I know this is not a popular opinion in progressive circles but the attacks on Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán as “anti-democratic” are overblown rubbish. It has gotten to the point where op-ed writers in The Guardian claim that “Hungary today is on the verge of full-blown autocracy” and “the war on democracy in Hungary is a war on democracy everywhere”, and where The Atlantic has called Orbán “the most dangerous man in the European Union”.
The level of concern about his autocratic tendencies has been so great that one political scientist — Cas Mudde, who is considered a world expert on the rise of right-wing populism — has called for centrist opposition groups to ally with the quasi-fascist Jobbik party to stop Orban’s ruling Fidesz party.
Dig through the main claims being used to justify calling Orbán an autocrat, however, and you’ll find:
- His changes to the electoral system which favour large parties (a) still leave it considerably more proportional than the UK’s first-past-the-post system and (b) only help him because the rest of the Hungarian political class is so fragmented and dysfunctional (a fact that allowed him to get elected in the first place, on the old rules).
- His “control of all civil institutions” has actually meant mainly verbal attacks on NGOs, more recently combined with new laws forcing them to register their assets and declare foreign funding. This is not just part of Orbán’s openly-declared nationalist posture, but intentionally upsetting to EU politicians and bureaucrats — and expatriate Hungarian billionaire George Soros — who want to find ways to influence Hungarian politics.
- His “having the main opposition newspaper shut down” for exposing a government scandal is more likely the paper’s private owners shutting it down for commercial reasons, in the lead-up to selling it off to new owners who happened to be Fidesz-friendly.
- His “attacks on media independence” basically come down to getting an easier ride in state media — as if politicisation of state media is not a thing in lots of liberal democracies (both sides of politics in Australia put pressure on the state broadcaster all the time) — and a more complex story of encouraging his corporate allies to buy a larger share of a shrinking market in a period of declining traditional media.
- Orbán himself has made much of wanting to turn Hungary into an “illiberal state” based on national foundations because the global financial crisis showed that “liberal democratic states cannot remain globally competitive.” But this is rhetoric which upsets an EU that demands fidelity to a model of political organisation that is driven by its most powerful nations.
What we do have in Orbán is a right-wing leader who is happy to play (often nasty) nationalist, anti-EU, anti-immigrant and social conservative cards, and whose party is undoubtedly guilty of nepotism and histrionic attacks on enemies (as if those aren’t common features of many liberal democracies) but whose moves to secure political advantage are far from being outside liberal democratic norms, especially in the current period of political breakdown.
Overheated talk of the destruction of democracy by a ruling party that wins elections fair and square is part of a political class backlash against voters who won’t submit to the dominant political class line. It is no coincidence that commentators frequently cite Orbán as a warning against ever allowing the public to deliver Brexit or Trump victories.
I would contend that the main thing making Orbán look “autocratic” is that he is the beneficiary of the weakness and disunity of the Hungarian opposition, itself a product of the longer-run hollowing out of post-communist political arrangements — a process affecting a range of Eastern European countries in various forms.
By making exaggerated claims of the destruction of democracy itself, rather than taking him on over his substantive political positions, Orbán’s opponents only feed into his ability to accuse them of wanting to subvert the public will. Meanwhile, the fact that Orbán felt the need to step up his histrionics recently when his party unexpectedly lost to an independent in a local election within its own strongholds suggests that democracy is far from over in Hungary.