A few weeks ago, I received the letter pictured above from Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán in my mailbox.
“Dear citizen! I write to you today because Hungary has a parliamentary election next spring,” the letter reads. Aiming to mobilize the addressees—Hungarian citizens like me who live in other countries—to register as voters, Orbán deploys the rhetoric of a unified Hungary. “We are entering an era full of dangers in which only the nation that sticks together will be successful. We must fight for freedom in the Carpathian Basin every day, again and again. For this struggle, we need not only heart, not only intelligence, but also strength. Our strength is our unity.”
Nothing appears untoward about the letter from a cursory glance. Many global leaders, from Joe Biden to Angela Merkel, propagate the idea of national unity. Orbán’s version of unity, however, is manufactured, created as a response to veiled threats. Compare the language of this letter to what Orbán sent to supporters of the Fidesz political party, of which he is the figurehead: “We are entering an era full of dangers in which we simultaneously had to struggle against the pandemic and the progressively increasing illegal migration as well as the gradually more aggressive interference attempts of Brussels and the Soros empire.”
The differences are clear, the omissions precise and calculated. Orbán knows that smears directed at George Soros and illegal immigrants will resonate only with those who support his particular brand of politics. Soros, a billionaire philanthropist, is the founder of the Open Society Foundation (OSF), which funds NGOs that support, among other things, pathways to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and independent media organizations. OSF closed its office in Budapest in 2018 after mounting government opposition; Central European University (CEU), also founded and funded by Soros, likewise shuttered its Budapest campus a few years ago for similar reasons.
Though forcing out CEU, an American-accredited university, might be seen as advancing the idea of a Hungary that controls its own destiny, Orbán’s actions thereafter have quashed that narrative. He has spent the past two years courting China’s Fudan University, spending $1.8 billion to finance the construction of a new campus in Budapest—a total higher than the entirety of the budget he allocated to Hungarian institutions of higher education in 2019. Orbán may profess national unity, but his actions contradict it.
In his letter from December, Orbán also writes that “almost 12 years have passed since we stepped across the boundaries dividing our nation and reunified Hungarians. This is now the third election since the introduction of dual citizenship, with which we atoned for the sorrowful memories of the December 5, 2004, referendum.” That referendum, conducted under opposition politician Ferenc Gyurcsány’s tenure as prime minister, attempted to grant dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living in Hungary’s neighboring countries, but it failed because of low voter turnout. Fidesz brought the proposal back to life in 2010, and with a two-thirds parliamentary majority—despite having received only 53 percent of the popular vote—the party circumvented the constitutional requirement to hold a referendum and passed the legislation.¹
In her paper “On Democratic Backsliding,” University of Oxford political scientist Nancy Bermeo writes that election interference strategies, such as those that change voter eligibility, are often carried out “in such a way that the elections themselves do not appear fraudulent. Strategic manipulation differs from blatant election-day vote fraud in that it typically occurs long before polling day and rarely involves obvious violations of the law.”² Hungary’s expanded citizenship was offered to about five million people, more than a million of whom have become citizens. This was a long-held goal of Fidesz and an essential component of its desired Hungarian ethnostate. In 2014, its efforts were rewarded: 95.5 percent of the new citizens, who represent about 10 percent of the electorate, voted for Fidesz. Compare this with the total proportion of votes for Fidesz, which amounted to a relatively meager 44.5 percent. As described by Ozan Varol in “Stealth Authoritarianism,” it’s analogous to the situation in Senegal, wherein polling stations in the United States and France enable the pro-incumbent Senegalese diaspora to vote.³
Orbán granted more people citizenship and suffrage through a combination of canny gamesmanship and fortune, but any such extensions are selective. In the wider context of Hungarian politics, they are part of a pattern of democratic backsliding. In 2015, Orbán built fences along Hungary’s borders with Serbia and Croatia, targeting the primarily Muslim immigrants seeking asylum in the EU from entering Hungary, a primarily white, Christian nation. He criminalized support from non-governmental organizations that attempted to help the refugees settle, a violation of EU law. Hungary’s exclusion of more than 70,000 asylum seekers also caused the country to be referred to the EU’s Court of Justice. If there is an idea of national unity under the Orbán government, it is one molded by illegality.
Orbán has also perpetuated this flawed unity by manipulating the media, which prevents opponents from having platforms. During his tenure, major news organizations Index.hu and Origo.hu and the country’s second-largest private television channel, TV2, have all been purchased by Fidesz allies. New regulations imposed on billboards shortly after Orbán’s election in 2010 forced the nation’s second-largest billboard producer out of business, giving more power to a Fidesz-allied counterpart.⁴ In Hungary this summer, I often saw advertisements on street corners and on television bearing the slogan “Stop Gyurcsány! Stop Karácsony!”—a reference to two outspoken Orbán opponents, Gyurcsány and Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, who had planned to run against him in the 2022 elections but have since withdrawn. Billboards advertising opposition candidates, in contrast, were scarce.
While Orbán may extend citizenship rights to international residents, he lacks the same authority to control the narrative in other countries. Other nations’ media are not beholden to Orbán’s restrictions, so eligible voters theoretically have greater agency to make unencumbered decisions. But Orbán’s pandering to them via suffrage, grants, and loans makes it difficult to envision substantive changes in their voting behaviors. The expansion of voting rights makes Orbán seem like a unifying hero—but in reality, he only unifies insofar as he can manipulate his constituency and widen his electoral base.
Perhaps Orbán’s claim of influence on national unity is not so far-fetched. His opponent in the 2022 parliamentary elections will be Péter Márki-Zay, a small-town mayor running as the joint candidate nominated by United for Hungary, an aptly named coalition comprising six parties from across the political spectrum that are attempting to unseat Orbán. It’s the product of desperation, but it might not be enough. Constitutional reforms made under the Orbán government have led to heavy gerrymandering that largely favors Fidesz.¹ The outcome of the election remains to be seen, but it is clear that Orbán’s idea of a united Hungary is synonymous with control. In the pursuit of a so-called unity, he has fractured, perhaps irreparably, the democratic framework holding the nation together.
Passages from letters translated from Hungarian to English by author.
¹ Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. Crown: Kindle Edition, 88.
² Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 13. doi:10.1353/jod.2016.0012.
³ Varol, Ozan O. “Stealth Authoritarianism.” Iowa Law Review 1673 (2015): 1702.
⁴ Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Z. Huq. How to Save a Constitutional Democracy. University of Chicago Press: Kindle Edition, 69.