“Oppression in the 21st Century”
The implications of Orbán’s rise to power are subtle in many ways, and Hungary does not outwardly appear as an authoritarian state.
“Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It feels so functional and free – you walk in 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 21st-century repression,” she said, adding that the country’s democracy has been undermined by constitutional changes rather than violence.
Freedom House, a Washington-based human rights defense group, rates Hungary as only “partially freeCountry. His 2022 assessment said Orbán used legislative changes to “tighten control over the country’s independent institutions,” adopt anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT+ policies, and target opposition groups, journalists, universities, and hinder non-governmental organizations.
In support of Orbán’s “family values” agenda, in 2020 Hungary banned adoption by same-sex couples and rescinded transgender people’s right to legally change their gender. Hungary has too refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, a legally binding international agreement to prevent violence against women signed by 34 European nations.
Republicans like Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who said the Jan. 6 riot in the Capitol was largely a “peaceful protest.” praised Orbán’s border policy. What exactly does US law attract to him?
“The reason Orbán keeps winning is because he is in control of a dictator,” Scheppele said. “So the question is, what are Republicans in it for? Are they leaning away from the principle that the peaceful transfer of power is a foundation of democracy, the idea that whoever wins the majority should take power, the idea of the separation of powers?
“How far do you want to go with that?” 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 circumstances. He says that when he was a boy, he and his siblings worked in the fields and fed pigs and chickens. He has that too told that he first used a purpose-built bathroom and hot running water at the age of 15.
The Pancho Arena in the city of Felcsút was built in 2014 on the exact same pitch where football-mad Orbán played as a youth. The beautiful stadium has 3,800 seatsAccommodates more than twice the city’s population.
Orbán first made his mark as a 26-year-old bearded revolutionary during the last days of the communist government. He received a grant from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations to spend nine months at Oxford University researching civil society in European political philosophy.
Thirty-three years later, Orbán and his allies portray Soros as a dangerous puppet master behind Western plans to impose 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 depicting Soros’ face with the slogan, “Let’s not let Soros have the last laugh.” Soros replied calling the images “anti-Semitic” and part of a “deliberate disinformation campaign”.
A hybrid regime?
Paul Lendvai, 92, a journalist and Orbán’s biographer, has long been familiar with opposition politics and power in his native Hungary. The son of Jewish parents, he was held in a Hungarian internment camp before fleeing the Soviet-backed communist government during the 1956 uprising.
Speaking from his home in Vienna, Lendvai said the key to Orbán’s story was Fidesz winning the victory in the last four elections, together with its coalition partner KDNP (Christian Democratic People’s Party), has controlled all the important levers of power.
“Right now it’s a hybrid regime: an open dictatorship between a cultural democracy with no ability to change government because they have the majority to change the law, including the right to vote. The courts are in their hands,” he said.
Lendvai’s 2017 biography Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman argues that Orbán’s grip on all levers of government began with a new constitution in 2011 that allowed important laws to be passed only with a two-thirds “supermajority” in parliament or to change what Orbán has had since 2010. This has led to crucial changes in the electoral system and media ownership rules.
“Hungary is no longer a democracy. It’s not – or not yet – a dictatorship like in Russia or China, people can demonstrate and travel to the West and build themselves up [opposition] groups,” said Lendvai.
“But you can’t change anything because the entire communications industry, including the so-called private and public, is in the hands of the government – 80% of the news.”
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said Orbán has “built a media empire whose media follows his party’s commands”.
In a lengthy response to questions from NBC News, the Hungarian government’s International Communications Office said Fidesz-KDNP received a record number of votes in April’s elections, which was confirmed by independent observers. The government “is committed to ensuring rights such as free and diverse media and freedom of expression,” she said, and has always “respected European values and always adhered to rule of law expectations.”
“In Hungary there is zero tolerance” for racism and anti-Semitism, the statement said, adding: “Such acts are to be punished with the full severity of the law and will not be tolerated in political discourse either.”
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