Existential risk to civil society in ‘skillfully veiled authoritarian’ Hungary


Hungary’s illiberal leader has built what Paul Lendvai in his new book, “Orbán,” calls a “skillfully veiled authoritarian system,” notes James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution and the author of “The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age.”

The former dissident “is a different person,” he adds. “The man who courageously stood up to Soviet occupation is now Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. He obsessively attacks Mr. Soros as an enemy of the people, cites China and Turkey as role models, and touts the virtues of “illiberal democracy,” he writes for the Wall Street Journal.

There are two interpretations of this about-face, adds Kirchick, a former Penn Kemble fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy:

One holds that Mr. Orbán has always been a right-wing nationalist and merely adopted the guise of a Central European dissident to curry favor with Western liberal elites. The other, less charitable explanation is that Mr. Orbán is a power-hungry opportunist. The truth, according to Paul Lendvai in his new book, “Orbán,” is that he is both—and all the more dangerous for that.

Hungary’s opposition parties may agree that Orban represents a grave threat to civil society, rule of law and free expression less than three decades after Hungary threw off the chains of communism. But they can’t agree on a strategy for stopping him, the Washington Post’s Gregg Witte observes:

The fractured nature of the opposition leaves a clear path for Orban to claim a third consecutive landslide victory and consolidate control in a country where his party faces diminishing obstacles to absolute power.

“The opposition parties are still acting like they don’t understand what’s at stake,” said Marton ­Gulyas, who has been trying to encourage them to cooperate through his grass-roots Country for All movement, to little avail. “Another Fidesz majority would be a disaster for the country. But there’s still no strong and recognizable alternative for those who are fed up with Fidesz.”

In east-central Europe, the notion of “illiberal democracy” — a regime in which one party claiming a monopoly on national identity and tradition maintains itself permanently in power — has become part of the political landscape, notes George Weigel, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. There, too, one finds open talk of the “Salazar model” — a relatively benign authoritarianism that uses state power to manage politics, the economy, and the culture in order to insulate the people from the riptides of post-modernity, he writes for National Affairs.

Hungarians recount a sadly familiar tale of corruption and a more cynical and closed society, one where media, civic and cultural institutions have been undermined or brought into line, notes FT analyst Frederick Studemann:

There is the outspoken theatre director unable to make a speech because no venue manager dare grant him a stage for fear of official reprisals. Or the case of the Soros-financed Central European University which, facing sustained official opposition and pressure, last week unveiled a Plan B to relocate part of its operations to Vienna.

“We underestimated the effects of 50 years of communism” is one explanation. Another is that large-scale emigration, particularly of the young, has left the citizenry defensive and drawn to a populism that spurs further departure of talent. Others see a cynical continuation by other means of the old system of authoritarian rule and self-enrichment — only with better shops, and no imprisonment or guiding ideology.

The government’s campaign to undermine civil society and foment anti-Semitic conspiracy theories through its attacks on George Soros and affiliated groups is “not just an election trick,” said Marta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. “There’s a very strong determination on the part of the government to not only stigmatize NGOs, but to make it very hard for them to even operate.”

“It’s not overstating the situation to say that for us this is an existential risk,” she said. “This is a serious threat to civil society in Hungary, and it has no place in a democracy.”

Proposed legislation would give the government broad discretion to ban her organization’s activities, which include providing asylum seekers with legal advice, the Post adds:

Andras Kovats, director of Menedek, an organization that provides refugees with psychological counseling, said his staff often receives verbal abuse and threatening messages. Tucked in the mail one recent day was a letter packed with excrement.  “There’s a shrinking space for us to do our work,” he said. “The atmosphere has become very, very hostile.”

As Lendvai observes in Orban: Europe’s New Strongman, Hungarian political scientists wrestle over how to define Mr Orban’s proudly illiberal regime, the FT’s Tony Barber adds:

One brands it a “fascistoid mutation”. Another calls it a “neo-collectivist, neo-communist experiment”. Such labels seem exaggerated or wide of the mark.

More accurate, arguably, are the words of two men with experience of government in Budapest. Balint Magyar, a former education minister, known for having coined the term “Hungarian mafia state”, says that Mr Orban’s regime is “the privatised form of a parasite state, an economic undertaking run by the family of the Godfather exploiting the political and public instruments of power”.

Andras Bozoki, a former culture minister, says Mr Orban presides over a “hybrid regime [in which] the features of an authoritarian system are stronger than those of a democracy”.


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