Among Politico’s 20 most-read stories in 2020, the ‘Hungary no longer a democracy: report’ article won 6th place on the list. It is no secret that uniting the cornerstones of democracy is a challenge, as democracy in itself is a complex concept with multitudes of interpretations. That’s why Freedom House established “Nations in Transit,” which helps the public to better understand under what type of regime they are living in. This research project focuses on the level of democracy in 29 former communist countries from Central Europe and Central Asia. The research uses a scale of 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest) to measure the democratic government, independent media, corruption, and many more categories in these countries.
Interestingly, but not surprisingly, since 2010, Hungary’s democratic score dropped from 5.61 to 3.96, which now qualifies it as a Transitional/Hybrid regime — meaning it is neither a democracy nor an autocracy. What has happened since 2010 that has demolished Hungary’s democracy in an unusual way? To name some notable events, Orbán Viktor and his right-wing coalition party Fidesz-KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party) took office, centralized their power, acquired ownership over media institutions, and subsequently rewrote the Constitution.
The Freedom House research department is a reliable academic source, yet it is essential to dig deeper and see exactly what is happening in the Hungarian political and social playground. This is crucial to understanding why Hungary became one of the least democratic countries in the European Union.
First of all, if we look at the country's leader, Orbán Victor, we can see his disproportionate power to influence. Having studied British liberal political philosophy at Oxford University, he is an experienced politician with good strategic skills but with a questionable purpose. He aims to use all possible means to stay in power, and to that end, he is ready to transform the Hungarian public's cultural identity and way of thinking. Even though 80% of the Hungarian electorates supported Orbán's anti-migrant policies and his constant promises of 'protecting' Hungarians from Brussels, does this protection also extend to the right of Hungarians' to live in a democratic and free country?
So far, it looks like he doesn’t. No matter what, Orbán wants to stay in power. To do so, he needs new ideas and strategies. Some inspiration came from his conversation with Professor Zimbardo (the creator of the notorious Stanford Prison Experiment), in which Zimbardo stressed the critical role psychology plays in people’s everyday lives. This knowledge helped Orban design a plan, which his coalition party managed under his lead, to create a united cultural identity among the Hungarian population.
Cultural transformation requires the manipulation of people at early developmental stages — which is what Fidesz is doing. An excellent example of this is a chapter in an eighth-grade Hungarian history textbook. It frames refugees as a threat to Hungary and states that 'it can be problematic for different cultures to coexist.' This view claims that a well-functioning Hungary is made up of ethnic Hungarians and should be protected from outsiders who can ruin the peace and threaten 'correct' cultural development.
Besides the above example, state-sponsored cultural transformation is not limited to school classrooms. It also includes the arts and manifests in institutions like theatres. Theatres are the cultural hubs that entertain and educate their visitors on history, societal order, diversity, inclusion, politics, romance, and much more. It matters what people see in theatres. This is why Orbán cares about what is performed in these institutions. Currently, the Hungarian government oversees more than 60 theatres. Strategically, this is done by having people in favor of the government occupy high positions in related fields.
Adding to that, the government's power extends not only to cultural institutions but also to key information and media outlets. Generally, the government owns the majority of TV channels and news outlets. Furthermore, the Orbán administration influences universities, which makes Fidesz-KDNP propaganda omnipresent. When people turn on the radio, watch TV, go to school, or attend cultural activities, they are bombarded by thoroughly filtered information curated by government censors. People are told how they should live their lives and how they should look at the world. Hungary is portrayed as a victim that needs to be protected from 'bad guys' like the European Union, who always 'wants to tell Hungary what to do.' However, the public isn't told that this 'bad guy' also finances constructions, which the Orbán administration allocates to government-favored entrepreneurs to build hundreds of stadiums across the country. Significantly, such financial investments were provided during the pandemic when thousands of people lost their jobs and sectors were at the edge of bankruptcy.
Conventionally, democratic states should function in a way that provides opportunities for all voices to be heard. However, Hungary does not embody that. For instance, women's opinions were silenced when the ruling party decided not to ratify the Istanbul Convention last May. The Convention was established to protect women from abuse and different types of violence, including domestic violence. Nonetheless, the government has fortunately offered a different perspective to alleviate concerns. The Orbán administration graciously rewrote the Constitution to state that 'the mother is female, and father is male,' which has the added effect of hindering same-sex couples from adopting children. This way, the government has managed to 'help' women understand their role in society by giving their motherhood a special meaning. Parenthood is now a privilege male-female couples should appreciate. But with this, a pertinent question arises: do Hungarian women really want this kind of support and privileges?
Moreover, in one of his discussions with Zoltán Illés, former minister of environmental protection, Orbán emphasized his dislike of NGO work in Hungary. Later, in 2017, those NGOs, which received more than 24,000 euros from foreign sources, had to register with the authorities and disclose their donors. This act can be seen as a policy promoting transparency and openness, but some argue that this aims to stigmatize groups with views that contradict those held by the Orbán administration. Interestingly, a possible example of this can be seen through the Central European University, previously located in Budapest. The University's main campus, funded by Hungary's main enemy (according to Orbán rhetoric) George Soros, was forced to move out of Budapest when Fidesz-KDNP refused to ratify their agreement to allow for the municipal functioning of the educational institution.
Finally, Fidesz is also undermining one of the most important pillars of democracy: journalists' responsibility to inform the public. In democratic regimes, journalists and media professionals have the privilege to access news and openly write about them to educate and inform the public about current political events. However, in October 2019, László Kövér, Hungarian National Assembly speaker, announced the new rules for journalists reporting on legislation. According to these rules, journalists are discouraged from asking politicians unexpected questions and are restricted to only working within a cordoned area. Adding to that, MPs are now given the power to refuse questions and terminate interviews at any time. These rules limit the public right to be well-informed and the right of journalists to cover relevant issues.
Democracy should not be considered a liberal complex concept that is hard to define but more as a political structure that directs our societies to live freely and practice our granted rights. Hungary, and a much younger Orbán, aimed to reach the summit of the ‘slide of democracy’ when the Change of Regime in 1989 happened, but since obtaining his leading position, he uses his power to slide further down on it. The question is, where will he stop?
Written by Anna Nagy, Amsterdam Chapter of European Horizons.