Hungary: Populist Paradise or Danger to Democracy?

October 16, 2019
Philip C. Johnson, Ph.D.
Budapest, Hungary
www.globalnext.org

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Hungarian Parliament Building, Budapest

Why would I, as an American care about the political goings-on in far-off Hungary? I blame Mr. Peter Szijjártó.  My fascination with Hungarian politics began when I heard the Foreign Minister in an interview defending his country’s populist agenda. Mr. Szijjártó spoke of freedom, controlling illegal immigration, supporting traditional family values, protecting Hungary’s Christian heritage, representing the will of the Hungarian people and standing up to the demands of the centralized European government in Brussels. (Hungary is a member of the European Union.)

It was refreshing to hear someone speak without the filter of political correctness for his nation’s culture and freedom.

Mr. Szijjártó is articulate and compelling in a world where it seems that the power of globalist organizations and unelected bureaucrats are attempting to control the sovereignty of individual nations. It was refreshing to hear someone speak without the filter of political correctness for his nation’s culture and freedom. His message was contagious – a small country in Eastern Europe taking a hard stand for its heritage and sovereignty. I was hooked.

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Hungarian Foreign Minister, Peter Szijjártó

But I was also aware that Hungary’s populist government was not sitting well with the powers that be in the European Union capital of Brussels. In fact, in 2018, Article 7 was triggered which threatened to strip Hungary of its voting rights in the EU. The European Union views Hungary as a danger to democracy. Hungary is at the center of the battle between ideological globalism and national populism. In many ways Hungary is a microcosm of the populist push-back that has been happening across the world, including Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and right-leaning surges in Austria, Italy, Poland, Brazil and elsewhere.

The European Union views Hungary as a danger to democracy.

So I got myself to Budapest to find out more – to hear both sides and to gain insights from this one small country for a better understanding of the larger story that is unfolding around the world.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Kester Eddy who is the Chairman of the Hungarian International Press Association, an organization created in 1993 because of concerns of press freedom. Mr. Eddy is a gracious, experienced and well-informed individual with a voracious appetite for European politics. We sat down and discussed Hungary’s current status inside the EU and why the government had gotten on the wrong side of the bureaucrats in Brussels.

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Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban

According to Mr. Eddy, the problems with the current government, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party is that Orban claims to be representing the will of the majority of the Hungarian people – but in reality he is not.  According to Eddy, the Orban government only represents about 35% of the people, but because of how parliament is configured, they have a 2/3’s majority in that governing body.

More seriously, there are concerns that the Rule of Law has turned into the “law of rule,” with the Hungarian government changing the constitution without consultation, making changes to the judiciary (rendering it less independent) and stifling the freedom of the press – a topic that is of particular concern to Kester Eddy.

Currently the press – the state television and the so-called independent press – is largely owned by oligarchs. The preferred narrative of the Orban government is, “We’re under threat and we’ll protect you.” It creates a certain “social cohesion.”

Mr. Eddy introduced me to Gabor Horváth, the Editor in Chief of Nepszava, the last standing independent, non-tabloid, newspaper in Hungary. I asked Gabor how the government discriminates against journalists and a free press.  He told me, “It’s a funny thing because they don’t – they just buy up everything. In December of 2018 the government in one day bought up 476 media outlets from two dozen owners. All of a sudden they all decided to give up their organizations for free including the content, the finances, ad sales, the organization, staff…” Interesting. Suspicious.

“All 19 regional newspapers print the same things – same layout – same pictures – same narrative, same information. The saturating narrative is all about the danger of illegal immigrants, security, immigrants are taking our jobs, raping our women – and Prime Minister Orban is the answer. Classic fear mongering.”

When I suggested that people can get alternative news and information from a variety of other platforms through the Internet, he countered, “People do consume news and information from non-State sources, but it takes effort to find reliable independent news. Such a lack of balance inside the country creates a state of anger and frustration.”

Reporters Without Borders agrees about the press freedom issue. In 2019 the country ranked 73rd out of 180 countries on the Press Freedom Index. It has dropped 50 places since Orban took power in 2010.

I then mentioned that Foreign Minister Szijjártó claims that all of these allegations and all of the threats from the EU are just coming from sore losers, people who want power but didn’t get it through the electoral process. Mr. Szijjártó asserts that the opposition wants revenge.

Gabor didn’t disagree – he simply said, “And he is right, are we’re going to get our revenge.”

Gabor didn’t disagree – he simply said, “And he is right, are we’re going to get our revenge. The opposition parties are now beginning to organize to confront Orban’s government. It’s a beginning…it’s a start. I don’t see populism winning much longer, otherwise it will mean war.”

Obviously the Orban Administration in Hungary sees the country and the world very differently. They understand that their political opponents and globalists in general do not view populism as a nation’s right to maintain sovereignty over their own affairs, but as a dangerous and racist position that will lead to wars and dictators. Globalists see nation-states as old fashioned – a long-ago time when people took pride in their country. Populists see national sovereignty as essential to preserving freedom and culture.

The government’s populist position is shared by Mr. Zoltan Kiszelly, a political scientist, a consultant and adviser to the Orban administration. He says that the Orban administration is popular because he, “delivers his promises, has brought us out of the recession, allowed people to escape a debt trap, lowered energy prices and has dealt with illegal immigration.”

“Prime Minister Orban was the first to state that the migration crisis was dangerous – that there was a connection between mass immigration and terrorism.”

Zoltan Kiszelly states that during the 2015 migration crisis – “Prime Minister Orban was the first to state that the migration crisis was dangerous – that there was a connection between mass immigration and terrorism. In most of his ideas, he is right.”

The Orban-run government also boasts low unemployment, a growing economy and according to Zoltan, there is really no alternative to him. Anyone from the liberal party who opposes him would take the country back to the problems of 2010.

I asked Mr. Kiszelly to respond to the accusations that Orban’s government has pursued anti-democratic reforms, reduced the freedom of the press, the independent judiciary and has amended the Hungarian constitution to favor his own administration.

“This is the BS from the mainstream press – we’re doing nothing more than taking power back from NGOs, deep state structures and some parts of the courts which are affected by sensitivity to political correctness. The Orban government believes that it’s not these soft-power structures who are elected and they should not be making decisions for the people who voted.”

“We have more than 75% support for preserving Hungary as it is today – as a Christian country, as a European country without a visible Muslim presence.”

“The Fidesz (Orban) party is trying to preserve our Christian identity and our national heritage, including our language, schools and churches. First, we are Hungarians, second we are Europeans and third, we are cosmopolitan. Europe is not a Muslim continent – and we don’t want to take part in this change that we have seen occurring in Europe. We have more than 75% support for preserving Hungary as it is today – as a Christian country, as a European country without a visible Muslim presence.”

This past Sunday, October 13th, local elections were held in Hungary. In a blow to the Orban administration, Gergely Karacsony won the mayoral election in Budapest beating incumbent István Tarlós who was backed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The office of mayor is the most directly elected position in Hungary, providing a barometer of the attitudes of the electorate.  The surprising victory for the opposition is the first electoral blow to Orban since he came to power in 2010.

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New Mayor of Budapest, Mr. Gergely Karacsony. His surname actually means “Christmas.” For the liberal opposition party, “Christmas” has come early. 

“The globalists win, freedom loses. We’re just buying a little more time.”

I’ve been saying for a while that the push-back against globalism with the rise of populism is temporary. It is an effort by some to ward off the growing influence of powerful elites, non-governmental organizations and centralized power resulting in the reduction of national sovereignty and a move towards an open-borders world. It seems on both sides of the ideological battle, Machiavellian techniques can and will be used to justify their goals. My final question to Zoltan Kiszelly was this, “So, in the end, who wins? The globalists or the national populists?”

His answer? “The globalists win, freedom loses. We’re just buying a little more time.”

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