Across the bucolic Hungarian countryside, in cities and villages both large and small, massive billboards and signs dot the landscape. Upon closer inspection, these signs are covered in xenophobic tropes and manipulated images, depicting a flood of immigrants with the word “stop” superimposed on top in bright red lettering. Quiet fields are interrupted with vast stretches of tall and austere electrified barbed wire fences along Hungary’s border with Serbia. These are the symptoms of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s massive anti-immigration campaign. This campaign by the far-right anti-democratic Fidesz party headed by Orban was immense and far reaching in scope, preying upon the fears of everyday Hungarians to gain support. You might be wondering, what does Orban’s extreme nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric entail for democratic erosion in Hungary? Let us find out.
The deterioration of Hungary’s democracy in the hands of Fidesz is undeniable and it is exemplified in Orban’s control and exploitation of the media for the spreading of xenophobic government propaganda. In 2015, the Syrian War combined with several other regional conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, sparked a refugee crisis in Europe by displacing over one million people who then sought asylum across the EU. Hungary received the most asylum seekers per 100,000 citizens, with 1,799 asylum seekers at the peak of the crisis. Orban’s response? A nearly 28-million-euro xenophobic media propaganda campaign centered around racist ideologies. Orban sees immigration and cultural diversity as an existential threat to Hungarian identity, claiming that he does not want Hungarians to become “peoples of mixed race”. Government controlled media worked to perpetuate the fear of immigrants, linking Muslim refugees with crime and terrorism. This served as a political launching point for Orban to consolidate his power. The 2018 general election, in which Fidesz used immigration to spur voters along with election manipulation resulted in Orban winning a third consecutive term and gaining a supermajority.
In 2018, Orban and Fidesz with their supermajority adopted the so called “Stop Soros” laws, referring to the Hungarian born philanthropist and United States billionaire who champions human rights and the rights of immigrants. These laws make it illegal for any person or organization to assist immigrants in the asylum-seeking process, making it as difficult as possible for refugees in Hungary. Orban’s laws were met with contempt almost immediately, and three years later in 2021, the EU courts ruled that the “Stop Soros” laws were in violation of the EU’s law. From a democratic standpoint, these laws are a great cause for concern. In his 2012 article, “Hungary’s Illiberal Turn: How Things Went Wrong”, Jacques Rupnik argues that Orban’s flurry of restrictive laws represents a growing and disturbing illiberal trend for Hungary. Fast forward to 2018 and the “Stop Soros” laws, Rupnik’s observation holds true. Impeding and criminalizing people’s ability to provide assistance to asylum seekers is not only inhumane, but fundamentally anti-democratic.
Along with his use of xenophobic laws and propaganda, the Prime Minister also countered the immigration crisis by attempting to boost the birth rate in Hungary, with the intent of creating what he believes are genuine, “pure” Hungarians. He implemented the “Family Protection Action Plan”, offering significant financial incentives to families with four or more children as well as housing and childcare benefits. Though Orban cited a decline in birth rates and increasing emigration of Hungarians out of Hungary as the primary reasons for creating this plan, the role of immigration and xenophobia is clear. Orban’s actions are undemocratic and could even be considered authoritarian, attempting to control the race of the children which are born in Hungary. Orban claims that “We do not want our color, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others. We do not want to be a diverse country.” The idea of propagating “racial purity” is far from new, and disturbingly echoes the words of dictators during the second world war.
You may wonder, what does this mean for the future of Hungary? Orban’s extreme nationalistic rhetoric and xenophobic policies regarding immigration are only one aspect of the greater democratic assault which is ongoing in Hungary attacking media pluralism, election integrity, and civil society to name a few. A Pew Research poll shows that despite the erosion of democratic institutions and hyper nationalistic rhetoric, 57% approve of Orban’s leadership. Though the situation in Hungary is dire, democratic proponents can be found in the younger generations. A second Pew Research poll suggests that those under 50, and especially those who are under 30 feel that the state of democracy has declined since Orban took power. The rise of right-wing anti-democratic leaders is not unique to Hungary, rather it represents a global trend in democratic decay. This anti-democratic trend is very unsettling, and one can only hope that Hungary will return to the path of democracy it once pursued.