How illiberal is Hungary? 

Preoccupied by illiberal developments in Poland and engulfed by the refugee crisis, the EU has to a great extent lost sight of the situation in Viktor Orbán’s illiberal democracy, Hungary. How illiberal is Hungary? What can be done to return Hungary to the course of liberal democracy and what has the refugee crisis meant for the survival of the Orbán government? Using the occasion to launch the book “Hello Dictator”, FNF invited the man who broke Orbán’s supermajority, the Hungarian parliamentarian Zoltán Kész, as well as Réka Csaba from the Republikon Institute in Budapest to discuss the book and latest developments in Hungary.

The Hungarian decline of democracy

The Orbán government has been criticized for limiting the freedom of the media, promoting corruption and changing the electoral laws to ensure its own survival. Both Csaba and Kész described the corruption which courses through every facet of Hungarian society. Csaba in particular pointed to the role EU funds play in propping up the Orbán government, by allowing it to sustain an economy which would otherwise be in shambles. The media is also increasingly kept in Orbán’s orbit with a mere 30% remaining independent according to Kész. At every corner the opposition is kept on the fringes of the debate. Kész shared an anecdote of a speech he was set to give at a school in his constituency, which was cancelled on short notice due to government pressure. This is just one example of the many illiberal tendencies penetrating Hungary.

Given these accusations it is not surprising that commentary on Orbán often descend into polemics. However, Csaba and Kész both stressed that polemics over Orbán, especially coming from other parts of the EU, only serves to solidify the Hungarian support for Orbán. Csaba made very clear that “Hungary is a democracy, just not the kind of democracy I would wish for my country”. The Orbán government thrives on political apathy which keeps voters at home on Election Day and to get those voters out foreign polemics will just push them into Orbán’s orbit.

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The panel in deep discussion on the political situation in Hungary

The refugee crisis: Another lease on life for Orbán

The Hungarian government was one of the first to capitalize politically on the refugee crisis in Europe. By stopping the policy of letting refugees transit through Hungary on their way to Germany and other Western countries, Orbán created a terrible humanitarian situation in Hungary which he could then absolve the country of by closing Hungary’s borders altogether. As Csaba pointed out, Hungarian society was rife to struggle with the refugee influx. Orbán’s policies had driven the economy into the ground, inequality was plentiful and the country was not used to large-scale integration of refugees. Using these latent characteristics of Hungarian society, Orbán was able to galvanize supporters to his banner by portraying himself as the guardian against chaos. A clever political move, it breathed life into a government otherwise moribund by poor economic results and increasing popular discontent. The refugee crisis gave Orbán yet another opportunity to blame the EU for the woes of the continent, while cementing the relationship between fellow Visegrad leaders. This two-pronged strategy helped not only to deepen mistrust of the EU in Hungary, but also in honing Visegrad as a counter-identity, as Csaba put it.

There is however a counter-narrative of Hungary, and even though post-war Hungary is a relatively homogenous society, barring the presence of a sizable Roma minority, the country has not always been this way. As Kész pointed out, the country’s cosmopolitan identity flourished in the latter parts of the 19th century when Hungary welcomed individuals from all over Europe to settle in the country. Kész stressed that this tradition of openness remains latent in Hungary, but that it has to be reclaimed by the Hungarian public. Orbán is working against this, and is using the shutting down of the Balkan route to now mend fences with European neighbours. Kész described Orbán’s visit to German Unity Chancellor Helmut Kohl as just such an attempt to smooth over Hungary’s illiberal role in Europe. However, Kész warned Europe against appeasing Orbán, stating that success for Orbán means success for his Kremlin mentor Vladimir Putin.

The way forward

Hungary is at a crossroads economically and politically, ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections. Rampant corruption, an economic system of crony capitalism and a government drunk on power characterizes Hungary today. Kész, a politician with tremendous local outreach, shared his experience that people are growing dissatisfied with the government, in spite of Orbán’s domestically popular stance in the refugee crisis. Tired with the system, he argued that voters would vote for anyone they find a credible alternative to the Orbán government.

Just as the answer to the troubles facing rule of law in Poland must come from within Poland, so too must answers to Hungary’s qualms come from within Hungary. The EU can and should play an important role in tightening control on the way Orbán spends his EU funding. The EU should also hold Hungary to the same standards as it does other member states, without descending into the kind of polemics offer by Jean-Claude Juncker when he greeted Viktor Orbán with the words “Hello Mr Dictator”.

This evening discussion was also an occasion to present the essay collection bearing the same name as the words uttered by Mr Juncker last year. In spite of other challenges the EU cannot lose sight of this illiberal state at the heart of the European continent. Hungarians need to be empowered to reject the Orbán government, but Europeans should not make the mistake of insulting Hungary in the process of wanting Hungary abandon illiberal in favor of liberal democracy.

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Some lucky participants were able to bring home both FNF comics and “Hello Dictator”

You can read Hello Dictator by following this link.