Viktor Orbán and Hungary's "Illiberal Democracy": Background information when reading Surviving Autocracy

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Surviving Autocracy

by Masha Gessen

Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen X
Surviving Autocracy by Masha Gessen
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2020, 272 pages

    Jun 2021, 304 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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About this Book

Viktor Orbán and Hungary's "Illiberal Democracy"

This article relates to Surviving Autocracy

Print Review

Mike Pompeo and Viktor Orbán meeting in Hungary, 2019 In Surviving Autocracy, Masha Gessen places the presidency of Donald Trump in an international context, drawing comparisons with other world leaders who have demonstrated a penchant for authoritarianism and oligarchy. One of these leaders is Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has been the subject of scrutiny and ire (but little action) from the European Union.

Viktor Orbán served his first term as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, after which control shifted to the Hungarian Socialist Party, led by Prime Minister Péter Medgyessy. The Socialist Party's administration was marred by scandal and economic mismanagement, and Orbán, running as the representative of the conservative Fidesz Party, was voted in for a second term in 2010. He ran on a far-right, nationalist platform and has since enacted policies that align with that ideology while consolidating power among himself and his associates. In 2011, he instituted an entirely new constitution. Fidesz gerrymandered voting districts to ensure a parliamentary majority for itself in 2014, and when the refugee crisis hit Hungary in 2015, Orbán ordered construction of a new border fence to prevent migrants from entering the country, then sent a bill for the cost of the fence to the EU.

The administration Orbán has organized during his second term has been the subject of criticism from multiple sources, including the EU and former Hungarian Minister of Education Bálint Magyar, who has referred to it as a "mafia state." In an article written for an academic conference on economic and social development in 2015, Magyar explained that this form of government "is made up of—as is usual in the classical mafia—joint businesses founded principally by the family, as well as by sworn adopted political family members through the family's network of relationships." He goes on to say that the mafia state is a "subtype" of autocracy.

Orbán has staffed practically all state-run organizations and companies, including the Hungarian National Bank, with people who are fiercely loyal to him. Virtually the entire Hungarian media apparatus is owned by a conglomerate called the Central European Press and Media Foundation, which is led by three board members with direct ties to Orbán and Fidesz (one of them is Orbán's former attorney).

The system of government that prevails in Hungary under Orbán has perhaps best been described by the prime minister himself, in a speech given at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp in 2014: "the Hungarian nation is not simply a group of individuals but a community that must be organised, reinforced and in fact constructed. And so in this sense the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach." Like many other autocrats, dictators and despots throughout history and in the present, Orbán cloaks himself in the trappings of patriotism and religious adherence, but his primary focus is maintaining power for himself and his supporters.

In recent months, Orbán has used the COVID-19 crisis to further tighten his stranglehold on power in Hungary. In late March 2020, the Fidesz-controlled parliament passed emergency legislation that grants the prime minister authority to rule by decree, essentially eliminating even the appearance of a democracy. The EU declared the legislation "incompatible with European values," but there have been no effective consequences. Ominously, the legislation also allows for the imprisonment of anyone deemed to be spreading misinformation about the pandemic, a provision likely intended to quell potential dissent in the media outlets not yet under Orbán's control.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (right) meeting on February 11, 2019 in Budapest, Hungary (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Filed under People, Eras & Events

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Surviving Autocracy. It originally ran in June 2020 and has been updated for the June 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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