bloc country to join the Council of Europe; in 1999, it officially joined NATO; and in 2004, it became a full member of the European Union. Yet although Hungary was at one point a “beacon of post-Communist transformation” (Washington Post), in the last decade, it has undergone severe democratic backsliding under the leadership of prime minister Viktor Orbán—a concerning fact, to say the least.

Viktor Orbán belongs to the conservative Fidesz Party, which has enjoyed popularity ever since Hungary’s economic collapse in 2008, when the Socialist party dominated the government. Today, a coalition between Fidesz and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP) controls a supermajority in Parliament, which means Orbán can push through whatever legislation he wants. Orbán has served as prime minister since 2010, a post he also occupied from 1998 to 2002, and 2019 marks his sixteenth consecutive year as the leader of the Fidesz Party (his twenty-third in total; he previously led the party from 1993 to 2000). At this point, many people consider Orbán an autocrat, though Hungary still maintains the façade of a democracy. One of the most obvious examples leading to this conclusion is Hungary’s new constitution. According to Human Rights Watch, the constitution, effected in 2012 and last amended in 2013, “weaken[s] legal checks on [Parliament’s] authority, interfere[s] with media freedom, and otherwise undermine[s] human rights protection in the country.” But the new constitution is just the tip of the iceberg.

Orbán embodies every facet of European right-wing ideology: he believes that “checks and balances is a U.S. invention that for some reason of intellectual mediocrity Europe decided to adopt and use in European politics,” that “the new state that we are building in Hungary is an illiberal state, not a liberal state,” “that only a man and a woman can be married and establish a family,” that “a Hungarian Hungary and a European only possible if we also affirm that we want a Christian Hungary in a Christian Europe,” that “if we let everybody [i.e. immigrants] in we will destroy Europe,” and that “we do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others.” Although other European countries are witnessing similarly nationalist rhetoric, Orbán’s relationships with many EU leaders are tense. Most recently, in September 2018, the EU voted to punish Hungary with sanctions for “undermining the independence of its judiciary and media, waging a propaganda and legal war against the Central European University, founded by the philanthropist George Soros, and mistreating asylum seekers and refugees while limiting the functioning of non-government organizations who seek to aid them” (Guardian). Unsurprisingly, Orbán was not repentant, responding that “Hungary will not accede to this blackmailing.”

Protesters in Hungary. The blue flag is the flag of the European Union, and the striped flag is the flag of Hungary.

Orbán has faced relatively little opposition from his own citizens, though, in part due to the country’s growing economy. But in December and January, workers protested a “slave law” created by Parliament to address Hungary’s labor shortage; the law gives “businesses the right to require employees to work up to 400 hours of overtime a year, nearly twice as much as was previously allowed, and demand only that employers pay for that overtime at some point within three years” (Atlantic). According to Jason Wittenberg, an associate professor of political science at UC Berkeley, “the labor issue has helped strengthen and unify the opposition to the Fidesz government,” but only in remarkable circumstances could Fidesz be beaten at the ballot due to its “gerrymandered electoral system” and continued popularity (Washington Post).

There’s another obstacle ahead of Fidesz’s opposition parties, which is Orbán’s sly propaganda campaign. Write Rosa Schwartzburg and Imre Szijarto in Jacobin, “for the past ten years, the Hungarian government has been steadily rewriting the country’s national history—crafting another rooted in the ‘glory days’ between the World Wars, when Hungary was ruled by right-wing autocrat (and ally of Hitler) Miklós Horthy.” By erasing physical reminders of Hungary’s past under leftist leaders, such as a statue of Imre Nagy that formerly stood outside the Parliament building, Orbán and his regime are “shaping...the public discourse to suit authoritarian ends” (Jacobin). (By the way, and I’m getting this straight from Encyclopedia Britannica, Imre Nagy was a “Hungarian statesman, independent Communist, and premier of the 1956 revolutionary government whose attempt to establish Hungary’s independence from the Soviet Union cost him his life.”)

This statue of Imre Nagy, who led Hungary in a failed revolution against the Soviet Union, facing the Parliament building has recently been removed.

But why care about Hungary? First, there is cause for alarm when any democracy devolves into autocracy, but particularly when this occurs in a European country. Second, Hungary is at the forefront of a general trend toward democratic backsliding, including in the United States. (I myself was surprised to learn that the Economist Intelligence Unit considers the US a “flawed democracy,” ranking it 8 places behind Mauritius, which I did not realize was a country.) If other leaders look to Orbán as their role model, then the future for democracy looks pretty grim. This is why we should pay attention to Hungary and recognize what lies beneath Orbán’s statement that Hungary is an “illiberal democracy”—it’s an autocracy.

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