From democracy to authoritarianism: Orbán's Hungary
There are few European heads of state who challenge the ideals on which the continent’s modern, liberal order was built more than Viktor Orbán.
It wasn’t always the case. When Mr. Orbán emerged as a national politician in Hungary as the Soviet order fell at the Cold War’s end, he was viewed as a democrat and free thinker. But since 2010, when his Fidesz party took power and he became prime minister, he has taken an outspokenly anti-democratic approach to governance. Mr. Orbán was the first to coin the phrase “illiberal democracy” when describing his vision for Hungary, while squashing opponents and concentrating more powers in his hands.
But this didn’t happen overnight. Hollowing out a democracy takes time and effort, and requires attacking multiple institutions. The Monitor sent Dominique Soguel to talk to some of those who witnessed the effects of Mr. Orbán’s campaign against Hungary’s academia, nongovernmental organizations, and media to see how they were affected – and, if they could, how they fought back.
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DOMINIQUE SOGUEL: Strongmen have gained momentum across the globe even in what were once thought to be established democracies.
From Brazil to India, populist leaders have dismantled checks and balances. They muzzle the press in the name of giving voice to what they call silent majorities. In Europe, one of the most salient examples is Hungary. Right-wing leader Viktor Orbán has helped spread populist ideas across the continent. Even now, the prime minister is capitalizing on the coronavirus pandemic to take on sweeping new powers.
My name is Dominique Soguel, and for the past six years, I’ve covered Europe and the Middle East for the Monitor. Last year I went to the Hungarian capital, Budapest, to talk to local journalists, activists, and scholars who are pushing back against the Orbán regime. I wanted to know: What does it look like when a leader takes a nation from the height of democratic freedom to the brink of authoritarian rule?
Let’s start from the beginning.
The year was 1989. After decades of communist rule, the Central European nation of Hungary was finally steering toward a democratic system of government.
[Sound clip from Hungarian National Anthem]
JANOS RAINER: I think Hungary had all the possibilities to turn into a good, free, and democratic way 30 years ago.
DOMINIQUE: That’s Janos Rainer. He’s a Hungarian scholar. He was 32 years old in 1989. He told me that back then, he truly felt it was a new beginning for his country. And for a long while, it was.
In 1990, Freedom House – an international watchdog organization that ranks nations according to their commitment to democracy – marked Hungary as “free” for the first time. Seven years later it became part of NATO. And in 2003, the country became part of the European Union.
It seemed that at last, Hungary had secured its place among Western liberal democracies.
[Sound clip of celebrations as Hungary joins E.U.]
But all that changed in 2010. The right-wing Fidesz Party came to power under the leadership of Prime Minister Orbán.
[Sound clips from news reports about Orbán’s regime]
Orbán is a poster child of populism. Under his rule, independent media has been muzzled. Power concentrated in the hands of a few. Elections are still technically free. But with the government controlling much of what the public hears, few outside of Hungary believe they are actually fair.
And like many strongmen leaders of the 21st century, Orbán appeals to a population afraid that their white, Christian legacy is quickly vanishing.
[Sound clip from Orbán’s State of the Nation address]
Today, Hungary is what experts call an “illiberal democracy” – a democracy in which civil liberties are disdained.
DOMINIQUE: Like most populist leaders, Orbán has a long list of enemies.
Migrants – particularly dark-skinned and Muslim ones – pose an existential threat. Not just to Hungary, but to all of Europe. Here he is at a press conference from early 2019.
[Sound clip from a 2019 press conference, Orbán is speaking in Hungarian]
He’s saying that instead of a unified civilization, Europe will be divided into two. A mixed one which allows for Christian and Islamic coexistence … and a Europe premised on a shared Christian identity.
Orbán has been clear about which one he believes in.
But the top enemy of the state under the Orbán administration is a Hungarian-American Jewish philanthropist.
[Sound clips of news outlets saying “George Soros” repeatedly]
The two men weren’t always in conflict. In 1989, Orbán went to study in Oxford thanks to financing from Soros’ Open Society Foundation. But the two eventually fell out over their competing visions for Hungary.
Now organizations with ties to Soros, and working on migration issues, have been the hardest hit in a broadening crackdown on civil society.
I met with Dalma Dojcsak, a lawyer with the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, which gets funding from Open Society.
DALMA DOJCSAK: So I think it started in 2015 and there was this narrative in the Hungarian discourse about civil society who speaks up against the government and who intends to act as a check on the government is somehow undermining Hungary, the Hungarian nation, and security.
DOMINIQUE: By 2017, Soros – and any organization connected to him – had become an explicit target.
DOJCSAK: There was this Civil Society Act in, I think 2017, when basically the narrative was that the refugee and migrant wave is financed by George Soros and also the Hungarian NGOs that are financed by George Soros. Therefore, Hungarian NGOs has to be punished by labeling them foreign-funded NGOs, which in the government narrative was used as a swear word. And later on, a new piece of legislation extended the issue and ordered that those NGOs or organizations who support illegal migration in any way has to declare 25% of their incomes as a migration tax. This is the so-called Stop Soros Law or Act.
DOMINIQUE: Dojcsak said that as far as she knows, no organization has been penalized under this law, yet.
For now, she takes refuge in HCLU.
DOJCSAK: Working here helps a lot because I come here and I do everything, I do something every day to fight back.
DOMINIQUE: NGOs like the HCLU aren’t the only target.
RAINER: Academia in general is one of the latest targets of Orbán.
DOMINIQUE: That’s Janos Rainer again, the scholar you heard at the top of the show.
Rainer is director of the 56 Institute, a historical research center named after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Rainer told me that without consultation, government officials brought his organization under the umbrella of the Veritas Historical Research Institute, an academic body filled with historians whose views align with those of the regime. They did it through a new law that authorized the restructuring of academic groups like his.
RAINER: What is the situation now? The academia is under the control of a state-run centralized organization and in command there is a minister, very powerful, and very close to Orbán personally, it is said. And the whole academia is under his command.
DOMINIQUE: Another sector that has struggled under Orbán and the Fidesz Party: the press. Or at least, members of the media that don’t support the administration.
TAMAS BODOKY: After Fidesz came to power, they ceased to subsidize any left-leaning liberal media. And they only subsidize right-wing media which is 100% loyal to them.
DOMINIQUE: That’s Tamas Bodoky, the founder and editor of Atlatszo, a center for investigative journalism.
In one incident last year, Atlatszo ran a series of exposés. They included photos of Orbán’s secret private plane and a powerful government official’s luxury yacht.
[Music from Atlatszo’s video]
The music you’re hearing is from a video Atlatszo published of the yacht using drone footage. The video shows a huge, pristine white pleasure craft, gliding through deep blue waters off the coast of Croatia. There’s a pool on its deck. Lounge chairs. Three men – whom Atlatszo identified as key figures in Hungarian industry and politics – are clearly visible.
According to Bodoky, the government retaliated quickly. A photo plucked from his Facebook page was broadcast on TV2, a state-run network.
BODOKY: And they said, “Oh, these Soros guys are conspiring against Hungary. They are using unmanned airplanes to surveil Hungarian politicians,” because we had the drone footage on the yacht. So they did try to frame you, and try to frame you in a very bad way. So after this, a lot of people ask me, “Oh, how come you are not in jail? How come you are, you are conspiring against Hungary. You should be in jail.”
DOMINIQUE: These days, Hungarian journalists who don’t want to become mouthpieces for the state have fewer places to work. The country’s largest left-leaning daily paper closed in 2016, laying off hundreds of staff members. And those still around, like Atlatszo, are struggling to reach their audiences. The government controls so many of the ways that Hungarians receive news.
BODOKY: I think it’s important to emphasize that this is not journalism. This is the most typical pro-government propaganda. This is quite shameful that the government did this to the Hungarian press.
DOMINIQUE: Some activists are pushing back against the government in unusual ways.
Marton Gulyas is a filmmaker and producer who lives in Budapest. He disagrees deeply with the Orbán regime’s hard-line approach to migration – among other issues. So he uses humor and the internet to get his message out.
MARTON GULYAS: I became politically very active after 2010 when the first two-thirds majority happened, because that was such a shock for the country. We create different kind of events. There are popular shows which are dealing with top political issues in front of a live audience and we broadcast it through Facebook and YouTube.
DOMINIQUE: Orbán was reelected for a third-term in 2018 riding a wave of nationalist sentiment. Ahead of the vote, billboards went up calling on Hungarians to defend their country, defend their culture.
GULYAS: And, you know, ridiculous, semi-Nazi slogans and stuff like that.
DOMINIQUE: In response, Gulyas made a short film. In it, he criticized the government’s position on migration using characters from Star Wars.
[Sound clip from Star Wars]
GULYAS: I played the role of Darth Vader, who lost, you know, his role, his position in the empire, but he sensed that the Dark Side is extremely strong here in Hungary because of Orbán and because of this hatred against refugees.
DOMINIQUE: So Vader comes to Hungary, hoping to serve this new emperor.
GULYAS: But the problem is that he’s a refugee, too. And he went through the entire process of you know becoming a citizen. And he tries to, you know, meet personally with the Emperor. And he failed in every way.
Some of the scenes were scripted. Some of the scenes were improvised. This entire video was about the absurdity of these anti-refugee, anti-migrant, xenophobic, government propaganda.
DOMINIQUE: For some of his stunts, Gulyas has been punished with fines and community service, which are not nearly as dire as the consequences of challenging the government in, say, Turkey. Or Russia.
But Orbán isn’t done yet. In March, the Hungarian parliament, which is dominated by his party, gave the prime minister the right to rule by decree for an unlimited period. That means new laws do not require parliamentary consultation.
Everything suggests that Hungary’s slide from democracy to authoritarianism is accelerating. But Gulyas, Badoky, and Dojcsak haven’t quite given up hope. Here’s Dojcsak again.
DOJCSAK: I am alarmed that we will become Russia in a few years time. And it’s quite possible. And I don’t really see how it can be turned the other way. But if you look at the Ukraine, for example, an unexpected thing can happen in a very short period of time. So I still have hope that political change can come. I just don’t know how and when. But it can come.
DOMINIQUE: Thank you for joining us. If you liked this story, help us make more. Subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor at csmonitor.com/subscribe. We need your support to do more work like this.
Again, my name is Dominique Soguel, reporting from Budapest. This story was edited and produced by Arthur Bright, Samantha Laine Perfas, and Jessica Mendoza, with sound design by Noel Flatt. Copyright by The Christian Science Monitor, 2020.