Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban is a well-established populist and a wolf in sheep’s clothing when it comes to democratically elected leaders. His reputation and recent actions as an authoritarian, anti-immigration candidate, and “Trump-like” leader are also well documented. He uses a wide variety of authoritarian tactics to cement his power and leadership, such as demonizing the media, silencing critics, antagonizing migrants and refugees from abroad, weaponizing public fears (Müller 2017: 8-10) and painting the European Union as public enemy number one. Many of these characteristics are also textbook populist in nature and shared by many populists around the world, such as media censorship by Turkey’s Erdogan, and the dismantling of legislative powers by Boris Johnson of the UK. Orban’s defense for these actions boils down to streamlining democratic standards in Hungary and making his country more accountable to the people. However, they have proven to be just the opposite, and are feeding the flames of Hungary’s democratic backsliding.
Orban’s recent immigration policies, including the construction of border walls and barbed wire fences, are aimed at deterring migrants from entering Hungarian territory. “Transit zones on the Serbian-Hungarian border have been implemented, and since the end of March 2017, anyone applying for asylum in Hungary can only do so from a transit zone and are then detained there for the duration of the asylum procedure” (Gozdziak 2019).
Policies such as these are all designed to homogenize Hungary and “consolidate Orban’s political position and justify his illiberal agenda…in 2017, he fixated on the “Soros Plan,” claiming that billionaire philanthropist George Soros was behind the European migration crisis in an attempt to destabilize Hungary and weaken its Christian culture” (Nietsche 2019).This type of rhetoric, the construction of the wall, and other anti-immigration measures undertaken by the Orban administration serve to fuel xenophobia in Hungary. Orban has also launched a series of public consultations (public ballot questions) which are intended to restrict migrants’ rights and manufacture support for his regime by asking leading, biased questions in order to manipulate citizen responses. One such consultation focuses on “preserving Hungary’s old-school Christian nature,” (Nietsche 2019) and goes hand-in-hand with Orban’s rhetoric of keeping out migrants – mainly from Turkey, the Middle East, and North Africa, whom he perceives as threats to Hungary’s culture and Christian roots.
An example of the biased and manipulative nature the consultations hold can be found in the Christian roots consultation, which utilized methods of collecting data that prevented respondents from accurately voicing their opinions. Questions contained in the consultation were incredibly biased, and asked questions such as, “Terrorist attacks have followed one after another in Europe over the recent period. In spite of this, Brussels wants to force Hungary to receive illegal immigrants. What do you think Hungary should do?” These types of questions are phrased in a way that make it sound like terrorist attacks are a grave threat to Hungary. Additionally, in a family law consultation, respondents were given a simple “yes” or “no” choice to answer a series of questions addressing how Hungary should address population and demographic decline, without an opportunity to elaborate on their position. Furthermore, Orban’s Fidesz party “now holds 133 of 199 seats in the new parliament, which will enable him to pass any law he wants, even those that require the support of two-thirds of the votes” (Than 2018).
Orban’s government wrote a fear-mongering letter designed to demonize the European Union and paint them as the enemy of the Hungarian people. Hungary’s government website cites the reasons as to why Hungary needs consultations in the first place, stating “In Brussels, plans are being made on our future which involve major threats.” If there is a surefire way to turn a country’s people against a larger government, this rhetoric is the way to do it, and like any good populist, Orban paints his way as the only way, as the true voice of the people.
Like other countries in the EU which criticize the union such as Poland, Hungary’s defense for this standpoint comes as “protecting” itself from Brussels’s perceived abuse of power. However, the recent policies imposed by Orban on his country are anything but protective but are instead overtly populist and anti-democratic. Free speech, individual rights, and media protections are backsliding under his populist agenda, causing the EU to consider imposing economic sanctions on the country. As long as Orban is in power, democratic norms are at risk, and political and individual rights remain in jeopardy.
Nietsche, Carisa. “How Hungary’s Orban Puts Democratic Tools to Authoritarian Use.” World Politics Review, 10 June 2019, https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/articles/27928/how-hungary-s-orban-puts-democratic-tools-to-authoritarian-use.
“The ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!” National Consultation.” The Orange Files, WordPress.com, 27 June 2018, https://theorangefiles.hu/the-lets-stop-brussels-national-consultation/.
Than, Krisztina. “PM Orban Vows to Preserve Hungary’s Christian Culture.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 7 May 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-orban/pm-orban-vows-to-preserve-hungarys-christian-culture-idUSKBN1I80NC.
“Summary of the Questions Relating to the National Consultation.” Government of Hungary, https://www.kormany.hu/download/5/be/01000/NK_2017_A4_v05_engl.pdf.
Müller, Jan-Werner. What Is Populism? Penguin Books Ltd, 2017.
Goździak, Elżbieta M. “Using Fear of the ‘Other,” Orbán Reshapes Migration Policy in a Hungary Built on Cultural Diversity.” Migrationpolicy.org, Migration Policy Institute, 5 Nov. 2019, https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/orban-reshapes-migration-policy-hungary.