The Decline of Democracy in Hungary Is a Troubling Vision of the Future

Hungarian premier Viktor Orbán has used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to silence his critics, even as he endorses street mobilizations by the organized far right. But these aren’t just the pathologies of a country with weak democratic traditions — they’re an extreme version of a reactionary turn happening across the West.

SZEKESFEHERVAR, HUNGARY — Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban attends his Fidesz party campaign closing rally on April 6, 2018. Laszlo Balogh / Getty Images

When Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán used the COVID-19 pandemic to grant himself virtually unchecked power to rule by decree, watchdogs and commentators rang the alarm bells. Others suggested that this is more likely to be a vile yet clever public relations trick — a move to allow Orbán to present opposition objections as if they were obstructing efforts to fight the pandemic itself.

Yet developments since the bill’s passage suggest that pessimism about Hungary’s future was largely justified. There is clear evidence suggesting that something dark and dangerous is brewing. The European establishment — including the center-right European People’s Party, of which Viktor Orbán’s party is still a member — has, nonetheless, chosen to look the other way.

When Orbán came to power ten years ago and began dismantling democratic institutions, this peripheral European country looked like an idiosyncratic case, with little if any global significance. Yet today, from Modi’s India to Trump’s America, the world we live in is a very different place. Looking at the current heating up of racial and ethnic tensions and the intensifying repression all around the globe, we might ask if Hungary isn’t such a deviant case — and if it instead points the way to a terrifying new normality.

State-Sanctioned Bullying

The restrictions on civil liberties were allegedly justified in the name of stopping the spread of the virus. Yet since the passing of the controversial emergency law, Hungary’s government has introduced a series of further regressive changes — making clear that alarmist voices about the bill were anything but unfounded.

Typical of the reactionary measures pushed through under the banner of the “corona bill” was the attack on trans people. They were stripped of their right to get their gender identity officially recognized; from now on, only the gender that was assigned to them at birth can be displayed in official documents. This means outing trans people not only to employers and landlords but even to receptionists and cashiers, whenever they use a credit card.

The government is well-aware what effect this will have. Since Hungarian society at large is anything but trans accepting, this move is not only an attack on trans people’s right to their “identities” in an abstract sense. It is likely to turn regular interactions with society into recurring rituals of humiliation. According to discussions on social media, some are contemplating emigration or even suicide.

As a desperate response, a group of trans activists decided to publicly burn their birth certificates. For Ádám Csikós, a trans activist and organizer of Budapest Pride, “We can only live safe lives if the name and gender which we identify with are the ones written in our official documents.”

Permanent Emergency 

For its part, the government suggests that the controversial “state of emergency” won’t last forever — on May 26, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semlyén submitted a bill to parliament that is supposed to bring it to an end. Such a measure is designed to reassure domestic and international observers who ask if Orbán plans to rule by decree indefinitely.

Yet all is not as it seems. Indeed, according to a first analysis published by civil-liberties groups like the Helsinki Committee, Amnesty International, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, this new legislation does the exact opposite. It entrenches some of the most worrying aspects of the original bill by permanently weakening the constitutional oversight of executive power.

The way the bill was introduced also appears to expose the true modus operandi of the Orbán regime — demonstrating that in Hungary, it is not the parliament that chooses a government (as it is normally the case in parliamentary democracies) but the opposite. In Budapest, it is the government that has a parliament to do its bidding.

This is especially worrying when we consider the wider attacks on democratic rights. One of the most controversial aspects of the emergency law was that it introduced an up to five-year prison sentence for “spreading falsehoods.” The opposition immediately expressed its concerns that this measure would be used to silence dissenting voices. As it turned out, this is exactly what happened.

In at least two cases, police showed up at homes of dissenters at dawn to arrest them for nothing more than criticizing the government’s response to the pandemic. “At fault:” two Facebook posts that did not contain any false information, only the authors’ opinions. While both were released without charge, the humiliation and exposure that comes with arrest are more than enough to install fear — especially in the rural communities where both incidents took place.

After his release, one of the two men, János Csóka-Szűcs, was denied any assistance in his journey home, despite the fact that he is disabled. With his phone confiscated and lacking any money, he was forced to make the journey home on foot.

This was not the first time the police had clamped down on him expressing dissenting views. He told Partizán, a left-wing online broadcaster, that the same happened to him back in 1987 when the Soviet-backed Kádár regime was still in power. As he recalled, “I was making jokes at home about the possibility that the world in which the police may come for you [for speaking up] will sooner or later return, but we did not take this possibility seriously.”

Suspending Civil Liberties (Except for the Far Right)

Orbán also used the pandemic to curb civil liberties in a way that went way beyond anything to do with containing the virus. Opposition MPs organized a series of demonstrations against Orbán’s unchecked power but in order to keep participants and the general public safe, they asked people to show up in their cars and honk.

While this type of protest carries almost no risk of infection, demonstrators were handed heavy fines of up to 750,000 forints (around $2,400) each. This staggering amount is several times the average worker’s monthly income, and more than enough to cause serious difficulties even for relatively well-off households.

Paradoxically, it’s likely that the police actually increased the risk of infection by forcing protesters to interact with them. The practice of handing out astronomical fines to protesters in cars carried on even after the lockdown had ended and bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen. It seems that in Orbán’s Hungary the freedom to consume is prioritized over civil liberties.

Not every demonstration, however, is stopped by the police. While pro-democracy activists in cars are harassed and fined, neo-Nazis, it seems, are allowed to take to the streets in their thousands without any social distancing whatsoever.

On the first weekend after the easing of social distancing measures, the news of a fatal double stabbing in downtown Budapest shocked the Hungarian public. The incident was newsworthy since Hungary like most EU countries has strict gun control regulations and relatively high public safety — making such outbursts of lethal violence rare.

The victims were football fans and it seems that at least one of them had far-right sympathies. On pictures of him in the media that appeared in the media, he was wearing a celtic cross — in many countries worn by neo-Nazis as a legal alternative to the banned swastika.

Certainly, fascists claimed the victims as their own. Soon after news broke, the far-right party “Mi Hazánk Mozgalom” or “Our Homeland Movement” called on its supporters to gather at HQ of  National Roma Self-Government for a rally against “gypsy crime” (as it later turned out, the attackers were most likely white). Groups of football hooligans, the so-called “ultras,” also mobilized.

While Mi Hazánk cynically disguised their rally as a “press conference” the ultras called for a vigil to circumvent the ban on protests. While the police banned the events and initially took some signs away from participants, in the end, they let the rally take place.

The two groups merged and chanted racist slogans such as “Yes, there is gypsy crime” and some even threw Hitler salutes as the police stood by and did nothing despite the ban. The rally was followed by violent hate crimes against Roma people throughout the evening.

While anti-fascist organizing has strengthened in recent months, activists did not mobilize, citing public health concerns. The unevidenced claim that the killers were “gypsies” spread across racist corners of the Internet like wildfire. The far-right’s ability to seize the momentum was characteristic of a new style of politics that completely disregards any pretense of truth; as Timothy Snyder notes, if this first appeared in the former USSR it is now increasingly common in “mature” western democracies such as the US and the UK.

The far-right Mi Hazánk movement behind the rally was established by former members of Jobbik, alienated by this latter party’s move to the center. (Jobbik has even elected a leader with some Jewish roots despite being outspoken anti-semites in the past.) While other opposition parties are completely excluded from both public media outlets and private ones under government control, this odd formation is given a surprising amount of free airtime. This despite it never having surpassed 4 percent of the vote in any election.

One does not need to wear a tinfoil-hat to have doubts about this party’s independence. The practice of using proxy opposition parties to simulate pluralism is well known from Russia as well as other post-Soviet states. Political scientist and Ukraine expert Andrew Wilson labelled this phenomenon “virtual politics.”

Indeed, scapegoating the Roma community in Hungary is not limited to the political fringes. Orbán himself seems to be increasingly interested in turning public opinion against the socially and economically marginalized Roma. As the public seems to get bored of other scapegoats such as George Soros (whose name is invoked as a euphemism for “Jewish finance”), migrants, and NGOs, Orbán’s propaganda network must shift its discourse and find new enemies — this time it seems, the Roma.

In some recent statements, Orbán’s outriders have openly defended racially segregated education. His government has attempted to stop the court-mandated payment of compensation to elementary school pupils taught in segregated classes in the village of Gyöngyöspata.

Despite Orbán’s efforts, such blatant discrimination is still illegal according to both Hungarian and EU law. Yet the climate is worsening. Mi Hazánk’s original purpose was likely to help the disintegration of Jobbik in favor of far-right forces more loyal to Orbán. Today, its use is to test the public’s appetite for the next state-sponsored hate campaign.

Some Good News… And a Grim Future

While the outlook for Hungary’s future is bleak, there is some good news as well. The European Court of Justice ruled on May 13 that Hungary’s practice of locking up refugees for extended periods is illegal. Perhaps surprisingly, the government complied — and inmates, including children who never saw anything beyond the camp’s razor-wire fence, were set free. This also ends the inhumane starvation tactics routinely used in these camps.

It is hard not to see parallels between these developments in Hungary and recent events elsewhere. In the US, authorities allowed far-right militias to demonstrate with assault rifles but reacted with extreme violence to the explosion of justified anger that followed the murder of George Floyd. Just as Orbán refused to condemn the racist thugs of Mi Hazánk, Trump called for the use of lethal force to repress the uprising, in a series of tweets marked by racist dog whistles.

After the 2008 recession, the rise of ethno-nationalist forces in many countries served elite interests by deterring public attention from the real cause of misery: capitalism’s tendency towards periodically recurring crises, with devastating human consequences. Since the current crisis is likely to be worse than the previous one, early evidence of racist mobilization by powerful actors such as Trump and Orbán are truly worrying.

There are specific historical and cultural reasons for the emergence of the Orbán regime. Yet liberal attempts to explain the decline of Hungary’s democracy in terms of the country’s traumatized past, the fragility of post-communist democratic institutions, or even the “Hungarian character,” are all missing the point. The structural factors (explaining Orbán’s rise have nothing to do with particular national or East European characteristics and everything to do with the dynamics of global capitalism.

While it is true that the transition from communism devastated former industrial towns, which created resentment against democracy and paved the way for authoritarianism, this transition was no more than a fast and radical local manifestation of the worldwide shift from Fordism to post-Fordism.

The shift in Eastern Europe was more rapid and painful. But what destroyed Hungarian industrial hubs is the same process that devastated northern England and the American “Rust Belt,” making them ideal targets for demagogues. Orbán was doubtless helped by his “Socialist” predecessor’s embrace of neoliberalism; many inhabitants of former left-wing strongholds, now facing economic deprivation, turned to Fidesz and Jobbik. This, again, is just a particularly painful manifestation of a global phenomenon, echoing the circumstances that empowered similar political forces elsewhere.

In this light, it becomes clear that the country’s present situation is not some aberration that can be explained in terms of Hungarians’ lack of moral decency. On the contrary, what is happening under Orbán can easily become the future of any country where the structural reasons for the rise of racism and fascism are not dealt with sufficiently. Max Horkheimer said in 1939, “If you don’t want to talk about capitalism then you had better keep quiet about fascism.” And, as Slavoj Žižek paraphrased this line, “those who do not wish to speak critically about global capitalism should also stay silent about Hungary.”