There’s no goose-stepping in the streets. There are no curfews or explicit censorship or martial law. The cafes, in fact, are full of happy, laughing people. Tourists continue to flood the country.
If you don’t speak Hungarian and if you don’t speak to Hungarians, you could visit Budapest and believe that you’re in just another beautiful European city. Sure, there might seem to be an unusual number of homeless people. And you might run across a few protestors here and there. But on the surface everything about Hungary seems normal.
It’s not normal. Something is dreadfully wrong with Hungary. Worse, what’s wrong with Hungary is not unique in Europe. What’s eating away at a free society in Hungary has metastasized. This same cancer is present elsewhere on the continent, even if it hasn’t come to the attention of diagnosticians.
When I was in Hungary in 1990, the Alliance of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) was a feisty party that boasted of its “radical, liberal, and alternative” politics. At that time, membership was restricted to people under the age of 35. I remember playing soccer at the party’s summer camp at the lakeside and found the members to be, on the whole, a refreshing bunch of exuberant political actors. Even if I didn’t agree with everything the party stood for, I definitely appreciated its style. The party’s campaign posters were especially eye-catching (if heteronormative). One of them showed two pictures of a kiss: between two Communist dinosaurs, Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker, and between two young, attractive Hungarians. “Make your choice,” read the inscription. FIDESZ captured nearly 9 percent of the vote in the elections that year.
In the last national elections in 2010, it won more than 50 percent of the vote. The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban controls two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament. It can pass any legislation it wants. It can even change the Hungarian constitution.
In fact, the Orban government introduced a new constitution shortly after it took office. It has subsequently pushed through four sets of amendments to that constitution.
Essentially, when the country’s constitutional court has overturned key FIDESZ laws, the party has simply achieved its goal by changing the constitution.
Make no mistake: FIDESZ remains popular. It retains a large lead over a variety of opposition parties (though, with the next elections still a year away, that lead seems to be narrowing somewhat). Critics argue that the ruling party’s control over the media helps maintain its positive image. The government replaced the heads of Hungarian public radio, television, and news agency with its own yes men. A new media law allows anyone, even anonymously, to file complaints against a newspaper, website, or TV station, with potentially large fines assessed by a Media Council whose members all come from FIDESZ.
To bolster its support, and with the support of occasional allies like Jobbik, a party even further to the right, FIDESZ plays up Hungarian nationalism. It has created a Day of National Unity to commemorate the Treaty of Trianon (which reduced Hungary’s territory by two-thirds in 1920) and begun rehabilitating the dictatorial regime of Admiral Horthy (whose signed picture Adolf Hitler kept on his desk as inspiration). The social agenda of FIDESZ veers rightward as well, with its attempt to declare homelessness illegal, redefine marriage as between only a man and a woman, and implement a “stand your ground” law to allow gun owners to use their firearms to protect their property.
The flip side of this nationalism is racism and xenophobia. “A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence,” FIDESZ cofounder Zsolt Bayer has written. “These Roma are animals, and they behave like animals. … These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist.” Although Orban has personally declared zero tolerance for anti-Semitism, his Education Ministry made recommendations of anti-Semitic authors to school syllabuses. It is popular for Hungarian “patriots” to declare themselves “true Hungarians”—as opposed to all those who don’t meet their criteria of purity, namely foreigners, minorities, and European bureaucrats.
With its overwhelming political majority, FIDESZ has also attempted to use the state as a mechanism for enriching its members and friends. The latest scandal involves cigarettes. The government introduced a licensing system for tobacco sales that requires stores and individuals to apply to sell cigarettes. The overall number of vendors will be fall from 40,000 to 7,000. No surprise that many of these lucrative licenses have gone to FIDESZ members and supporters.
There have been protests against this democratic putsch: by students, homeless activists, journalists, parliamentarians. But there is also fear. FIDESZ fights dirty. The party intends to remain in power as long as possible, and it brooks no dissent.
All of the illiberal elements that have made Hungary a current bête noire are present elsewhere in Europe. State interference in the media has become commonplace in the Berlusconi era. Xenophobia and racism are essential elements of the far-right parties that have gained ground everywhere from Greece (Golden Dawn) to Sweden (Democratic Party), and even mainstream conservative parties have flirted with anti-immigrant sentiment. Corruption scandals have engulfed governments in Spain, Slovakia, Romania, and France, among others.
Nor is political authoritarianism unique to Hungary. The Kaczynski brothers brought Poland to the brink of authoritarianism, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski still hopes to return to power and implement the same program as FIDESZ. In Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov has a similar approach to politics though without the parliamentary majority to implement it. Robert Fico in Slovakia, Vaclav Klaus in the Czech Republic, and several leaders in the former Yugoslavia have also shown a tendency toward absolutism.
What makes Hungary different is that all of these elements have come together in a “perfect storm” of illiberalism.
Nor is the swing of Hungary to the right simply the result of a few charismatic individuals. In Hungary, as in Europe more generally, liberalism has essentially dug its own grave. The liberal economic model has produced wealth for some, uncertainty for most, and extreme poverty for an increasing minority. The liberal political model has produced a rotating kleptocracy: each party that comes into power has sought to use the mechanism of the state to enrich its supporters. And the liberal social model has encouraged an individualism that has eaten away at the solidarity at the family, neighborhood, and community level that traditionally helped people through difficult times.
It’s no surprise, then, that “liberal” has become a dirty word, and movements like FIDESZ have swept into the vacuum created by the economic and political failures of an ideology that once promised so much for the region. European leaders should indeed worry about the spread of this cancer out from Budapest. They might think that their longstanding liberal institutions serve as a sufficiently strong immune system. But a continuing economic crisis and a declining faith in democracy provide all the right conditions for the growth of all manner of malignancies.