News / Europe

    Hungary’s Orbán: Autocrat or Misunderstood Provocateur?

    FILE - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, shown at a September press conference, has become a divisive figure throughout Europe.
    FILE - Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, shown at a September press conference, has become a divisive figure throughout Europe.

    They endured snow and cold.  A few hundred protesters turned out here in Hungary's capital in a show of opposition to a proposed constitutional amendment by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his governing Fidesz party.

    Hungary’s combative Orbán – a politician who has become a pariah to the European left – wants new emergency powers for the government, allowing it during a “state of terror” to restrict communications and the media, suspend the right of assembly, shutter the borders and impose curfews for 60 days.

    "The plan would put an end to democracy once and for all," protest organizer and former socialist government minister Lajos Bokros warned the crowd Sunday outside parliament as the protesters stamped their feet to keep out the frost.

    Anti-government protests are a fixture on most weekends in Budapest these days, much as they were in London in the 1980s during the era of late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, another politician who was determined to shake things up and challenge establishment as well as liberal beliefs.

    As far as the Hungarian and European left are concerned, the "state of terror" proposal, scheduled for debate next month by lawmakers in the Fidesz-dominated legislature, is just one more black mark against Orbán.

    He is winning converts among other right-wing central European populists to his hard-line anti-migrant stance and applause from them for his frequent goading of Brussels. His rejection of more European political integration isn’t helping to appease the European left.

    Orbán’s actions denounced

    Since his reelection in 2010, critics have roundly denounced Orbán for what they see as a dismantling of democratic checks and balances. He has been described both in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe as an autocrat and xenophobe and dubbed a Hungarian Mussolini.

    Politico, an American and European news site, has labeled him "Europe’s Next Dictator."

    His defenders say double standards are at work in the use of hyperbolic epithets.

    They say Orbán’s "state of terror" amendment is not different from hard-line security measures requiring constitutional changes being sought by France’s socialist president, Francois Hollande. But unlike Orbán, Hollande hasn’t earned comparisons with Russia’s authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, or Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

    Foes point to a series of other actions to highlight their argument that Orbán is an autocrat in the making: from government contracts and procurement tenders being steered to politically aligned businessmen to the treatment of the media. They also note his disdain for foreign-funded NGOs, especially those financed by the European Union and by Hungarian-American billionaire investor George Soros, a human rights advocate. Orbán studied at Oxford University thanks to a Soros grant.

    FILE - Hungarian soldiers work to build a fence at the border with Croatia, near the village of Beremend, Hungary, Sept. 22, 2015.
    FILE - Hungarian soldiers work to build a fence at the border with Croatia, near the village of Beremend, Hungary, Sept. 22, 2015.

    Controlling media?

    The state-owned media now work as government propaganda organs, they say. And they highlight Orbán media laws making it a crime – punishable by fines of up to $900,000 – to publish "imbalanced news coverage" or material insulting to "public morality."

    No prosecutions have been mounted under the new laws, though.

    According to Tamas Bodoky, editor-in-chief of the leftist investigative news portal, Orbán hasn’t had to use the laws.

    "It hasn’t been necessary," he says, "because the pure economic superiority of the pro-government media is enough to reach a state where average people get the government propaganda."

    Orbán allies own most of the commercial press, he says.

    "There is a huge difference with Turkey or Russia, where you can get jailed if you publish critical stories, and you can get beaten, tortured or shot. And none of this is happening in Hungary. There is political and economic pressure and smear campaigns, but they won’t come here and beat me up," says Bodoky.

    He says that Orbán displays autocratic tendencies, and that who knows what will happen in the future.

    A party’s evolution

    Fidesz began life in the late 1980s – in the final gasp of communism – as a small libertarian student movement.  But since the 2008 financial crash, it has morphed under Orbán into a populist national conservative party, even turning its back on free market economics – a move that troubles even some of his right-wing defenders. Orbán’s message is clear: National sovereignty is being undermined by globalization, and nation states and their traditional cultures and lifestyles are being weakened by bankers and Eurocrats.

    Gerald Frost, an analyst at the Danube Institute, a center-right research institution in Budapest, says Orbán is an intellectual who loves debate and relishes stirring up controversy.

    "A lot of the hyperbole about him now can be traced to the deep political animosities remaining in Hungary from the communist era," he says. "There are unresolved conflicts. There has been no real reconciliation. No one was punished for any of their actions during communism."

    Orbán "is a fearless warrior, a politician with a lot of dexterity and a real understanding of the man in the street," Frost says, adding the politician enjoys nothing better than testing the limits and patience of EU institutions.

    He did that last September, ordering a 175-kilometer-long steel and razor-wire fence to be built along the border with Serbia. Since then, he has delivered a stream of scornful condemnations of failed EU bids to bring some order to the chaos of the migrant crisis affecting the continent.

    His goading of Brussels partly explains the venomous attacks unleashed on him, argues John O’Sullivan, a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher and the founder of the Danube Institute. "He is skeptical toward ideas of supranationalism and global governance that underpin the European Union itself," says O’Sullivan.

    O’Sullivan argues there is a buccaneering, experimental side to Orbán.

    In the forward to a new collection of essays on the politician, O’Sullivan writes: "He is intellectually adventurous. He gets bored by having to stick to the same political ‘line’ day after day. He wants to explore new ideas. He is prepared to take some risks in doing so. He likes spontaneity. He speculates in public. And, of course, he gets into trouble."

    Trouble came quickly a year ago. When thinking aloud at a rally of young supporters, he announced that liberal democracy wasn’t doing so well, so maybe “illiberal democracy” would work better.  Says O’Sullivan, “As soon as I heard that, I knew that this phrase would be hung around his neck forever.”

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    Comment Sorting
    by: Drew
    January 28, 2016 7:21 AM
    Hungarian opposition has imploded and Orbán has made the most of his huge support to finally act on long-delayed reforms and respond to a growing sense of injustice among Hungarians.

    Most Western leaders want to avoid controversy and political responsibility so they pretend to be searching for a consensus solution on whatever matter... so they end up waiting for years for a massive social uproar to be able to finally push something through parliament. They have long forgotten what it is like to take tough decisions or face political responsibility, so controversial but necessary decisions are delayed for a time when it is already too late - just think of Paris or Cologne.

    Why should Hungary wait for a terrorist attack to hit before it beefs up security measures and makes the necessary changes in legislation? Prevention is always better than damage control.

    by: Zoltan Racz from: Port Saint Lucie/Florida
    January 27, 2016 9:08 PM
    Totally one sided and biased article, something from the old Pravda.

    by: Torontonian from: Toronto, Canada
    January 27, 2016 4:44 PM
    One of the main reasons Orban is as popular in Hungary as he is, is outlandish articles like this, with little or no understanding of what is happening in Hungary, and whose authors, likely because of the language barrier, rely on sources from among the completely discredited and obliterated political left, whose hatred of the government is boundless.

    The political climate in Hungary is extremely polarized. The political 'left' (they are not 'leftist' in the classical sense of the word, they are more like opportunists coming from the old-guard communist left) has been completely discredited in two consecutive, open and free, democratic general elections, yet they not only do not want to go away, but they stifle any other left-leaning group to grow into a political party, because they perceive them as competition. Because of this, the people in Hungary simply do not have a choice, but to support Orban.

    by: PermReader
    January 27, 2016 4:01 PM
    The scrappy blanket of EU democracies does not contain many countries with the solid democracy tradition as Britain and France.Nevetheless they appropriate "highest" democratic standards of their own, extremistic ones in reality.

    by: Marcus Aurelius II from: NJ USA
    January 27, 2016 3:47 PM
    Since there is no state of terror right now, Orban is looking for a legal mechanism to declare himself a dictator on the flimsiest of pretexts. He's a fascist. This has nothing to do with refugees or migrants. It has to do with his affinity for Russia. It is not in Hungary's best interest to get close to Russia. The EU should make it clear to him that Hungary can be thrown out if he assumes the power of a dictator without reasonable cause. Once they get the power, they rarely ever give it up voluntarily. If the population protests, Russia will invade justifying its actions the same way it did in Syria, a request by a so called legitimate government. It will be the same as 1956. Outside the EU, Hungary would suffer Russia's fate, they can go down together.
    In Response

    by: Hungarian from: Budapest
    February 14, 2016 3:54 PM
    Mr Orban is neigther Autocrat or Misunderstood Provocateur, he is offspring of rulling and cultural traditon in Hungary. He want to move his residency to the Royal Castle and lets build sockerstadion with heated Royal Castle in his home village and unite and spek for all Hungarian speaking people in Hungary and neighboring country . He belive and his goal the end or disintegration off the EU and has a mistrust on the USA policy . He want to be president when he have to finish his term and with all power prevent any liberal or leftwing partys. To keep the power is his princip and to he the financial power to rule is his second. Russian -Connection, Refugees are all the tools to the story. You will see it.

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