‘21st century repression’
The effects of Orbán’s takeover are in many ways subtle, and Hungary does not outwardly appear to be an authoritarian state.
“Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities on Earth. It feels so functional and free — you get there and think ‘this can’t possibly be a dictatorship,’” says Kim Lane Scheppele, a sociologist at Princeton University and an expert on Hungarian politics.
“That’s because Orbán’s repression is a very 21st-century repression,” she said, adding that the country’s democracy had been eroded through changes to the Constitution, rather than through violence.
Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights advocacy group, rates Hungary as only a “partly free” country. In its rating for 2022, it said Orbán had used law changes to “consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions,” pass anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT+ policies and hinder opposition groups, journalists, universities and nongovernmental organizations.
In promotion of Orbán’s “family values” agenda, Hungary banned adoption by same-sex couples in 2020 and removed the right of transgender people to legally change gender. Hungary has also refused to ratify the Istanbul convention, a legally binding international agreement aimed at preventing violence against women signed by 34 European nations.
Republicans such as Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who said the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol was largely a “peaceful protest,” have praised Orbán’s border policies. What exactly attracts the U.S. right to him?
“The reason that Orbán keeps winning is he has the control of a dictator,” Scheppele said. “So the question is, what are the Republicans in it for? Are they tilting away from the principle that the peaceful transfer of power is a bedrock of democracy, against the thought that whoever wins a majority should take power, the idea of separation of powers?
“How far do they want to go on this?” she added. “I think that’s the scary part.”
Viktor Mihály Orbán was born in 1963 in Székesfehérvár, about 40 miles west of Budapest. The family lived in modest surroundings. He says that as a boy, he and his siblings worked in the field feeding the pigs and chickens. He has also recounted that he first used a purpose-built bathroom and running hot water at the age of 15.
The Pancho Arena in the town of Felcsút was built in 2014 on the very field where the soccer-obsessed Orbán played as a youth. The handsome stadium has 3,800 seats, space for more than double the town’s population.
Orbán first made his name as a 26-year-old bearded revolutionary during the Communist government’s dying days. He was a recipient of a grant from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to spend nine months at Oxford University to research civil society in European political philosophy.
Thirty-three years later, Orbán and his allies depict Soros as a dangerous puppetmaster behind Western plans to force migrants on unwilling countries. His Open Foundation funds independent groups working for justice, democratic governance and human rights, making him an obvious target for far-right nationalists.
In 2017 Fidesz ran an anti-immigration campaign that pictured Soros’ face with the slogan: “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh.” Soros responded by calling the images “antisemitic” and part of a “deliberate disinformation campaign.”
A hybrid regime?
Paul Lendvai, 92, a journalist and biographer of Orbán, has a long acquaintance with opposition politics and power in his native Hungary. Born to Jewish parents, he was detained in a Hungarian internment camp before fleeing during the 1956 uprising against the Soviet-backed Communist government.
Speaking from his home in Vienna, Lendvai said that key to Orbán’s story is that Fidesz, which has won the last four elections with its coalition partners KDNP (the Christian Democratic People’s Party), controls all the major levers of power.
“At the moment it is a hybrid regime: an open dictatorship in between a cultural democracy with no possibility of changing the government because they have the majority to change the law, including electoral law. The courts are in their hands,” he said.
Lendvai’s 2017 biography “Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman” argues that Orbán’s control of all levers of government began with a new Constitution in 2011 that allowed major laws to be passed or changed only with a two-thirds “supermajority” in Parliament, which Orbán has had since 2010. That has led to crucial changes to the electoral system and media ownership rules.
“Hungary is no longer a democracy. It is not — or not yet — a dictatorship like Russia or China, people can demonstrate and travel to the West and set up [opposition] groups,” said Lendvai.
“But you can’t change anything because the entire communication industry, including so-called private and public, is in the hands of the government — 80% of the news.”
The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said Orbán “has built a media empire whose outlets follow his party’s orders.”
In a lengthy response to questions posed by NBC News, the Hungarian government’s International Communications Office said that Fidesz-KDNP had received a record number of votes in April’s election, which it said was confirmed by independent observers. The government “is committed to ensure” rights such as a free and diverse media and free expression, it said, and has always “respected European values and has always conformed to rule of law expectations.”
“In Hungary there is zero tolerance” on racism and antisemitism, the statement said, adding: “such acts are to be punished with the full force of the law, and neither are they tolerated in political discourse.”
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