Hungary’s descent into autocracy is an alarm for global democracy

DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images

Hungarian President Victor Orban’s victory in an election configured in multiple ways to promote his FIDESZ-Hungarian Civic Alliance party is a defeat for liberal democracy. 

On the frontlines of the battle between autocracy and democracy, autocracy won in Hungary. 

As monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported, the opposition had little chance to make its case as FIDESZ used state-controlled media outlets to smear them and promote Orban. State resources were mobilized and opposition parties were audited unmercifully. The opposition coalition’s mixed ideological message didn’t help, but they were shouting into a wind tunnel created by Orban’s government. 

FIDESZ’s populist message excoriated immigrants, attacked universites, Jews, Gypsies, Muslims and the LGBT community, and blamed Hungary’s problems on faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. In the early days of the campaign, Orban met with Russian President Putin, but the Ukraine invasion forced him to finesse that relationship. 

Orban’s government mirrors the Russian kleptocracy, it wasn’t surprising that Putin sent Orban a congratulatory message on his victory. It was perhaps more surprising that Orban blamed Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky for trying to defeat him. 

As FIDESZ has accumulated power, they have cornered the corruption market. The courts, regulatory bodies and the press have been disarmed and subjugated by the state. Those loyal to FIDESZ now occupy key judiciary, law enforcement and oversight bodies and term limits have been extended to keep them in power. 

In 2014 at a meeting of the OSCE’s Human Dimensions Committee in Warsaw, Poland, I attended a side briefing by Hungarian human rights lawyers who detailed the corruption. Their work had been supported by three Norwegian foundations. Just weeks before, the Norwegians’ offices were raided, papers showing evidence of corrupt activities were confiscated and the foundations were told to leave the country. 

The next day, as chair of the American delegation, I recounted this story and provided more details of the Hungarian government’s undemocratic practices. I expressed my chagrin that the Hungarian democracy that had seemed so promising at its inception in 1989 had gone so far off the rails. A few European Union governments privately thanked me saying that they themselves could not criticize a fellow EU member even if well deserved. 

A day later, I received an email message from an anonymous Hungarian nationalist calling me numerous unrepeatable names. The message then revealingly stated: “When our man Putin takes back the Trans-Carpathian region, Hungary will regain its homeland.”  

I then received a message from Geza Jeszenszky, the foreign minister of Hungary under a previous social democratic government. He was serving as ambassador to Norway. He warned that I had raised some very sensitive issues and that all Hungarians were concerned over the treatment of their brothers and sisters who lived in neighboring countries.  

I replied that the OSCE mandate insists that minority citizens be granted protections and that their language and culture be respected. The ambassador replied quickly; he was satisfied with my response. He tendered his resignation a few weeks later, in protest over the expulsion of the Norwegian foundations. 

It is, unfortunately, true that power corrupts, and Orban is accumulating near-absolute power. I witnessed how that corruption gradually took hold of the FIDESZ party over the past 30 years.  

In 1989 and 1990, the National Democratic Institute, which I directed, was engaged in training sessions with each of the political parties of Hungary. FIDESZ, The Alliance of Young Democrats, was the party of Hungarian youth. It was formed as a movement around the pollution of the Danube river as Hungary was beginning to break the shackles of Communism. Most of its members, including Orban, were in their 20s; no one over the age of 35 could be a member (this was conveniently changed when Orban came of age). 

FIDESZ members were the well-educated sons and daughters of the Communist Party elite. They derived the benefits of a society that was corrupted by an ideology that contradicted human nature but very much favored its own. Their heady movement was well-timed as the Soviet Union was in its “Glasnost” phase and was no longer threatening its Warsaw Pact neighbors.  

The youth movement propelled FIDESZ  into a political space they had yet to define. They knew they were no longer Communists, but had no inkling of what they were ideologically. 

What they were good at was public relations. They knew how to find their way into Hungarian hearts and minds. FIDESZ campaign posters ridiculed the era from which they were escaping and appealed to a new generation.  

The most dramatic poster was a photo of Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev kissing East German Communist leader Erich Honeker set next to two young people kissing. The message —“Make Your Choice”— appealed both to the young and to those who had experienced the 1956 Soviet invasion. 

Most pegged Orban as a European liberal, a small-business capitalist who didn’t want government in the bedroom. As has become obvious, Orban had no real ideology in traditional terms. He easily trended toward authoritarianism, perhaps because he benefitted from the ruling Communist Party’s largess as a young man.  

Orban is today a populist who knows how to create a fearsome “other.” He is an extreme nationalist who wants to recreate the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

In all of this, Orban is a threat to NATO and to the European Union and its democratic values. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Orban only reluctantly agreed to apply sanctions and his relationship with Putin became an issue. The European Commission had already suspended aid to his government pending an investigation of the compromising of democratic institutions. 

The newly-elected Orban government is most certainly a challenge for the European Union, but, in a NATO strengthened by the reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hungary represents a very weak reed. This is a problem for the United States as well.  

Orban’s drift over time toward corrupt autocratic power and xenophobic populism is a case study of how democracies can be perverted. There are lessons there for American democracy as well. 

J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of USAID and undersecretary of State in the Clinton administration and was president of the National Democratic Institute from 1985 to 1993. 

Tags Antisemitism in contemporary Hungary European Union Politics of Hungary Viktor Orban Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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