The rise of far-right populism has been the number one trend in Europe during recent years, but maybe nowhere as much as in Hungary, where Fidesz, led by Viktor Orbán, has been constantly exploring the limits of Hungarian citizens as well as the other EU member states.
With it’s two-thirds majority in the Hungarian parliament, the national conservative ruling party has been able to single-handedly control the politics of Hungary in a borderline authoritarian manner.
An Illiberal State
‘The new state we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state’, Orbán said in a speech he gave this July in Romania. He then continued by accusing the European Union of losing its competitiveness and by insisting that the model for a successful state can be found outside of Western liberalism, in countries like China or Russia.
Relying largely on energy imported from Russia, Hungary has been understandably seeking increasingly closer relations between the two nations. Currently however, it seems that the Hungarian leadership is determined to also import Putin’s ethnic nationalism in their policies.
For instance, similar to the harassment faced by the NGOs with foreign ties in Russia, or ‘foreign agents’ as the Kremlin labelled them, the offices of two Norway-backed NGOs were raided this autumn in Budapest. The government accused them of directing funds to political opposition groups while the NGOs denied these claims. This is only one example of how the civil society has been threatened in Hungary in recent years.
Furthermore, since the introduction of the new constitution in 2012, Hungary has seen restrictions in the independence of the judiciary and interference in the freedom of the press. On top of this, Fidesz has now appointed 11 of the 15 judges in the Constitutional Court of Hungary.
With Russia recently issuing a warning to the West for criticising Hungary and its policies, the country is now on its course into the grey zone between Western and Eastern forces.
Black Sheep of the Union
Despite the country’s authoritarian twist, Hungary is still part of both the European Union and NATO, and thus heavily tied with the West. In his speech this July, Orbán himself was very optimistic that his party would be able to establish an ‘illiberal’ state within the EU. However, manoeuvring within the limitations imposed by the EU treaties has had its problems.
When the leaders of EU member states voted to nominate Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission, Hungary was one of the only two countries to vote against his nomination. The election of Juncker, who was branded as a federalist by the Eurosceptics, did not suit the plans of the nationalist government of Hungary – that seemed to look for a more intergovernmentalist approach that would take national interests more into account. After all, it is in Orbán’s best interest to have as much freedom to rule within his borders as he requires without having to tiptoe around common EU legislation.
Moreover, given that Hungary relies heavily on Russian oil and gas, it is not surprising that the Hungarian government has criticised the EU sanctions inflicted on Russia questioning their success in solving the Ukrainian crisis. But rather than politics, the real reasons behind condemning these sanctions may lie indeed in the economic relations between Hungary and Russia, such as the nuclear energy deal signed in January this year.
Interestingly, the EU has remained relatively silent on the case of Hungary developing within its borders. No wonder Norway has already raised its concerns over the EU’s lack of reaction.
Internet tax protests
The absence of EU response did not prevent Hungarians from finding their own collective voice this October. Around 100,000 Hungarians took to the streets demonstrating against an intended tax that would have taken 150 forints (£0.38) for every gigabyte of Internet data transferred. After the government’s plans to cap the tax did not calm the masses, Viktor Orbán decided to put the planned tax on hold. This could be a significant change in a country where the Prime Minister has gotten used to getting what he wants.
But that change is, in the end, just a glimpse in the distance. As the protesters rallied on the streets, the state-monitored media did not properly address the demonstrations with some outlets even lacking all coverage on the issue. This failure of objectivity and impartiality in reporting the protests is a worrying development in the politics of Hungary, and should not be tolerated by its allies.
Yet, the EU has failed to recognise the problems inherent in Hungary’s media laws. This is an issue for the EU as a liberal democratic organisation. However, the Union is balancing on a thin rope here, as it needs to acknowledge its concerns over these matters without driving Hungary too close to Putin’s sphere of influence.
Thus, the next step for the West would be to support the pro-European minority in Hungary before they are effectively diminished. Otherwise the gap between the parties might grow too wide.