The populist Viktor Orbán has tested and developed in Hungary for the last 12 years a model of an illiberal state that defies the core values of the European Union and has become a headache for Brussels. In the system that he has built with his three consecutive large majorities, he has captured the institutions with legislative reforms and people loyal to the Government, according to his detractors. The regime and its faithful control the media, anti-corruption bodies and the judicial system, universities and research centers, they denounce. In its crusade for ultra-conservative nationalist values, the government persecutes alleged enemies such as migrants, NGOs, the LGTBI community and the American millionaire of Hungarian origin, George Soros.
According to the director of thinktank Policy Solutions, András Bíró-Nag, in the first of his three consecutive terms —previously he governed between 1998 and 2002—, the ultra-conservative Fidesz party took the political sphere. In the second, between 2014 and 2018, it took over the economy. In the third, which concludes with the elections this Sunday, the tightest since 2010 with a united opposition, he has focused on the cultural sphere.
“What many see as an anti-democratic turn or populism, is actually an unprecedented expression of the people’s opinion on political decisions, on the direction the country should take,” defends Zoltán Kovács, Secretary of State for International Relations and Communication. “And it’s something new. You won’t find countries in Western Europe with this huge support,” he maintains. “Many say it’s because of the electoral system, but if we had the British or American system, our parliamentary majority would be between 85% and 90%,” he says.
In the first assault that Bíró-Nag describes, the one that began between 2010 and 2014 but has continued, the ultra-conservative Fidesz government “took over the institutional framework of democracy and the counterweight mechanisms.” He placed the faithful in control bodies such as the Prosecutor’s Office, the Constitutional Court, or the authority that regulates the media. He also reformed the Constitution and began with the first legislative changes, including that of the electoral system, which according to the opposition, now favors Fidesz.
In the judicial field, the Government reformed in 2012 the organization of the government of judges. The president of the National Office of the Judiciary, with broad powers, became in charge of the supervision and appointment of judges. He held the first term until 2019 Tunde Hando“what was done famous in Europe as an enemy of judicial independence”, according to two judges who request anonymity. Later, “the Kuria [el Tribunal Supremo] it became the new way to influence the judicial system.”
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“The independence of the judges has suffered,” say the two magistrates. The system “plays with the allocation of cases in the high courts.” And also with chilling effect (chilling effect): “It’s not about Soviet revenge, they don’t call you on the phone to give orders, but there is an existential fear of contradicting.” They don’t fire rebellious judges, but they can make life difficult for them with worse working conditions, office transfers or bonus withdrawals. The same goes for teachers, ministry workers and others.
When Fidesz lost the 2002 elections, “they realized that it was not enough to unite the right in a party, but that they needed to build conservative media to have an alternative to those on the left”, explains István Kiss, director of the thinktank Danube Institute, financed by the Government. “Perhaps now there are more right-wing media,” she acknowledges.
According to Ágnes Urbán of Mérket, a media think tank, the 2010 law allowed Fidesz to “build a media empire”, removing limits on media concentration and allowing it to control the newly created Media Council. Public TV and radio are biased, adds Urbán. And the regional newspapers all belong to a foundation close to the Government that in 2018 received as a donation about 400 media including radio, television, online media and magazines that 10 publishers had been acquiring.
The problem with the system is not only its concentration, but also that many people are “captured by propaganda”, like the elderly in rural areas. “If we think about historical cases, there are usually administrative restrictions and censorship, like in Russia, where social networks are censored and media outlets are closed. It doesn’t happen here. There are still independent media and social networks, but with the distortions in the Fidesz market, the same effect has been achieved”, analyzes Urbán.
Corruption was already a problem in Hungary before Orbán, according to József Péter Martin, director of Transparency International. “But where before there was a dysfunction of the system, with the Fidesz Government it became part of the system. The four or five main oligarchs in the country govern in symbiosis with the government”, he denounces, although he clarifies that it is not proven how they relate to each other.
The basis of this institutionalized corruption, on which the European Commission asked Budapest for explanations last November, “is based on centralization and loyalty”, according to Martin, and is sustained by “institutions captured by the interests of the Government”. “Hungary is between Berlusconi’s Italy and Putin’s Russia,” he says. While 69% of Europeans consider that corruption is unacceptable, in Hungary only 38% think so, according to the 2020 Eurobarometer. One of the reasons for this tolerance, Martin believes, is the good economic performance of the country between 2013 and 2020, compared to the previous period. “For the government it is important that [los oligarcas] get rich to be able to count on them. The Executive uses them when it needs access to key sectors, such as the media, banks, or construction”, he points out.
The international spokesman for the Government boasts of the results of what they have baptized as Orbanomics: “Economically, in the 12 years we have been exemplary and there has been a great contrast with the previous decade.” Kovács reviews the development in the countryside and “family protection measures” to which they dedicate more than 5% of GDP. Unemployment has gone from 12% in 2010 to 3.8% in 2022 and GDP has returned to pre-pandemic levels with growth in 2021 of 7.1%, according to his data.
János Köllő, director of research at the Institute of Economics of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, shows, however, a less luminous x-ray in terms of employment. Among other issues, he points out that the unemployment subsidy has gone from nine to three months and includes the obligation to do public works to collect subsidies. He also criticizes that unions have been weakened and the right to strike has been limited. The progressivity of personal income tax (15% for all income levels) has been eliminated, in a system that favors the middle class with tax breaks, cheap loans and unemployment benefits, compared to the most vulnerable sectors.
The culture sphere
In a speech in 2018, at the start of his third legislature —again with more than 66% of seats—, Orbán outlined his following objective: “The future of a country does not depend only on its economy, its military capacity and its political influence, but also, of their cultural achievements. “The government thinks that education, civil society and academic research are liberal,” says Bíró-Nag. To compensate, according to the analyst, he has taken over the network of public research centers; it has put public universities under the mantle of private foundations “controlled by strong men from Fidesz”, and has promoted ultra-conservative think tanks. Before, the law that pushed the Central European University, financed by Soros, to transfer most of its activities to Vienna was sounded.
In the area of civil society, the Government has targeted NGOs with several laws, such as the 2017 rule on organizations financed with foreign capital, and the Stop Soros law (of 2018), which criminalizes organizations that help migrants. The goal, according to Stefania Kapronczay, director of the Hungarian Civil Rights Union, is to discourage citizen participation in public life. “It’s a familiar notion from communist times: politics and political affairs are for politicians, but you, a citizen, shouldn’t get involved.”
Those two rules are intended to combat two of the supposed enemies of the ultra-conservative government: the 81-year-old Budapest-born philanthropist, George Soros, and migrants and asylum seekers. The populist trait that seeks to identify enemies, feed fear and present itself as a savior, is oriented in this year’s electoral campaign towards the LGTBI collective. Together with the polls for the parliamentary elections, the Hungarians are called to validate the law, approved last summer, which prohibits LGTBI content in schools through a referendum.
Hungary has run afoul of the European justice system and institutions in each of these assaults on EU values. The Commission has blocked recovery funds for the pandemic due to the lack of control of corruption and the degradation of the rule of law. “In the last two years there has been an ideological witch hunt motivated by political reasons,” Kovács denounces. “They call it the rule of law, they have called it freedom of the press, but the essence is very simple: they don’t like us.”
On Sunday the Hungarians will decide whether to revalidate Orbán’s power for another four years. He is the EU’s longest-serving prime minister. The system that he has built, which look more east than west, is solidly based on legislative reforms that require two-thirds majorities and appointments to strategic positions for periods in many cases of nine years, which would make life difficult for the opposition if it were to win. Organizations such as Freedom House, which monitor the rule of law and freedoms, consider that Hungary has moved away from democracy to become a hybrid regime.
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