Hungary: Bleeding From a Thousand Wounds
WINTER IN HUNGARY IS FRIGID, but for the past six months, the streets of Budapest have been boiling with protests. After nine years of government led by Viktor Orbán’s illiberal, right-wing Fidesz party, Hungarian democracy is teetering on the edge. Indeed, the country is now classified as only “partly free.” Orbán’s government has steadily eroded the independence of the press, the judiciary, and the nation’s universities.
Hungarians are beginning to tire of the government they so strongly voted into power in three consecutive elections, in 2010, 2014, and 2018. Like Hungarians themselves, the European Union has begun to wake up to the 20th-century style manipulation being imposed by Fidesz. But for both EU onlookers and citizens alike, the last grains of sand may have already fallen through the hourglass. The damage inflicted may be too great to overcome.
“Hungarian democracy isn’t dead, because that would mean we couldn’t bring it back,” says Bence Todai, a parliamentarian from the opposition party Dialogue for Hungary. “I’d say that it’s bleeding from a thousand wounds.” The protestors on the streets then, are like platelets, rushing to form clots in Hungary’s body politic and stem the flow from the most important open cuts.
ORBÁN WASN’T ALWAYS LIBERAL DEMOCRACY’S well-known villain. In fact, in 1989 he gave a famous speech in “Heroes’ Square” in Budapest, during the national remembrance of those who had been killed during the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising. Just 25 years old at the time, Orbán spoke to a crowd of a quarter-million people, calling communism and democracy “incompatible,” and denouncing the presence of Soviet troops in the country.
Gabor Fodor used to be Orbán’s roommate during university—as the leader of Hungary’s main opposition party, he now finds himself on the other side of an intractable divide with his former classmate. “At the time [Orbán] was a liberal, I knew him very well and he was a liberal,” he said over the phone. Even though Orbán evidenced “certain characteristics,” like a love of strong leaders and winning, that would find authoritarian expression later. “At the time he was normal,” Fodor recalled. “Later he changed.”
Indeed, the once-liberal, pro-democracy activist has become emblematic of the populist authoritarianism on the rise globally. Yet there seems to be no identifiable single moment, or series of moments, that triggered Orbán’s political compass to swing massively towards the right.
Not quite a decade after his speech at Heroes’ Square, Orbán and his party, Fidesz, debuted on the Hungarian political stage by winning the 1998 elections. In his first term as Prime Minister, Orbán presided over the turn of the millennium, and a first foray into authoritarian behavior. He centralized control where he could, cutting parliamentary sessions to once every three weeks, impeding opposition voices, and moving to shift votes that historically required a two-thirds majority to a simple majority approval.
The strategy was derided as viciously unconstitutional, and in 2002, the country turned out in record numbers to oust the young Prime Minister. For the next eight years, Fidesz and Orbán were relegated to the sidelines as part of the opposition to Socialist Party rule. In 2010, however, the future proponent of “illiberal democracy”—a mantle he would take upon himself—returned to office. Orbán’s path was made smoother since the Socialists’ scandal in 2006 had led to widespread distrust amongst Hungarians. Together with his coalition partners, the Christian Democrats, Orbán had a powerful two-thirds majority. It was enough to give Fidesz the power to alter and replace major legislation, including even replacing Hungary’s long standing constitution.
Almost exactly one year later, the Fidesz-controlled parliament did just that, adopting a new constitution draft with little input from opposition lawmakers. The reform drew broad criticism from legal professionals, for, among other things, requiring a two-thirds majority to repeal most of the legislation that Fidesz has proceeded to pass—a majority only Fidesz has been able to achieve this decade.
This playbook—of maintaining democratic institutions, but skewing them to weigh heavily in favor of incumbent power—is one that has been used by other democratically elected, but authoritarian leaders elsewhere, from Venezuela to Turkey. “The disposal and takeover of independent institutions, and the expropriation of resources for the government’s use were steps towards this situation,” Bence explained.
That slow progression accelerated in 2015, when one million refugees fleeing from Syria and surrounding areas flowed through Hungary on their way to Western and Northern Europe. Widespread news coverage of refugees massing in Budapest’s main train terminal, Keleti Station, fueled Fidesz’s ability to use immigration as a justification for the drastic ways it was changing Hungary. As a new border fence went up, so did campaign posters and billboards protesting the “invasion” of Hungarian soil, and promoting the preservation of an ethnic Hungarian identity.
“We see the future in Hungarian children,” State Secretary Katalin Novak said in 2018, as the government launched a series of initiatives intended to spur maternity rates. “Hungary does not want immigration or population replacement.”
BEYOND MIGRANTS AND REFUGEES, Fidesz saw another, more domestic, enemy against which to frame itself. A native son, but one who has become a sort of bogeyman for anti-semites and the far-right—the Hungarian born liberal, billionaire philanthropist George Soros.
In 2017, Orbán—who had studied at Oxford on a Soros-funded scholarship—took legislative aim at Central European University (CEU), one of the region’s most prestigious universities, which, though based in Budapest, teaches in English and grants degrees accredited in both Hungary and the United States. It had also been established with the help of a sizable grant from Soros, who became Orbán’s public enemy number one—so much so that in 2019 CEU finally announced that it was moving out of Budapest and relocating to Vienna.
Orbán’s government has also recently targeted the Hungarian Academy of Science, stripping the autonomous academic body of its public funding. Instead, the money is being redirected to the Ministry for Innovation and Technology, which is far less independent.
At the same time as Fidesz has deflected attention to bogeymen “globalists” like Soros, it has unleashed widespread corruption that is doing lasting damage to Hungary’s now hollowed-out institutions. The nepotism is often blatant: businesses owned by Orbán’s family and inner circle—including his father and son-in-law—have been awarded inflated contracts worth tens of millions of euros for street lighting, raw materials, and construction of a football stadium that can hold twice as many people as the local population it serves.
Perhaps the most notorious recipient of public contracts is Orbán’s childhood friend, Lorinc Meszaros, a man who has seen his wealth triple since 2017. Meszaros, who owns construction companies that have been awarded public contracts, is now worth over €300 million. While Orbán is a frequent critic of the EU, he nevertheless has managed to funnel European structural funds to his network: by some estimates, 80% of Meszaros’ earnings come from EU funds.
Maria Vasarhelyi, Senior Research Fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Science, was blunt in her comments regarding the changes that have happened in her country. “Effectively this is a mafia state, because unbelievable amounts of money get taken from the money pot and end up abroad,” she said. “The only things that are happening are prestige investments, while the hospitals are rotting and have leaky roofs, and there’s no medicine or bandages.”
The strategic dispersal of state funds has made Orbán allies in high places, which in turn has helped him consolidate control over Hungary’s press. In 2018, Orbán loyalists led by Gabor Liszkay, a longtime friend of Orbán, created the Central European Media and Press Foundation (CEMPF), which grouped together 400 pro-government media outlets; in turn, the government exempted the “foundation” from competition rules. As an analyst for the Hungarian media think tank Mertek told Reuters, the conglomeration would “create a scale of media concentration unthinkable in the Western world.”
Controlling the narrative is a must if you are to succeed in politics; this is why the CEMPF is such a threat to Hungarian democracy. It effectively hands the regime keys to a vast national media, allowing it to frame stories in its favor. The “foundation” includes eighteen of Hungary’s twenty largest regional newspapers, giving Fidesz a direct line to its voter base—rural inhabitants, largely working in trade careers.
“If you live in a smaller town or village,” said Vasarhelyi, “all you can hear from every direction is how great things are, and how protected we are from non-existent dangers.”
Fodor noted the “strong influence” that this new, state-friendly media exerts on public opinion. “The liberals are dangerous, the liberals are working against the Hungarian nation, we should be an illiberal state. That’s coming to the people every day from the state media,” he said.
In late 2018, the European People’s Party (EPP), the majority group in the European Parliament, acceded to increasing demands to take action and suspended Fidesz as a member party. “We cannot compromise on democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press, academic freedom, or minority rights,” Joseph Daul, the EPP’s President, said when he announced the decision. “And anti-EU rhetoric is unacceptable. The divergences between EPP and Fidesz must cease.”
As a result of the suspension, Fidesz is unable to vote, attend meetings, or suggest candidates for open political posts in the EU. However, populist, far-right leaders like Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen are now courting Orbán to join forces across borders in an effective European far-right front.
IN DECEMBER 2018, Hungary began to protest again, joined by Hungarians from all over the world who staged demonstrations in front of embassies from Brazil to the United States. To observers, something about them seemed different, and perhaps more durable. They were protesting something that had been dubbed “the slave law.”
“Somehow this issue seems to touch even those who aren’t directly affected by it,” said Todai. “For example, pensioners—just because they aren’t working anymore doesn’t mean they’re indifferent about it. It affects their children, their grandchildren.”
The law would allow companies to require workers to put in as much as 400 hours of overtime per year, while giving companies three years, instead of one, to pay out the extra hours. In some cases, it would even let businesses compensate required overtime at regular rates. It may turn out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. That is, if the public stays politically engaged until the next election, in 2022, and if the opposition can cooperate with each other. And both are big ifs.
“Fidesz is the big political power while the opposition is divided into different parties,” Fodor said, pointing to Poland as an example for how the Hungarian opposition could unite. “The Polish opposition declared it would run together for the European elections. Cooperation between the leftists and liberals will be very important, we need that to hurt Fidesz.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue