In Hungary, opposition’s main challenge is to unite

BUDAPEST and SOLYMÁR, Hungary — On the first Tuesday of July, Hungary’s parliament voted to bring the Academy of Sciences, the country’s renowned academic research network, under government control.

It was the latest move by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—the right-wing Hungarian leader often at odds with his counterparts in Brussels and Western Europe—to centralize his power over Hungarian society and strengthen the “illiberal democracy” he has spent the last nine years building. Orbán’s government argues the move will promote innovation in an organization that’s become inefficient; critics say it will severely hinder scholars’ ability to conduct independent research.

Several hundred people gathered later that day in the relentless late afternoon sun outside the academy’s historic building on the banks of the Danube River. Touting signs that read “S.O.S.: Save Our Science!” and “Academic Freedom!”, they were there to register their support for the institution and push back against what they viewed as just the latest egregious action by Orbán’s government.

I had come to the protest with János Kertész, a member of the academy who teaches network and data science at Central European University (another institution that’s been targeted by Orbán’s government). Despite his generally sunny demeanor, Kertész’s assessment of Hungary’s current state of affairs and prognosis for the future were grim.

“I am not an especially optimistic person, but reality is always much worse than what I could imagine—what has happened is beyond my imagination,” he told me. “I couldn’t imagine that [Hungary] can depart so far from the values which are, as I thought, rooted so deeply in the European tradition.”

On the first Monday of July, just a day before, Orbán’s government had taken another noteworthy step: it implemented a wide-ranging new family policy intended to combat Hungary’s population decline by providing incentives for families to have more children. The program’s benefits include government-supported home loans, help buying cars for families with three or more children, and no income tax for women with four or more children.

When I went to Solymár, a village less than 20 kilometers outside Budapest’s city center, posters for the new policy lined the road: “The Child Comes First,” they read, with a child’s drawing of a family (a man and woman with two children and a third on the way). Speaking to residents, I found the family policy far more present on people’s minds than the Academy of Sciences.

Ágota, a 33-year-old mother of three, mentioned the policy as a positive (albeit imperfect) example of the government’s impact on daily life. Annamaria, 28, with her young son sitting in her lap, praised the tax benefits, saying she and her husband had considered taking out one of the state-supported loans (although they ultimately decided against it).

The two headlines together—the consolidation of the Academy of Sciences under government control and the new family policy—perfectly encapsulate Orbán’s political strategy: On the one hand, he is working to minimize opportunities for public dissent, the latest target of which appears to be academic and historical research. On the other, he is trying to ensure the support (or at least indifference) of the electorate by providing well-advertised social policies targeted at “regular” Hungarians.

“From time to time [Orbán and his government] search for new enemies,” Dániel Mikecz, a researcher at the independent think-tank the Republikon Institute, told me over coffee at the CEU cafeteria after the protest. In many cases, they choose opponents who won’t necessarily excite the attention or sympathy of the population at large, he said, even if there is an outcry in Budapest. “If they have the fight with these groups… you can’t say that gender researchers is a major social group in Hungary, or you can’t say that people in NGOs is a social group which would be relevant.” Such tactics have worked so far, but whether Orbán is able to definitively divert the country’s post-communist path to Western democratic liberalism remains to be seen.

      János Kertész, a member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, at a protest against the government’s takeover of the organization

In any discussion about the rise of right-wing populism and challenges to Western liberal democracy, Hungary is routinely held up as exhibit A. Whether it is bringing about the demise of most of the country’s independent media, demonizing the Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros and kneecapping NGOs, trumpeting hardline rhetoric on migration issues or implementing an electoral system that all but guarantees his party, Fidesz, will stay in power, Orbán has worked step by step to centralize his authority and dramatically reshape Hungary in the process.

As a result, he is the envy of populist far-right leaders across the continent: Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache, former leader of the far-right Freedom Party, was caught on camera saying his party “want[s] to build a media landscape like Orbán did,” while Italy’s Matteo Salvini called Orbán’s approach to migration issues the best way to protect “the present and future of European peoples.” In other words, if far-right leaders in countries across Europe had their druthers, they would choose a system like Orbán’s (as would US President Donald Trump, at least according to his ambassador to Hungary.)

Although I’ve followed those developments from afar and also reported on Orbán’s reelection in 2018, I came to Budapest in July to understand whether the ominous descriptions of a democracy in decline were as dire as international warnings suggest. Is Hungary still a democracy? Like with any hot-button issue in the Hungarian capital right now, it depends on not only whom you ask, but even your baseline understanding of the fundamentals of politics (in this case, how you define “democracy”).

To Orbán and his allies, Hungary remains democratic without question because the people voted for him and now he’s in power—full stop. The basic tenets of liberal democracy, such as strong institutions and protection of individual rights and freedoms, don’t hold sway over national interest in their worldview.

“You can call us illiberals. We are happy illiberals,” Zoltán Kovacs, spokesman for Orbán’s government, told me. “We are happy illiberals if it’s about sticking to the original standards of democracy—and that is, at the end of the day, it should be the majority decision of your electorate. Anything else is not democratic.”

But Orbán’s opponents call such a system dangerous and unacceptable, saying under that veneer of democracy lies a country that has become increasingly authoritarian. An illiberal democracy means “you have a majoritarian system which completely disregards the idea that there’s checks and balances,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a Budapest-based watchdog organization.

“One can argue that it’s not a democracy at all, where those who’ve been elected to government get to decide everything, and… they don’t need to take account of any other views,” Pardavi told me. “They can set up a system where they can stay in power, forever, unchecked.”

 


 

To better understand Orbán’s governing philosophy, I sat down with Kovacs in his office one morning. Sporting rimless glasses, a checkered shirt and jeans, he is an ideal representative for the government that employs him: he’s both exceptionally polished—a graduate himself of CEU, he speaks impeccable English—and in many ways a personification  of Orbánism, clearly and concisely laying out the prime minister’s views.

“Our vision is very simple: it’s based on national interest,” he said. “We go for decisions, we go for things that are good for the Hungarians and that is, you cannot on the longer run make politics against the will of the people.”

Essentially, Orbán’s government maintains that outside opinions about the validity of Hungary’s democracy are just that: opinions. Fidesz politicians claim their actions to be justified and legitimized by the fact that the party is popular and they keep winning elections here. Western Europe is welcome to disagree about that, the future of Europe and anything they’d like—indeed, Orbán’s thriving on such confrontations and contrasts is a hallmark of his political career—but it won’t convince them to change course.

“Any suggestion coming from Western Europe that there’s one benchmark for democracy, one benchmark for institutional existence—that is so to say the courts or judiciary is working, how parliaments should work—is nonsense,” Kovacs told me. “Sorry to express it that way but, just leave us alone, we would like to live our lives according to our own rules and traditions.”

He repeatedly described the idea of Western liberal democracy as an “elitist” concept: parties and leaders in such systems tell the people what’s good for them, he says, rather than just giving them what they want. The government in Hungary, he argued, instead listens to the will of the people and follows through with legislative action. He pointed to low unemployment and strong economic growth as proof that the government’s strategy, and its economic model, are “workable” and “sustainable.”

At the end of our approximately 40-minute meeting, when I asked why it’s often so difficult for foreign journalists to get access to Fidesz politicians besides himself, part of his reply stuck with me. As he explained that the government has found it more “efficient” to run interview requests solely through his office, Kovacs said the system helped better disseminate “our version of the truth.” The phrase reminded me of White House aide Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts”—something used casually and offhand but that speaks volumes about one’s understanding of the state of things.

Orbán’s government obviously has a very clear version of the truth it wants to tell, both within Hungary and outside it. But that version of the truth will never be the same as, say, Kertész’s or Pardavi’s views. How is Hungary supposed to move forward when the gap between those truths is so yawning?

      Zoltán Kovacs, spokesman for Orbán’s government, in his office in Budapest

Given its desire to set the terms of debate in Hungary, Orbán’s government has repeatedly cracked down on those presenting different views, especially on migration—whether it’s independent news outlets, NGOs that work in that sphere or academic institutions.

When it comes to the media, Orbán’s strategy is steadily shrinking the ecosystem of independent news organizations in Hungary. To understand where things stand and the challenges facing such organizations, I stopped by the offices of Direkt36, an online investigative news organization that’s done deep reporting on everything from the misuse of EU funds to ties with Russia to the issuance of so-called “golden visas.”

Over lunch near her office, Blanka Zöldi, a journalist at Direkt36, told me it was clear from the start that muzzling independent media was a key part of Orbán’s strategy. “The media structure was created at the very early stages of the Fidesz governance, and then they basically expanded their power step by step,” she said. “You could see the first changes with the public media—public television, public news wire, public radio—that was completely turned over the years into government propaganda. The second step was actually taking over the private media.”

That’s something Zöldi experienced firsthand: she got her start in journalism at Origo, then a well-respected daily news site that was eventually taken over by pro-Orbán investors. When her editor was forced out over critical coverage of top Fidesz politicians, Zöldi and others on the political team resigned in protest. “Honestly, I started to be a journalist in 2013 so I never experienced a time when it was very easy to be a journalist,” she said.

NGOs and civil society organizations have also had to adjust to a new normal under Orbán, who has consistently worked to limit their influence. Orbán’s enemy no. 1 is Soros, whose Open Society Foundations was forced to leave Budapest and whose leading university, CEU, is also being pushed out of the country.

Pardavi, of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, deals with these new challenges every day: her organization advocates for the protection of rule of law and provides legal assistance to refugees and migrants, putting it squarely in opposition to the government’s activities.

You cannot take back the country in parliamentary elections. What you can do is deconstruct it from below, taking back power in the provinces, in the municipalities.

After Orbán won a third term in 2018, Pardavi told me in her office one afternoon, “it was very obvious that the campaign promises of stopping migration, taking measures to ensure that no one would be complicit in driving illegal migration to Hungary, as it’s often phrased—these policy proposals were translated into legislative action.”

That has meant everything from making it difficult for migrants to enter Hungary in the first place to complicating the asylum process and ensuring the country is an undesirable place to stay for those who make it in. The authorities are imposing restrictions and potentially an excessive tax on organizations that present anything other than anti-migration views (the tax is on the books but thus far hasn’t been enforced, Pardavi said.)

Pardavi worries other “illiberal” governments will use Hungary as a roadmap for their own countries. What’s been done to NGOs and civil society on migration, she said, could very easily be applied by Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party to LGBT or reproductive rights debates. “[Hungary] is also sort of a laboratory for the kinds of things within the asylum field,” she said, “that haven’t been discovered or cooked up elsewhere yet.”

Meanwhile, CEU’s Kertész and his colleagues are about to undergo a major transition due to Orbán’s policies—but in the world of academic and historical research, they are not the only ones. Earlier this spring, Orbán’s government also took control of the 56 Institute, a historical research center focused on the country’s 1956 revolution, and banned gender studies programs from Hungarian universities.

“Anti-intellectualism has long traditions in Hungary—it has not been invented by Orbán,” he told me. “But he’s a good fighter of that.”

Beginning this fall, Kertész and other faculty will commute between Budapest and Vienna, where CEU has established a new campus after the government refused to extend its accreditation last fall; Kertész and many of his colleagues will move to Vienna permanently next summer.

“This will cause real problems,” he said. Although he is luckier than many, he noted—his children are grown and out of the house—the move will still be a struggle for him and his wife, who has a good job in Budapest. “We are a real international university with a lot of international faculty who came here, bought an apartment here and settled here, and maybe got married here, and then suddenly they have to move? This is really not easy.”

        One of many “I Stand With CEU” signs around central Budapest, with St. Stephen’s Basilica in the background

In Budapest, among those steeped in politics, the step-by-step centralization of the Orbán government feels urgent and ever-present. But in Solymár, a middle- to upper-middle-class village of just under 10,000 where families move to get away from the hustle and noise of the big city, the family policy was what people mentioned to me most.

Nestled into the hills above Budapest, Solymár is quite different politically than Hungary’s capital city: Support for Fidesz here in recent years has tracked fairly closely with support for the party nationally (in elections to the European Parliament in May, Solymár voted 53 percent for Fidesz). The village has been governed by a Fidesz mayor since 2006.

On a neighborhood playground just before lunchtime, I met Ágota, the mother of three, who moved to Solymár with her husband four years ago (like almost all of the others I spoke with in Solymár, she was only comfortable sharing her first name). The couple is originally from Transylvania, in western Romania, which belonged to Hungary until 1920; it is, she told me as she pushed her daughter and son side by side on the swings, “easier here to be Hungarian.”

That’s why she’s grateful that Orbán passed a law giving dual citizenship to Hungarians abroad. “I know it was a political gambit, but he was clever to do it,” she said, adding that it “meant a lot” to her family.

Ágota isn’t a fan of all Orbán’s policies: while she agrees that Hungary should not take “everybody” in when it comes to migration, she doesn’t think his rhetoric on the topic is helpful. “We should not turn everybody against the migrants,” she added. “We should find a solution for them, not propaganda against them.”

Still, she cast her vote for Fidesz during last year’s parliamentary elections. “Every politician and every minister has good and bad sides,” she said. “If anyone came [after Orban], they would be criticized for other things.”

That was similar to the view I heard from Bernard, a 42-year-old who works in the Freedom Pub, a bar and restaurant his family owns. Like many of the town residents I spoke to—with the interpretation help of veteran Hungarian journalist Ákos Szócska, who brought me to Solymár that day—he was reluctant to discuss politics. It was only after I said I was interested in understanding his life in Solymár that he opened up a bit more about his views of Orbán.

“I think he’s not doing so badly since the people elected him again and again,” he said. When it comes to refugees and migrants, “I think it’s right that he does not let them in that easily,” he added. Still, Bernard was disillusioned by politics and politicians in general: “They are all the same.”

That sense of apathy and cynicism about politics—everyone’s the same, so what does it even matter?—reflects the arguments I’ve heard in other parts of Europe from supporters of populist parties. If all politicians are corrupt, why not vote for the one who channels your anger or gives you a convenient scapegoat?

        A sign in Solymár for Orbán’s new family policy, which reads, “The Child Comes First”

Even those who weren’t fans of Orbán echoed the same sense of resignation, lamenting how far the political discussion has devolved in recent years. Sitting in a pub, Károly Varga, a 72-year-old retired German teacher, stepped away from a group of other men sipping beers to chat with me in German at a table inside.

“The mood and the relationships between people are very, very divided, no matter which party you support,” he said. “It’s actually quite bad, that politics has split families and friends from each other… for example, if I say here in the pub that I don’t like Orbán or the government, there are people who are outraged.”

Varga has two daughters, both of whom live abroad and don’t plan to come back to Hungary anytime soon. He sees that as part of the problem facing the country: thousands of people, especially the young and educated, are leaving for greener pastures. “It’s too bad that the young people and educated or intelligent people have left Hungary,” he said. “But the old are left here alone, without help from these people.”

What is there to be done? Sometimes Varga attends demonstrations in Budapest, but not as often as he used to: “You can demonstrate, but it won’t change anything,” he said.

Judit, 35, another mom at the playground, told me her family is “coping well” with Orbán’s regime despite their “difference in opinion” with many of their neighbors on politics. After studying in Britain and living in Spain, she has an international perspective she says many of her fellow Hungarians lack.

“People think that this is the only way things can be,” she said. “No matter what he says, people will believe him because he gives certain things back to people, certain subsidies… [Orbán] is extremely good at keeping people in the dark.”

Despite her negative feelings toward Orbán, Judit didn’t vote in the 2018 elections. “I don’t think it matters,” she said. “There is no opposition party that you can vote for, so basically you’re left with nothing. It doesn’t matter if you vote for a small party if it’s not going to bring any changes… there is no alternative.”

        A playground in Solymár, a town of about 10,000 near Budapest

The problem for those who oppose Orbán’s government is that Judit is right, at least about the last nine years: there hasn’t been a viable alternative. Fidesz has a two-thirds supermajority in the parliament, giving the party carte blanche to pass new legislation, and a 2011 reform of Hungary’s electoral law made that supermajority extremely difficult to challenge.

“It’s not that people don’t understand that… this is not a properly functioning democracy,” Viktor Szigetvári, a former leader of the now-defunct party Együtt (“Together”), told me near his office in Budapest. “Still, without a competent opposition or a competent candidate, challenging the regime… that environment cannot be changed, because average people don’t care that much about those things.”

Still, a special election in the southeastern city of Hödmezővásárhely last spring provided one roadmap to victory for a divided opposition: if the various groups could team up behind a single independent candidate, they together might have the votes to defeat Fidesz. That kind of broad-scale cooperation didn’t materialize in the 2018 parliamentary elections due to internal party squabbles and vastly differing political views.

Szigetvári was directly affected by the lack of cooperation. He and his party made an active effort to pull back their candidates in some districts to give other opposition candidates a better shot—ultimately leading to dismal results for his party, which dissolved not long after the elections. “I truly believe that it would have created a new momentum for the center,” he said. “But it didn’t happen … basically, the party underperformed even my worst expectations.”

Ahead of municipal elections this fall, however, there’s reason to hope: all major opposition parties, including a newcomer called Momentum, the right-wing Jobbik, the center-left Socialists and the Democratic Coalition, are working to adapt the Hödmezővásárhely model in every municipality across the country.

“Our movement really wants to achieve this on the national level for the first time in this fall’s municipal elections,” Péter Márki-Zay, the mayor of Hödmezővásárhely, told me by phone recently. “We want to have a similar model in as many municipalities as possible.”

Márki-Zay, who launched a movement called Hungary for All that’s committed to fostering such inter-party cooperation, likened Hungary’s new electoral structure to the United States’ two-party system—the problem being that Fidesz is the only party that’s large enough to benefit from the arrangement. “There’s one party on one side, a strong united Fidesz, and there’s a diverse group of competing parties on the other side. Of course it will always give the advantage to Fidesz.”

In Budapest, opposition forces even held a primary to determine one candidate for the high-profile mayor job. More than 60,000 people voted in what was Hungary’s first formal primary contest, choosing the liberal sociologist Gergely Karácsony; all major opposition parties have vowed to support him in the race and will not run candidates of their own.

Márton Gyöngyösi, the no. 2 leader for Jobbik and the party’s representative in the European Parliament, said cooperation in the municipal elections will be a crucial test for the opposition ahead of the 2022 national elections. “In some places it works easily, in some places it is more difficult,” he said. “But what we have realized is, you cannot take back the country in parliamentary elections… what you can do is deconstruct it from below, taking back power in the provinces, in the municipalities.”

His party, which has sought to leave behind its far-right roots and become a center-right people’s party, may not necessarily agree with more left-wing parties on policy, but he says the current struggle to challenge Orbán is bigger than ideology.

“We have agreed on one thing: that we are ideologically very different, we have different programs and we have different kinds of outreach to the electorate,” he told me in the offices of Jobbik’s parliamentary fraction. “But in one thing we are common: restoring democracy and the rule of law in Hungary.”

About the Author

Emily Schultheis is based in Berlin, focusing on the rise of right-wing populism. Her research focuses primarily on Germany, but also explores parallels with populist parties in neighboring countries including Austria, Hungary and Poland. Prior to receiving an ICWA fellowship, Emily worked as a freelance journalist in Berlin covering German politics and the rise of populist parties in more than a dozen countries. Her reporting has appeared in The Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Politico Europe, CBS News, The Los Angeles Times, NBC News, World Politics Review, BBC Online, Spiegel Online International, Deutsche Welle and Der Tagesspiegel, among other outlets. Emily is a native of the San Francisco Bay Area and received her B.A. in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania.