6 Lessons You Learn When You Are Living in an ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Pintér Bence
Nov 26, 2014 · 11 min read

There are more and more articles recently on Hungary in the international media. Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of the country made clear that he wants to build an ‘illiberal democracy’. What does it mean? How did we get here?

1. Trouble Always Starts With a Bad Decision

Let’s start with Ferenc Gyurcsány, the adventurous socialist prime minister of Hungary between 2004 and 2009. The wealthy businessman always had a new reform program in his pocket which failed fatally after two months in progress. Also, his media staff was a fan of the West Wing and stole a lot of ideas from that show and other movies. One time they made Gyurcsány dance in his office as Hugh Grant danced in Love, Actually. That’s not a joke, they did that. They filmed it for the spokesperson’s wedding, but it was “accidentally” leaked and everyone could find out what a great guy the Prime Minister was. He was not.

Shit hit the fan in 2006, when Gyurcsány admitted on a secretly taped recording that he and his government lied to the Hungarian people for years. He also said that “there is not much choice, because we have fucked it up” and that they did not do anything for two years. In the end he summarized his remarks about his own work: we lied “in the morning, in the evening and at night”.

People were furious. They always had a feeling that these politician guys are not the most honest kind of people. And bang, there is one of them admitting it publicly. Protests erupted, barricades were erected on the streets. Gyurcsány tried to solve the situation with sheer police brutality and tear gas. Surprise: it had not gone very well. Still, he had not even considered stepping down while half of the country used his name as a curse. The hatred against him and the corruption cases against the socialist party turned the people against them. As a result the conservative opposition, Fidesz had won the elections with supermajority in 2010. A lot of people thought this was a good thing.

2. If They Can Do Whatever They Want, They Will

It was not. Supermajority basically means that they can change any law, even the constitution if they want. The first attack on rule of law came in 2010. When the Constitutional Court annulled a 98% tax imposed on severance pays with a retroactive effect, the government simply prohibited the top court from making decisions affecting taxes. And that was just the beginning. The conservative party wrote a whole new constitution and media regulation while it appointed its people to positions that are supposed to be independent from the executive (president of the republic, president of the court of auditors, governor of the national bank, etc.). Step by step they dismantled the system of checks and balances while the parliament worked as a legislation-rewriting factory.

Viktor Orbán, the prime minister reasoned that these unorthodox measures are necessary if they want to beat “communism” for good. “Communism”, in Orbán’s terminology, is interchangeable with the socialist-liberal regime. The ex-communist socialist party and the anti-communist liberal intelligentsia have been in a strange marriage since 1992. Together they dominated the media since the fall of the communist regime and despised Orbán since he transformed his radical liberal party to a national conservative one between 1994 and 1998. But the authoritarian measures of the Fidesz government went well beyond the limits of any sane reasoning.

This summer Viktor Orbán made clear that they are building a new social order based on labour, which he calls ‘illiberal democracy’. He also stated that he based that model on Russian, Chinese and Turkish examples. He announced that Hungary will abandon Western ideologies because the West is declining and new, fresher winds are coming from the east. Orbán calls his regime the System of National Cooperation (NER). The governmental offices had to put the proclamation about NER on their walls. Orbán thinks democratic debates were slowing the country down, and with the supermajority he got the authority to abandon this old, worn out way of governing. He thinks he knows what is good for the Hungarian people (Hungarian families, as he likes to put it). As a consequence if he wants to build a stadium in his backyard, he can do that. He did that, actually.

Also, Fidesz is admittedly creating custom-tailored laws to punish foreign companies which are standing in the way of some Fidesz-affiliated businessman or the government itself. The reason they often gave is that these companies (telecom companies, foreign-owned supermarkets, banks etc.) are earning “extra-profit” in Hungary. They didn’t even feel the need to explain this phrase. The TV channel RTL, which was neutral and quiet in the last four years, recently started to speak against the government, after they were brutally taxed. Fidesz officials admitted that they are going to raise the ad tax next year because they want to punish RTL for its recent oppositional behaviour.

3. Corruption Became An Everyday Phenomenon

Corruption was usual under the socialist government. There were politicians who accepted money for this and that, and there were favoured companies (e.g. Strabag) in state tenders. No surprises. But under Viktor Orban corruption became an institutionalized way to pay supporters of the governing party. The ex-treasurer of Fidesz, Lajos Simicska and his company Közgép had won billions of forints in state tenders while they gained positions at the Ministry of National Development.

In 2012 Fidesz announced that they will nationalize tobacco trade. Shortly thereafter independent media reported that in lot of cities the people who won the right to open National Tobacco Shops were really close to the governing party. The attorney general, a good friend of Orbán, started to prosecute the suspicious tenders after André Goodfriend, Chargé d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Budapest mentioned this whole stuff as one of the reasons the US banned some government officials from entering.

The other reason is the VAT-fraud which András Horváth, former employee of the tax office (on the picture above) blew the whistle about. In 2012 an American company, Bunge reported the continuous VAT-fraud affecting cooking oil trade in Hungary to the tax authority. What they did to catch these bad guys was very close to nothing.

Few days ago András Schiffer, MP and co-president of LMP (Politics Can Be Different) recited a list of “vassals” of Fidesz in the parliament. Among others (like the Hungarian-American producer, Andy Vajna) he mentioned János Flier and Lörinc Mészáros, a multi-millionaire and a billionaire living in Orbán’s hometown. Investigative reporters implied that the fortune these gentlemen handle are not exclusively theirs. They made a lot of business with the Orbán family. Without hard evidence these stories are just a accusations. Yet the interesting question remains: how Mészáros, a former gasfitter become one of the richest person in Hungary?

4. People Seem to Be Okay With It

Now you think that people were protesting against what seems to be the demolition of democracy. Some of them did, most of them did not. A lot of them were already disappointed in democracy and capitalism. After forty years of communism capitalism came in its worst form to the country and it became the new way to exploit people. The old, ex-communist elites privatized and sold factories in the blink of an eye. They got rich, poor people became unemployed. Politics turned into the playground of the rich and the powerful. A lot of people yearned for the good ol’ times when there was one party, one strong leader and the false feeling of security in exchange of their freedom.

Fidesz gave it to them. With their control over the media what most of the people get from state and even some private TVs are victory reports like ‘Hungary Performs Better’ and ‘New Manufacturing Factory Opened in Somewhere-You’ve-Never-Heard-Of’. People either laughed on that or liked the shit out of these kinds of stuff. A year before the election campaign spin-doctors of Fidesz came out with their Wunderwaffe: the ten percent cut on utility prices called ‘rezsicsökkentés’. On the bills the companies had to highlight with orange how much money one saved with ‘rezsicsökkentés’. Orange is also the colour of the governing Fidesz party. I am almost sure that it’s just coincidence. Almost.

Fidesz won three consecutive elections in 2014. They changed electoral law too: in 2014 they won supermajority (⅔ majority) while less than half of the voters chose them. The elections were democratic, but not a fair one. Fidesz lost 600 thousand voters, still they got supermajority.

Janos Marjai/European Pressphoto Agency (via NYT)

In the last months there were three mass protests, one against a planned internet tax, one against corruption and one was called the “Day of Public Outcry”, meaning “we want to protest but we don’t know what for or what against”. People start to realize that they can stand up against the government, but that’s all. International media covered these and claimed that maybe Hungary will be the next Ukraine. Believe me: it won’t be, unless the CIA steps in or something.

5. The Opposition Is A Piece of Shit Itself

Do you remember the funny dancing prime minister from the first point? The one who lied to the country, admitted it and when people get angry he got them beaten up by police? That guy is one of the leaders of the leftist opposition. After 2010 he created a new party, Democratic Coalition and he forced his way into the anti-Orbán alliance. In the meantime Gordon Bajnai, another former PM of the socialist party also established a new party (Together). The liberal half of LMP (the green party) joined him.

So the liar politician, the corrupt post-communist party and the boring businessman joined forces to defeat the most popular politician since the fall of the Communist regime. It’s a joke. Well, we live in that joke. The new electoral law forced these different groups — neo-liberals, neo-conservatives and socialists — to form a union against the government. They argued on personal questions for a year then failed miserably on the elections. People just don’t believe in them anymore.

The second most popular party in Hungary is the racist, anti-Semitic Jobbik. They are like a bipolar version of far-right parties in Western Europe. They hate immigrants from African and Arab countries, but they hate Israel and Jews as well. Their representatives talk publicly about the need to end the ‘gypsy crime’ in Hungary. They want to cut welfare programs (Fidesz did that in next year’s budget), create segregated schools, gendarmerie and self-sustaining prisons.

6. Betraying Your Allies Is Totally Okay

In the wake of the Ukranian crisis, the USA turned its attention to Central Europe again. What they saw was far from promising. Romania and Poland, like good pupils, are standng firm against Russia. The Czechs and Slovaks are trading with Russia quietly. Hungarian government is constantly claiming that they just want to do business and only business with Russia. But in contrast with the before-mentioned countries, Hungary is fighting a freedom fight with Brussels, and burying Western values like liberalism while taking up arms against liberal NGOs. Don’t forget that Orbán made a deal with Russia to lend 3000 billion HUF (12 billion dollars) for a new nuclear plant, which will be built by — guess who — Russia. Orbán and his government also found a way to build the Southern Stream pipeline, while Brussels halted the project. Vladimir Putin named Hungary as one of Russia’s most important partner.

The opinion of the EU won’t concern Orbán. He announced a ‘freedom fight’ against the EU in 2012. He was pissed because guys from Brussels made some condemning remarks about the authoritarian way he governed the country and the restrictive media regulation. Orbán compared the EU to the Soviet Union. You know, like Hungary had veto right in the Soviet block or got a shitload of money from the Soviet comrades to build shiny main squares in remote villages. Orbán had been reprimanded by EU officials but they seem to be OK with his governing style in the end. The government keeps the deficit below 3% and provides cheap but valuable work force for German factories like Audi or Mercedes.

The Americans were not as patient with the Hungarian government as the EU. As we mentioned before, they banned six Hungarian government officials — including the head of tax authority Ildikó Vida — from entering. André Goodfriend, Charges d’Affaires of the US Embassy in Budapest emphasized that this is not a political question: the USA made clear in the past years that they are concerned with corruption. Still, it is clear that this sudden interest in Hungary is not a coincidence.

Since the scandal Orbán did a cautious but decisive 180 degree turn, stating that he never told Russia is an example to follow. He also said that the Russian and Chinese system is unusable in Europe and that Hungary is standing up for Ukraine’s territorial integrity while following Berlin’s guidance on the question. The government suddenly found funds for the Hungarian army to join a NATO military exercise in Lithuania while Orbán visited the country personally. Orbán also halted a planned “Peace March” against the US Embassy. (These marches are organised by a pro-government group which have the courage to call themselves “civic group” while they got a lot of money from Fidesz. Their chairman is also the president of National Civil Fund, which is responsible for the distribution of civil funds.) Orbán said that there is peace now and Hungary is loyal to its allies.

In 2007, Orbán sent a message to the future generations:

“We opened the door to the west and closed the door to Russians and communism. Don’t let them come back! (…)We got rid of the fate of the happiest barrack in the socialist camp — don’t be the happiest barrack of Gazprom! (…) Stand up for Hungary as a western country! Love that Hungary is a western country where we believe in the freedom of will and mutual responsibility! Maybe the oil is coming from the east, but freedom is always coming from the west!”

We hope that he remembers this message nowadays.

You can follow me on Twitter and follow my Flipboard magazine on Hungary in English. I’m also the editor of Alternatíva blog and Mandiner.hu.

    Pintér Bence

    Written by

    journalist at Magyar Nemzet, SF blogger at Spekulatív Zóna, author of the alternate history novel ‘A szivarhajó utolsó útja’

    Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
    Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
    Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade