The Hungarian strongman?

The underlying causes of western critique of Viktor Orbán’s rule

Bartosz Raubo
28 April 2014

A response to Filip Mazurczak’s article “Lukewarm appreciation for Viktor Orbán’s government.” 

In an article published recently on the Visegrad Insight website, Filip Mazurczak portrayed the recently re-elected Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, as a courageous figure, a strongman standing up for the country’s rights in the face of inept Brussels bureaucrats, while at the same time dismissing criticism of his policies by Western politicians as “hysteria”. While in some ways correct, Mazurczak’s analysis did not challenge or discuss the underlying causes of the western critique of Orbán’s rule.


Squandered super-majority

The 2010 parliamentary election provided Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party with the two-thirds majority required to unilaterally make constitutional changes. This represented a great opportunity to push through much needed reform that would allow the government to tackle endemic problems within the political system, such as corruption in the party financing system.

Orbán instead opted to implement a large-scale transformation of the political framework, including re-writing the country’s constitution, with the aim of entrenching the ruling party in power. Through “gerrymandering,” constituencies were redrawn to provide Fidesz with an advantage in future elections. While campaign finance was reformed, improvements were minor, and the system is still largely open to abuse. Transparency International (a non-governmental organization that monitors and publicizes corporate and political corruption in international development) estimates that by February 2014, Fidesz spent more than twice the legal limit of 1 billion Hungarian florints campaigning for the April parliamentary election. Government money has been overtly used to support the Fidesz campaign through pro-government advertising, and civil society organizations such as the Civil Összefogás Fórum (CSO), funded with taxpayers’ money, have been campaigning on the behalf of Fidesz. The funding process for CSOs was centralized by Fidesz in 2011 into the National Cooperation Fund (NEA), governed by the nine-member council chaired by Laszlo Csizmadia, leader of CSO.

CSO is not the only example of such abuse. Freedom House has reported that the largest grants awarded by the NEA in 2012 went to organizations with strong ideological, and often personal, links to the Fidesz government. Three further high-profile CSOs on this list were chaired by Fidesz members of parliament. Even if one was to assume, somewhat naïvely, that these organizations did not function as extensions of Fidesz, the bias towards the ideology of the right negatively affects the plurality required for successful and constructive democratic dialogue.

The government’s super-majority has also been utilized to bring the courts under political control. Since 2010, the judiciary, and the Constitutional Court in particular, have served as an important counter-balance to the Fidesz-controlled National Assembly. The Constitutional Court has acted to protect freedom of information and prevented laws that would limit political competition, and that would infringe upon the rights of the LGBT community. The government’s response has been punitive; the jurisdiction of the Constitutional Court has been limited to cases that do not involve the national budget and the threshold for petitions to the Court has been increased to a quarter of the National Assembly. In a number of cases, the government has acted to circumvent the Constitutional Court through the use of its parliamentary super-majority –  a truly worrying precedent.

Moreover, Orbán is acting with the clear objective of entrenching Fidesz supporters in the judiciary branch. The National Judicial Office (NJO), established in 2011, oversees the affairs of the courts and is headed by the Fidesz supporter Tünde Handó, a personal friend of Orbán. Appointment to the office requires a two-thirds super-majority. In a similar move, a close ally of Orbán, Péter Polt was elected for a nine-year term to the office of chief prosecutor, a move that under new legislation also requires a super-majority.


A return to self-censorship

Four years of Orbán’s government have had a detrimental effect on the freedom of the press in the country. While Hungary’s public media platforms have a history of pro-government bias since before the 2010 election, the scope of this has increased drastically. At the same time, private media has come to be dominated by conservative media outlets owned by pro-Fidesz businessmen, which owe their success largely to the advertising spending of government institutions.

Criticisms of the government’s stance on media freedom has predominantly been centered on the controversial Media Law of 2010, which resulted in the creation of the national Media and Electronic Communications Authority (NMHH), regulated by the Media Council, nominated by the ruling party and the prime minister. Furthermore, the wording of the law on issues such as “balanced reporting” has been left purposefully vague, as were the definitions of “public morality” and “human dignity” – notions that journalists are required to uphold. These oversights have left the system open to abuse by the ruling party including the case of the opposition radio station KlubRadio in 2011, which was stripped of its broadcasting license for two years for failure to properly sign paperwork.

The ultimate aim of the Media Law is to reintroduce the culture of self-censorship that defined the Communist era, where the threat of closure and fines were a sufficient enough incentive to stifle criticism of the government and support for the opposition. The Fidesz government has not been entirely successful in accomplishing this, although it has prepared a functioning system to do so should the situation arise. A 2012 survey highlighted the fact that editorial decisions are often guided by a desire to minimize conflict with the ruling party. Journalists are aware which topics should not be brought up, which experts not to interview, and which politicians not to discuss.

In comparison to the other countries in the Visegrad Group, Hungary now has the worst reputation in terms of press freedom. The organization Reporters Without Borders ranked Hungary 64th in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index, with the Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia considerably better placed at 13th, 19th and 34th respectively. In 2010, Hungary was ranked joined 23rd with the Czech Republic, leading the V4. This represents a troubling trend that is set to continue into Orbán’s second term.


Orbán’s “mandated democracy”

For too many democratically-elected leaders, an overwhelming majority is tantamount to a carte blanche for reshaping a country’s political, social, and economic landscape according to the ideology of the ruling party. This shows a fundamental lack of understanding of the democratic process and should not be left unchallenged. Democracies function best when a credible opposition exists that has the opportunity and means to challenge the government on its polices, providing a viable alternative for the voter. Fidesz’s repeated electoral victories are a sign that the Hungarian public is disillusioned with the political establishment, and seek drastic change. Given this powerful mandate, and in some ways burden of expectation, Orbán has in effect acted to preemptively protect himself from his failure to meet the electorate’s demands.

The list of abuses of power that Fidesz and its leadership are party to is much longer than what has been presented in this article. One could talk about Orbán’s attacks on the rights of the LGBT community, enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, his disregard for religious minorities, the communities of which have in many cases been stripped of their status as “churches”, or the limitations on political participation. However, that would only serve to reinforce further a point that has already been made. The more important task at hand is to establish whether, in light of the above, western criticism of the Orbán administration is the “hysteria” of western commentators and the meddling of Brussels bureaucrats in the internal affairs of Hungary, as Filip Mazurczak would suggest, or an attempt at ensuring that rights protected by European law are not being violated.


Bartosz Raubo studied Ancient History and Archaeology at the University of Liverpool and Classical Archaeology at St. Cross College, Oxford. He is currently an intern at Populus in London.