HUNGARY: A "FAUX" DEMOCRACY

Since Viktor Orban came to power in 2010, the Hungarian regime has become known as one of the most right wing to be found in contemporary Europe. The Prime Minister’s frequent criticisms of liberal democracy and his ardent support for national identity have won him, regretfully, immense popular support. His party, Fidesz, the ruling party, is not the only entity proffering a kind of ultraconservatism on the country’s political landscape: extreme right wing party Jobbik managed to gain 20% of the vote in the 2014 election. Qualified by some as Neo-nazi, Jobbik’s politicians make Orban’s promise to bring an ‘illiberal democracy’ to Hungary seem almost tame in comparison. Unfortunately this promise seems to have borne fruit - although many would even contest Hungary’s democratic status as Orban uses the “will of the people” to tamper with constitutional principles. Under his rule he has ushered in changes to the judicial system, tried to block EU wide legislation assuring rights for same sex couples and uses power to pressurize the independent media. In the domestic sphere, the political opposition finds it increasingly difficult to function. On an international level, the refugee crisis has exposed what is perhaps Orban’s biggest bugbear. It has seen some of his most vicious rhetoric emerge which has recently been the subject of a hugely controversial national referendum. Hungary has repeatedly been criticized by NGOs, the media, and European institutions for its stance on the mass movement of refugees – the Prime Minister remains undeterred.

To begin with a recent event which has sent shock waves through the Western media, one of Hungary’s leading left wing newspapers Nepszabadsag (People’s Freedom) which has been publishing since 1956 (the year of the Hungarian Revolution) has closed. Described by journalist Owen Jones as a media institution equivalent to the Guardian in the UK, it was shut down at the start of October. The alleged reason was that it was making a loss. Ruling Fidesz party issued a statement saying, ‘The suspension was a reasonable business decision rather than a political one […] It would be in violation of the freedom of the press if we interfered with a decision of a media owner’. Others are less convinced. The Nepszabadsag closure is the culmination of what many see as a longstanding assault on the press. Human Rights Watch’s Lydia Gall has commented, ‘What we’ve seen in the last six years is essentially a continued undermining or deterioration of the rule of law and human rights protection’. In 2010 and 2011 a series of laws curtailed the activities of the press, by requiring media outlets to register with a national authority, meaning that the government was in a position to accord licenses, or remove them. In this way the government-critical radio station Klubrádió, was refused a license, though it did regain it after a long battle with the authorities.

Financial reasons may be cited, but the reality is that for many newspapers, government advertising is necessary for the outlets to gain sufficient funds. It’s a well known method of controlling the media. Two thousand people gathered in Budapest the Sunday after its closure in a protest whose organizers commented on Facebook, ‘Today one of the last opposition newspapers was simply silenced’. The Socialists expressed their concerns too, asserting that the ostensible reasons for the closure were not the real ones. The President of the European Parliament echoed these feelings, saying, ‘Sudden closure of Nepszabadsag sets a worrying precedent. I stand in solidarity with Hungarians protesting today’. Whilst obliterating the opposition media, its glorifies its own. Hungary President Janos Ader recently awarded an Order of Merit of the Knight’s Cross to a journalist who compared the Roma people to ‘animals’. The awarding of the honour to Zsolt Bayer, who is an ally of Orban, prompted 44 previous recipients to hand back their awards in protest. Andras Heisler, the head of Hungary’s largest Jewish organisation, Mazsihisz, who received the award in 2011, handed his back, describing Bayer as ‘a racist, an antisemite, who pollutes Hungary with his incandescent Gypsy-hatred and nation-destroying ideas’.

Whilst domestic oppositionists have been targeted relentlessly by the Orban government, one other group remain indefatigably demonised by the regime: refugees. When describing immigrants, the rhetoric of Urban and his cohorts rivals that of Donald Trump for toxic demagoguery. Orban recently described refugees as a ‘poison’ adding that ‘every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk’. He openly asserts that he believes that the composition of a country's population is part of its ‘constitutional identity,’ and that an influx of largely Muslim migrants would alter this. Last year the Prime Minister said. ‘I think we have a right to decide that we do not want a large number of Muslim people in our country’, Orban said. ‘We do not like the consequences of having a large number of Muslim communities that we see in other countries, and I do not see any reason for anyone else to force us to create ways of living together in Hungary that we do not want to see’. He then added, ‘that is a historical experience for us’, invoking the Ottoman invasion of 1541, a improbably distant historical reference point, but one that fits his own brand of hyperbolic nationalism.

In terms of concrete measures, in the past two years, a $80 million border fence has been erected with Serbia to prevent refugees from entering Hungarian territory; those who scale the wall face three-year jail terms, and anyone who assists a migrant is threatened with punishment. Human Rights Watch has found that migrants on the border are being forced back to Serbia and are being treated cruelly and without their claims of asylum being heard. Migrants are forced to live in a transit zone which is on Hungarian territory which Hungary says means they have not yet ‘entered’ the country. ‘Hungary is breaking all the rules for asylum seekers transiting through Serbia, summarily dismissing claims and sending them back across the border’, says Lydia Gall, Balkans and Eastern Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch. ‘People who cross into Hungary without permission, including women and children, have been viciously beaten and forced back across the border’. Last year a journalist was filmed kicking several refugees; she was, thankfully, sacked.

Orban’s position on migrants (apart from the manifest xenophobia) is that the country does not need them for their economy. He recently told a press conference in Budapest with Austrian chancellor Christian Kern, ‘Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself or for the country to have a future. […] This is why there is no need for a common European migration policy: whoever needs migrants can take them, but don’t force them on us, we don’t need them.’ The most concrete attempt thus far to achieve what it sees as sovereignty in terms of its policy on refugees has been to hold a referendum on changing the constitution in such a way that it would stop the mass settlement of migrants without the parliament’s approval. On October 2, the referendum was held in which 3.3 million people voted in favour of the government’s plans to oppose the EU’s attempt to relocate asylum seekers. This followed a period of intense campaigning by the Orban regime, which estimates suggest cost not only more per head than the Brexit campaign in Britain, but also astonishingly, more than the media spending projected in the US presidential election. Tales of refugees overrunning cities like London and Berlin were told in pamphlets distributed to each house in Hungary, which also warned, ‘no one can say how many terrorists have arrived so far among the immigrants’. The turnout was too low however to make the vote legally binding however, as only 40.1% of people cast valid votes, well below the 50-percent minimum. The opposition undertook great efforts to encourage citizens to spoil their ballot in protest and indeed more than 230,000 invalid ballots were recorded, which represents a record for a Hungarian referendum. Nonetheless, this has not stopped Orban from taking it as a mandate for proceeding with anti-immigration policies. In front of the Hungarian parliament, he announced, ‘in the history of Hungarian democracy, no party or party alliance has ever received a mandate of such scale […] We won’t let these 3.3 million people be tricked, or have their opinions downplayed’. He added that he would introduce a bill to parliament that would reflect the ‘the will of the people in the spirit of the referendum’. Hungary has also filed a lawsuit against the EU at the European Court of Justice on a 2015 decision to relocate 1,294 asylum-seekers to Hungary from the 160,000 the EU agreed to move from Greece and Italy. Hungary cannot legally stop any such manoeuvres but it can provide obstacles.

The referendum is one of the ways in which the Orban regime has manifested its discontent with Germany’s ‘moral imperialism’ as the Prime Minister put it. It is not the only way however: the speaker of parliament, László Kövér decided recently to replace the EU flag, which had hung from the parliament building next to the Hungarian flag, with the flag of the Szekler, a Hungarian minority based in Romania. The move was met with delight by the nationalist movement. Orban frequently contests the necessity of Hungary ‘obeying the will of Brussels’. Whilst having heartily encouraged Britain to stay in the European Union, as a broadly eurosceptic ally in Europe, Orban congratulated Britons on their decision to reclaim sovereignty and endorsed the idea of recuperating national rights. He has also expressed support for Donald Trump’s candidacy for President of the United States, describing Trump’s policies as ‘vital’ for Hungary, and those of Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton, as ‘deadly’. This position aligns him much more clearly with the Russian perspective, than that of other EU leaders. Orban’s feelings about the Putin regime are positive; indeed, he cited Russia as an example of a ‘successful’ illiberal democracy. Political Capital analyst Peter Kreko has noted that ‘Hungary’s foreign policy has borne an eerie resemblance to Russian diplomatic interests in recent years, and indeed has been little short of an extended arm of the Russian government in foreign policy matters’. At a meeting with Putin in February of this year, the pair agreed that their views on the refugee crisis ‘largely coincide’. Orban is also adamant that the EU should consider removing the sanctions against Russia that came into place as a result of the conflict in Ukraine.

Whilst Orban is not hesitant to criticize the EU, many have suggested that the EU is too hesitant to criticize Hungary. Whilst in December 2015 the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Hungary with respect to its asylum legislation stating that it is ‘in some instances, [is] incompatible with EU law’, little seems to have emerged in the way of constructive action. Some senior figures, such as Luxembourg’s foreign Minister Jean Asselborn have made clear their belief that Hungary’s position on the refugee crisis is incompatible with EU principles. He argues that, ‘anyone who, like Hungary, builds fences against refugees from war or who violates press freedom and judicial independence, should be excluded temporarily, or if necessary for ever, from the EU’. Yet Europe as a whole seems to have no appetite for the expulsion of a member state. Last year the parliament rejected a proposal to invoke Article 7, (which would herald the suspension of Hungary’s voting rights) and refused to activate a warning. The reality is that post-Brexit, fears of the unravelling of Europe are increasing, and the EU is perhaps unlikely to wish to forcibly remove one of its members. Hungary for all of its querulousness, benefits immensely from its subsidies.

As fears mount for the future of Hungary, it is worth noting that the referendum represents the first time that Viktor Orban has not had a victory since 2006. For all of his attempts to paint the vote as a victory and as a mandate for further action the reality is that for once he has failed to harness the popular support which has made his career thus far so successful. Therein perhaps, lies some hope.

Sara Bielecki