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Hungary: Alarming Signs of an Authoritarian Country

This post is also available in: Magyar (Hungarian)

On December 10th, the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (and Judit’s name day), it is worth reflecting on how committed our small country is to protect and respect this international document consisting of 30 articles on fundamental, universal, and inalienable rights and freedoms, representing one of the cornerstones of democracy.

We don’t beat around the bush when we say that, unfortunately, in recent years, Europe has witnessed some alarming phenomena that indicate Hungary’s potential shift towards becoming an authoritarian state, posing a severe threat to human rights. 

In the break of an international human rights conference I attended, a foreign participant shared their concerns about Orbán, Putin, Erdoğan, and Trump being besties, seeing it as an ominous sign. They asked me about the warning signs and events that have brought Hungary to this point, hoping to recognize them early on and prevent the development of a similar illiberal democracy in their country.

The proverb says: the foolish learn from their own mistakes, and the wise learn from the mistakes of others. Well, if it’s already late for us (which I doubt), here is a checklist so others can act in time.  Let’s see what we’re up against: authoritarianism, in its various forms and manifestations, involves restricted political, civil, individual, and freedom rights in favor of governmental or leadership power. Governance, decision-making, political processes, and executive power are concentrated in the hands of a particular political leader (usually the President, prime Minister, or head of a party), a few individuals, an elite group, or an institution. Government measures and decisions are often unilateral, limiting checks and balances.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? No? Let’s continue! Characteristics of authoritarianism include restrictions on freedom of speech, press freedom, and the right to assemble, as well as limitations on opposition opinions and activities and the curbing of citizens’ political participation. Most media outlets are often under state or governmental control, enabling news censorship and the spread of propaganda country-wide. The functioning of civil organizations is restricted and closely monitored, potentially involving audits, reporting requirements, or blacklisting. Political competition and electoral opportunities are manipulated, and the activities of opposition parties or candidates are limited or hindered. The jurisprudence and judiciary may not be entirely independent of the government, and politics can influence laws and court decisions.

The systematic, incremental erosion of democracy in Hungary: What’s the situation in our humble country, and what signs have we missed? 

Viktor Orbán, the leader of Fidesz-KDNP, has been Hungary’s Prime Minister since 2010 for multiple terms. As we’ve already heard from Orbán, the two-thirds majority victory is visible even from the moon… well, if Putin is the example to follow, then Viki must put aside his homemade pickles and catch up because the Russian comrade has been leading his noble country since 2000. During Orbán’s governance, there have been numerous measures that critics view as authoritarian or limiting to democracy. The Transparency International report distinguishes two groups in Hungary after 2010: an inner circle, entrepreneurs close to the political elite who are the biggest beneficiaries of the illiberal state, and an outer circle, which are labeled as losers and have been left excluded. Since the 2018 elections, many believe that the Orbán government has become a competitive authoritarian system, an electoral autocracy, or a hybrid regime that does not eliminate every element of the democratic institutional framework but restricts, undermines, or co-opts its functioning.

SIGN 1: NEW CONSTITUTION and MANY – MANY AMENDMENTS

We can’t even count with both hands anymore! This year, we’ve already surpassed the 10th amendment to the Constitution. Although each amendment would be worth a closer look, the brand-new Constitution adopted in April 2011 is particularly noteworthy. The changes have significantly impacted the electoral system, potentially influencing the outcomes and even creating loopholes for manipulation. The parliamentary election, which used to have two rounds, was reduced to one round, tailored to favor the major parties. The number of seats in Parliament was reduced from 386 to 199. Hungarians living abroad were granted the right to vote, but mandates can only be obtained through national lists and individual constituencies. Changes to the delineation of constituencies, campaign financing, and campaign limits were added to benefit the ruling party. As experience shows, with a two-thirds majority, new regulations and laws can easily be pushed through in just two days. 

What happened on the opposition side in the meantime? Well, after the sense of losing control, “strategically” (sarcasm intended), based on the principle that great acts are made up of small deeds (too bad this does not work well in the distribution of political power), they further divided and fragmented themselves instead of uniting their power. 

SIGN 2: INCREASED MEDIA CONTROL AND UNDERMINING INDEPENDENT PRESS

The media law adopted in 2010 has established the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH), providing the government with significant control over the media landscape, including content providers, radio and television broadcasters, online media, and telecommunications service providers. The government often restricts and hinders critical voices while gaining more control and influence over the increasing number of media outlets. For example, TV2 and Origo came under state control in 2015, Index.hu in 2020, Magyar Nemzet was closed in 2018, and Echo TV has been operating since 2005. The Government-friendly and state-owned media is expanding, while opposition and/or independent media are dwindling. Additionally, for instance, the opposition is granted less access (usually only 5 minutes on public television) during election campaigns, which can significantly impact voter information and the opposition’s campaign efforts. This is one of my favorites. Now, that’s what we call an independent and free press!

SIGN 3: INFLUENCE ON THE INDEPENDENCE OF THE JUDICIARY AND THE FUNCTIONING OF CONSTITUTIONAL INSTITUTIONS

The Constitution adopted in 2011 reduced the impact of checks and balances and limited the independence of the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. Parliament now elects the President of the Constitutional Court in a more centralized, “completely objective, and independent” (irony intended) manner. Previously, the President of the National Judicial Office appointed judges based on recommendations from the President of the Supreme Court, but now, these decisions can be made directly. The President of the National Judicial Office (elected by the Parliament) can decide on the appointment, removal, and promotion of judges and the merger or closure of courts. This has increased political influence over the judiciary and constitutional institutions. The now-defunct Equal Treatment Authority (EBH), which was taken over by the Ministry of Human Resources in 2021, sadly serves as a prime example of how the Hungarian government is taking control of formerly independent institutions that have played a crucial role in protecting human rights and the rule of law.

SIGN 4: CIVIL ORGANIZATIONS AND THE INFAMOUS BLACKLIST

A law passed in 2017 mandates that civil organizations financed from abroad must register themselves and transparently disclose their sources of funding, including the names of foreign supporters and the amounts of donations. According to the law, this is meant to curb foreign influence and financial interests. Of course, in exchange for this inconvenience, the Hungarian government generously supports independent civil organizations. Oh, Wait, not really! As it turns out, most civil organizations in Hungary rely on foreign funding because they cannot secure enough support from domestic (EU) sources. The “Soros blacklist” published by Figyelő in 2018, which labeled several civil organizations, researchers, lawyers, activists, and journalists (including deceased individuals) as foreign agents and traitors, only further fueled government propaganda.

SIGN 5: CENTRALIZATION AND CENTRAL CONTROL OF EDUCATION

The government has amended the education law several times, centralizing the design and content of school curricula, restructuring school financing, and centralizing the appointment of educational institution leaders. In 2012, the introduction of the central database and information system called KLIK (Public Education Information Center) was part of the centralization process in the Hungarian education system. The Hungarian government also interfered and controversially restructured the country’s leading scientific institution, MTA (Hungarian Academy of Sciences). During protests against educational centralization and the overhaul of the education system, teachers and education experts advocated for the protection of education quality and the preservation of the independence of educational institutions. It is evident that state intervention and the restriction of university autonomy have a negative impact on institutional independence, research, and the quality of education. For instance, there were protests by the Free SZFE and the Central European University (relocated from Budapest to Vienna). Watch out: the CEU might “overeducate” Hungarians who could ultimately overthrow the government! 

SIGN 6: “STOP” CAMPAIGNS AND DOUBLE STANDARDS IN REFUGEE POLICIES

Despite Viktor himself being a Soros scholarship recipient, he has a strong grudge against the “old man.” In 2018, the Parliament passed the “Stop Soros” legislative package, which has held organizations, individuals, and initiatives dealing with asylum seekers or immigrants criminally responsible and required them to register and disclose details of their activities before authorities. The “Stop Brussels” campaign has promoted resistance against the European Union and opposed the proposed migration quota system. In 2015, the Hungarian government built fences on the southern border using public workers and prison inmates to “protect” the country from refugees fleeing from conflict zones, political and religious persecution, or economic hardship in the Middle East, Syria, Afghanistan, Africa, and Central Asia. At that time, asylum seekers in Hungary were placed in conditions and treatment that violated human rights standards. The government later tightened procedures and reduced the acceptance rate of asylum applications. 

In 2022, white Ukrainian refugees, mostly businesspeople at the beginning, were welcomed with open arms by the government (though not Ukrainian Roma refugees). Residency bonds also allow foreign investors to obtain a Hungarian residence permit based on their investment. Why the double standards? Refugees in 2015 were met with barbed wire fences, inhumane treatment, and discrimination based on linguistic, religious, and cultural background, with still ongoing xenophobic propaganda stating that certain refugees are taking the jobs of Hungarians, spreading terrorism, and endangering the Hungarian culture and values. The Hungarian government smartly plays out the national sovereignty card, spending a lot of money on the so-called national consultation and propaganda billboards that spread fear and misinformation. 

SIGN 7: CORRUPTION – EVERYONE REACHES FOR THEIR SHARE

The Hungarian ‘folk tales’ continue with the story of the small railway, stadiums, treeless tree-top promenades, and wasted EU funds. While Orbán’s cronies, like ‘Treasurer’ (Mészáros) Lőrinc, became billionaires, Hungarian pensioners count their pennies at the grocery store and are in constant fear of freezing to death in their homes in winter. Since its launch in 2016, the Felcsút small railway, built with €600 million in European funding, wasn’t the best investment as it operates now at a €32.8 million deficit. While hospital wards were being closed and the remaining buildings’ walls were crumbling, where at best, we could get a medical appointment with a two- to three-month wait, the construction of stadiums was completed in the blink of an eye. Let’s not even mention the unique €60 million treeless tree-top walkway! Those political leaders, elite groups, and institutions close to the fire, a.k.a. the homies of Orbán, benefit from these deals. Of course, the Orbán government claims these steps are necessary to preserve national sovereignty. The prosecution office’s role, efficiency, and independence, which should ensure the rule of law and the justice system’s integrity, are often questionable in cases involving individuals or institutions close to the government in corruption matters.

SIGN 8: LGBTQ+ HOSTILITY AND HOMOPHOBIA

In December 2020, a conservative and LGBTQ+-opposing amendment stating that marriage is between a man and a woman was added to the Constitution. It also emphasizes that the family is the basis of Christian values and the preservation of national communities and ensures the right of the child to self-identify with their birth gender, as well as guarantees their participation in education based on Hungary’s constitutional identity and Christian culture. Furthermore, what became known as the “homophobia law” prohibits open discussions and information about LGBTQ+ and transgender topics in education and media. With an ironic twist, József Szájer, a prominent member of Fidesz who contributed to these constitutional changes writing them on his iPad, was caught in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown in Brussels, trying to escape from the police during an illegal gay-sex-ecstasy party by descending through a gutter. Poor Szájer became a laughingstock throughout Europe, resigned from his European Parliament mandate, and later issued a statement apologizing and admitting everything. It’s so absurd and surreal that it’s initially funny. Still, upon reflection, it’s deeply sad that someone lives their life with such internal frustration, self-loathing, and identity crisis.

Of course, the list goes on: the 2018 “slave law,” which allowed employers to compel their employees to work overtime; the 2021 amendment to the KATA (simplified tax for small businesses) that made it impossible for low-income businesses to survive, and significantly increased tax burdens, extended COVID emergency measures with irrelevant passed decisions, exceptionally high utility rate increase falsely blaming on inflation and the war, abortion law forcing women to listen to the heartbeat of the fetus, anti-Roma sentiments, hate speech and incitement used by politicians, victim-blaming, scapegoating, and so on.

Why Are We Frogs?

We peacefully protested in Budapest for hours for the teachers, CEU and civil society, SZFE, press freedom, and other occasions. We engaged in conversations and gave speeches, and after we managed to release stress and tension, we checked the box that said we’d done something to change, we went home. Experience has shown that these actions are ineffective since they rarely bring about results and don’t hinder the system’s operation and the existing power.

We’ve all heard the story of the poor frog that gets boiled alive without noticing it. According to Hanna Szekeres, an assistant professor at ELTE-PPK, just like the frog, we become desensitized and slowly normalize the situation due to gradual changes.

Of course, history and different eras like communism and socialism also shape our mentality and our reactions to injustice. Additionally, there’s a vicious cycle where the centralization of education and its declining quality, the systematic and deliberate dumbing down of people, and the lack of education for active citizenship and accessing the right tools make us, even if we perceive the problems, act entirely ineffectively, stomping our feet in one place. The irritation and tolerance threshold of people is high, and fighting as armchair warriors on Facebook drains their strength from taking action. Beyond protest, if there is nothing more one can do, they try to save what can be saved, leave the country, and move abroad (if possible).

The last successful protest in Hungary was nine years ago, in October 2014, when thousands of people in Budapest, other cities, and abroad protested against the proposed internet tax, demanding its withdrawal. They marched to the Fidesz building, where they knocked down the fence, pelted the building, tore down a few blinds, and broke windows. In October 2006, during the anti-government protests of the time, riots broke out, fires were set, barricades were erected, and even a tank was stolen. In 2009, the then-Prime Minister resigned. In October 1990, the first act of civil disobedience in the new democracy, the taxi blockade against a nationwide protest over a 65% gasoline and 90% diesel price increase (due to the Gulf War and rising global oil prices), successfully led to the government reducing gasoline prices by 12 HUF and receiving financial aid equivalent to $350-400 million from the European Community. Based on this, it seems that October is the winning month. 

As the Hungarian society became very fragmented, there are fewer and fewer of these instances. A potential Internet tax was a connecting factor as it reached people’s interest on a broader level; thus, protesting it was effective. The working class and people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds are not necessarily bothered by every upcoming issue (i.e., centralized education) because they get the short end of the stick in everything anyway. The currently ruling Hungarian government is more cunning, incrementally hitting within the intolerance level rather than targeting fields such as public transportation, the internet, and other relatively strong arenas that could make people’s lives impossible and cause a higher disconnect and stronger mass protests or strikes from a bigger crowd. 

What Does It Take for Those in Power to Take Us Seriously?

Dissatisfaction should reach larger masses rather than just certain segments of the Hungarian society. Effective action influences and disrupts the functioning of the system. Strikes and sustained work stoppages are among the most effective tools for change. Let’s take examples from other countries: the streets were filled with garbage during the strike of French waste disposal workers, Japanese bus drivers went on strike, providing bus services without collecting fares from passengers, Italian railway workers and baggage handlers also went on strike, disrupting transportation and causing the cancellation of train and air services. Strikes in Hungary have also been successful, like those at Audi, at Győr automotive supplier, agricultural and farmer protests, and teacher and bus driver strikes.

A strike forces employers to address the demands of workers. Well-organized strikes can strengthen unity and solidarity among workers, which can enhance their position and compel employers to engage in negotiations and address their demands. Effective collective strikes are crucial to protecting workers’ rights and interests. In this process, the strike committee is critical in coordinating the strike among participants. Their tasks include:

  • Developing a strike plan.
  • Defining specific goals and demands.
  • Coordinating and communicating with the strikers.
  • Organizing when, where, and how the strike will take place and officially informing authorities and employers.
  • Preparing participants and raising their awareness about acquiring and using financial reserves.
  • Complying with legal frameworks.
  • Communicating demands and informing the public to help people understand the reason and necessity for the strike. 
  • Gathering support from the broader community, political figures, and the public and media attention can help convey the message and increase the pressure.

An effective collective strike is a complex and well-organized process that requires cooperative action and support from the community and alliances to achieve its goals.  To ensure the effectiveness of a strike, it must cause significant economic losses to the employer or other party. The more people participate in the strike, the greater the pressure and economic damage to the employer. A strike cannot have weak links, as its efficiency relies on unified solidarity and action. 

Collective strikes are a powerful form of protesting against human rights abuses in the workplace and society. For instance, in collaboration with civic society and political actors, workers may initiate strikes to denounce government actions that infringe upon civil liberties, freedom of speech, or other fundamental human rights. Such strikes disrupt the normal functioning of the economy, compelling the government to negotiate with workers or address their concerns to restore stability. Labor unions and civil organizations represent people’s interests and rights and can effectively pressure authorities responsible for investigating corruption, thus promoting transparency and accountability. Consequently, collective strikes can bring about changes in government or policy by raising public awareness, attracting international attention, and mobilizing support from civil society groups, opposition parties, and even sympathetic elements within the government. Successful strikes can compel governments to negotiate or lead to policy changes or the resignation of government officials.

Whatever we call the system we live in, citing the wise words of Jenifer Lewis, “If you sit in sh*t for too long, it stops smelling.” So, let’s strike while we still sense it, and a constitutional amendment cannot stop us.

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