Victor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister, meeting Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council. Image used under Creative Commons License.
By Maxwell Lyster
On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament voted 137 to 53 to give the autocratic, nationalist Prime Minister Victor Orbán the right to rule by decree indefinitely. The proposal was rammed through by his party, the Fidesz, which holds 117 of the 199 seats. While many other nations have given leaders excess power during the global pandemic, Hungary is different in the sense that Orbán can even cancel elections and suspend the enforcement of certain laws at his own discretion. He can also judge who is spreading misleading information and throw them in jail. Orbán has been given near-total control of Hungary for the foreseeable future.
This has been a long time coming. Orbán has been continuously working for years towards the consolidation of power and has now finally won the decades-long war against Hungarian democracy and free institutions.
Orbán was first elected president in 1998 and was a self-professed liberal. He suffered a surprising defeat in 2002 and then again in 2006 that Orbán and his Fidesz party never saw as legitimate. These defeats led the party to turn to right-wing nationalism aiming to create a “central political forcefield” that would keep conservatives in power for the decades to come. In 2010, Orbán regained the presidency and his Fidesz party enjoyed supermajorities that allowed the right-wing party to rewrite the constitution and dismantle the country’s democracy. The Constitutional changes allowed Orbán to pack the highest court in Hungary with his allies and draw electoral districts to give the conservative countryside more power, while limiting the power of more liberal urban areas. Orbán has also allowed ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries like Romania to qualify for citizenship. Nearly one million foreigners now qualify for Hungarian social benefits and can vote in Hungarian elections. Thankful for the benefits from Orbán, these people vote for Fidesz at a 95% rate. In addition, Fidesz has created its own protest parties to splinter the opposition vote. Orbán and his party have thus destroyed a once-promising democracy.
Orbán went on to denigrate not only the country’s democracy but also the country’s free institutions. First was the media. Orbán took control of state media and began broadcasting Fidesz propaganda, shaping the country’s narratives to his liking. In addition, the government or Orbán’s oligarch allies would buy out majority stakes in private newspapers that would become pro-government propaganda outlets. The national discourse has been so corrupted and manipulated that there is little room for opposition voices. The control of state and private media also allows Orbán to demonize immigrants, liberals, cosmopolitan elites, or whoever is perceived as enemies trying to “bring down” Hungary. Orbán infamously used state media to drum up fears about African immigrants crossing through Hungary in 2015, giving him the political capital to declare a state of emergency to prevent them from crossing. In addition, this declaration, he assumed the power to clamp down on media outlets critical of the government and is still in effect today. The declaration further consolidated his control over Hungaraian media and gave him the legal recourse to punish his critics. The declaration is still in effect today.
Hungarian Parliament House in Budapest. Image used under Creative Commons License.
Orbán’s next casualty was the institution of higher education in Hungary. One of the country’s most renowned institutes of higher education was the Central European University. The university was started and funded by Hungarian billionaire and philanthropist George Soros. The Jewish billionaire became the focus of most of Orbán’s attacks and the Prime Minister became determined to evict Central European University from Hungary. Tapping anti-semitic sentiment, Soros became a scapegoat for all the country’s problems, particularly immigration, combining racist and anti-semitic sentiment to create a potent weapon. This sentiment gave Orbán the political capital to push a bill through Parliament placing onerous requirements on the Central European University that were impossible to meet, forcing it to find a new home in Vienna. Public universities have not been spared either. Their research funding is determined by Fidesz instead of a neutral board. Orbán has publicly called on students to report professors expressing liberal political views to law enforcement and can subsequently be fined or jailed. Orbán’s attacks on higher education, students, and professors have coincided with antagonizing the country’s artists, writers, and doctors. Orbán’s survival depends on ridding the country’s population of its smartest and brightest who would be his most formidable opponents. Like Pol Pot and Mao Zedong, Orbán hopes to rid the country of the educated and successful who might challenge his rule.
The decimation of Hungary’s democracy and free institutions raises serious questions regarding its future in the EU and NATO.
The European Union brings together the continent’s democracies to uphold shared fundamental values — “respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and rule of law.”
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) requires member-states to “contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions.” In 1999, the Membership Action Plan brought in Hungary and other Central and Eastern European countries. NATO required them to uphold the values of democracy and individual liberty espoused in the Washington treaty and commit to the rule of law and human rights.
Orbán has led Hungary into a position where it clearly violates the principles of both the EU and NATO. These organizations must reconsider Hungarian membership. Especially since Hungary often demagogues these Western organizations to gain support for his illiberal and authoritarian government. The EU especially needs to consider if Hungary is deserving of the €46 billion in EU Structural Funds it has been allocated from 2007-2020. This is especially crucial at a time when €1.2 billion has doled out in the form of public contracts to companies run by members of Orbán’s family or his allies. The West has watched as Hungary has slid from democracy to authoritarianism the past decade. Hungary has now reached the tipping point. Orbán is in all intents and purposes, a dictator. Will the EU and NATO stand up for their values or continue to aid and protect an autocrat?