What is a dictatorship? Doubts and fears of today’s Hungary
Wednesday December 22nd, 2021
More than a month of interviews, data collection and testimonies by the editorial staff of L'Atlante has led us to question ourselves on the deep meaning of what it means to live in a totalitarian state today. Viktor Orbán's Hungary was our first field of study, more will come, but we are starting to share the fruits of our research with our readers.
Is today's Hungary a dictatorship? During a month of data collection and interviews in the cities and countryside of Hungary, I asked this question to dozens of different people, from representatives of the opposition parties to the Roma in the powerless council houses in the north of the country, and no one could give me a clear answer. Most respondents preferred to gloss over the subject or asked not to record the answer. The few who did not shy away gave me the same answer: 'no, but...'.
There are many distinctions to be made, some logical and some much less obvious. The first is that elections will be held next year and Fidesz, the party of the current prime minister Viktor Orbán, may well lose.
In power since 2010, Orbán is now the king of Hungary and has created a neo-feudal system that guarantees him capillary control over almost every aspect of the country's daily life. Internally, there are two main instruments that have allowed him to maintain power for so long: control of the media and constitutional reforms. The first was achieved thanks to the 2010 reform that gave the government 80% of the information channels, the second through the new 2012 electoral law that seems to have been tailor-made for Fidesz and that for 11 years has ensured the party more than two thirds of the seats in the National Assembly, allowing it to approve constitutional reforms without the need for alliances.
Economic relations with Germany
On the international front, the solid alliance with German car manufacturers, the Volkswagen group in particular, ensures the Magyar prime minister fundamental strategic support within the EU's leading state as well as, according to the Hungarian Central Statistical Office, between 9.5 and 13.5% of annual national GDP (2019 figures). Significantly, since Orbán took office, German newspapers have been his most active detractors, with peaks during the 2015 migration crisis and in the spring of 2021 against the anti-lgbtq law. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself has never skimped on criticism of her neighbour, especially following the opening to migrants and the change of course on Eurobonds but, in fact, it is a game that suits both. From 2014 onwards, Hungary took on the role of the continent's villain, but it is also true that having such a strict guardian at Europe's doorstep is convenient for all member states, so much so that until the spring of 2021, i.e. until the approval of the so-called anti-pedophilia law, which is essentially a homophobic law, no sanctions were ever implemented for Budapest. After years of more or less explicit threats, the European Union has opened an "infringement procedure" that aims to put pressure with the bogeyman of funding cuts to Hungary if the country does not comply with continental standards. Orbán, in response, has commented that he will launch a referendum to show Europe that the Hungarians are
The character assassination
On the other hand, in the Hungarian media, attacks from the foreign press are (almost) a source of pride: liberal democracies are in an identity crisis and Orbán is proud to be the head of an 'illiberal democracy' (as he himself has called it). The propaganda is massive and incessant and there is always an enemy lurking. In the beginning it was the socialists, then the migrants, the lgbtq lobby, the Roma, the European Union. Not to mention the creeping anti-Semitism of the ruling class that blames George Soros for every possible conspiracy theory. The local media, which are mainly controlled by the government or by people closely linked to the Prime Minister's party, Fidesz, have been talking for years about "European interference" that would like to upset the traditional lifestyle of the white Christian Hungarian family, and in recent months have been dwelling with particular insistence on "our" hatred towards them. The streets are plastered with blue signs with yellow writing that reads more or less "Are you angry with Brussels?" and underneath an emoji with smoke coming out of its nose. Everyone knows that this is a kind of permanent election campaign, rhetorical questions asked to remind the population who is the only one on their side. And, on top of that, since it is 'institutional communication', it is paid with public money.
After all, communication has always been Fidesz's most powerful weapon (and it is not difficult to find historical affinities of this practice). A tireless mud machine that allowed the 2018 "slavery law" to be passed, which raised the ceiling of legal overtime hours to 400 hours per year. Orbán declared that finally those who wanted to earn more money had the right to do so. In other words, those who remained poor chose to be poor. In the same year, a constitutional amendment stated that sleeping outdoors in public places was illegal and thus the homeless became criminals. Similarly, Fidesz managed to introduce reforms that allowed it to control trade unions, gag the independent media in the name of "national security", silence or ridicule domestic political opposition, build a 175 km electrified fence on the border with Serbia, cut funds from state schools and allocate them to religious schools, employing the poor and Roma en masse in public works for €200 a month and dismissing state employees who are now unemployed and believe that "the gypsies stole their jobs", equating paedophilia with homosexuality, dismantling universities and putting them under the control of private foundations set up ad-hoc and chaired by Orbán's cronies. At the same time, the government has also dismantled the CEU (Central European University) wanted and financed by George Soros in the early 1990s, and in its place has signed a billion-dollar agreement to build a branch of the Chinese University of Fudan. Many analysts see this agreement as just the tip of the iceberg of new economic and strategic relations between Hungary and China.
The civil rights situation is clearly on the brink of the abyss. As well as causing a frightening rise in the cost of living: for example, a teacher in Budapest spends on average 70% of his salary on rent and a police officer is often forced to have a second job as a transporter or rider to make ends meet. Not to mention the repeated attempts to bring the judiciary under the control of the executive, culminating in the early 2020s with the establishment of special courts to rule on various issues: from the right of assembly to the press, from public procurement to elections. The task of supervising the new courts and appointing new judges has been entrusted to the Minister of Justice.
Most recently, the law on the so-called prevention of paedophilia created a lot of fuss. In fact, the reform in question is a homophobic law that lumps paedophilia together with homosexuality and prohibits the propagation of content that spreads a different idea of the family than one in which there is a male father and female mother.
However, it does not matter: crime news cannot be reported in percentages higher than 20%, and public tranquillity cannot be disturbed unless you want to incur heavy fines or suspension of publications. Over the years, a situation has arisen where there is no contradiction and 'if a migrant pisses on a wall in Stockholm, Hungarian TV talks about it for a fortnight', as some young people told me.
"My Hungary", Orbán declared in 2014 during a speech to the large community of compatriots living on Romanian soil to whom the prime minister granted the vote at home in exchange for a 95% preference in the last two elections, "is an illiberal democracy". With a simple formula, this politician from nowhere has summed up all the weaknesses of our systems and defined an idea. The same idea that inspires populists around the world to use the weaknesses of the current political systems for their own benefit.
He has been on the Hungarian political scene for more than 30 years, since he openly opposed the pro-Urss government, declaring that 'the Soviets stole our future'. He is the young man from the countryside who presented himself as an enemy of the "caste", the man of the people, "the one who spoke and dressed badly" (as many remember) and who was mocked by the city's intelligentsia. And the traces of this past can still be seen today: in the province the Fidesz leader has more than 80% of the votes, in Budapest only 6 seats out of 18. But he is also the man of providence, the one who brought down Ferenc Gyurcsány's Socialist Party, which was overwhelmed by the scandal of the wiretaps released in 2006 in which the former prime minister declared that he had lied to the Hungarians "morning, afternoon and evening".
The average Hungarian is certainly not blind, nor is a masochist, but there is no denying that propaganda, especially when carried on for years and years, works. Dissidents, so to speak, when questioned in front of the camera about any of the above-mentioned issues generally answer that they 'don't deal with politics' and then, when the cameras are turned off, reveal that they are afraid of repercussions. What kind of repercussions? And this is where the devilish side of the matter emerges: you ignore the danger, you are unable to define it, you just know it is there. Physical violence has nothing to do with it, it is something more subtle: problems in the workplace for oneself or one's family members, refusal of social benefits, problems in competitions or in public rankings... it is not clear, it is the 'but' we were talking about at the beginning, a huge question mark that frightens contemporary Hungarian society more or less unconsciously.
And yet, in a country of ten million inhabitants, where the children of the liberal bourgeoisie are expatriating earlier and earlier and the population is ageing, the discourse is catching. And the European Union's criticism only reinforces the rhetoric of the righteous among the unrighteous, of the defender of Christianity from the liberal pervertissement of the wealthy lobbies.
So the wealthy bourgeoisie sends their children to private schools, makes them learn English and pushes them to attend university abroad. These children are generally the most disillusioned about the future of their country. The others, the ones who can't afford to leave, walk around the streets and see blue posters with yellow writing asking "Are you angry with Brussels?" and an emoji (just the ones from the online messaging systems) with smoke coming out of his nose, "Do you want the Gyurcsány days back?" and a smiley face cursing, "Do you want to raise the minimum wage?" with a smiley face. This is not a joke, these are national consultations officially called by the government and paid for with public money, where citizens are asked to express their opinions on questions that are most often tautological or specious and used as a cost-free election campaign and demonstration of popular consent.
During their brief meeting in mid-September 2021, Orbán offered Pope Francis a copy of a letter that King Béla IV of Hungary sent to Pope Innocent IV in 1243 informing him that he would fortify the defences along the Danube to prepare for the Mongol invasion. A few weeks earlier, on 20 August, during St Stephen's Day, which this year cost three times as much as previous years in fireworks alone, the "Hall of St Stephen", the Hungarian king who Christianised the country, was inaugurated free of charge and, at the end of the day, in the sky above the Danube a fleet of illuminated drones formed a huge cross in the middle of the river. Religion is a fundamental part of the government communication strategy. It means defence of the traditions, social identity, sense of community, all fulcrum concepts of Orbán speech and policies.
It is not the fear of prison, of the secret police, of violent repression, none of this. Also because, someone adds, by now they have understood that violence gets noticed. Even demonstrations, although regulated by a new constitutional reform that severely restricts them, are not forbidden. And it is very rare that police intervene to clear the squares. The cameras are there anyway, and it should not be forgotten that Hungary is one of the most controlled countries on the Old Continent. It is the unknown that frightens today's Hungarians, that grey area in which power has managed to become hegemonic by building strongholds of fear and paranoia. Legally unassailable, the Fidesz reforms are written with attention to the smallest technicality, no one could easily dismantle them. The figure of the family man who embraces his many children threatened by the "different from outside" is candid, in all the possible forms that this danger can take and that we have tried to summarise. Now we are at a possible turning point, next spring, this perverse mechanism of maintaining almost perfect power could break down. Orbán could lose, the Fidesz ruling class could fall after 12 uninterrupted years. But who will come will have the political strength to change things? Will they be able to replace the oligarchs with new figures who express change? These are questions that many are asking themselves and which they are often afraid to answer. That "fear" which recurs, and which is perhaps the strongest feature of Orban's authoritarian discourse. The fact remains that the greatest success of Orbán's oppressive policies has been to create a vacuum around his party and to divide his opponents for over a decade. We will see if this result will also shelter him from an eventual electoral defeat. In that case, the initial "however" could soon take on a far more desperate tone.