“As a young lawyer, he first attracted attention when he publicly demanded the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Hungary and the country’s right to free elections. Today, as a prime minister, such liberty no longer seems to be his principal concern.” Laura Seemann explains how Hungary’s Viktor Orban has twisted the country’s institutions to suit his anti-democratic ends.
There have been protests in Hungary for months now. They started in October 2014, when the president, Viktor Orbán, revealed his plan to introduce an Internet tax of 150 forints (£0.40) per GB of data traffic. However, this Internet tax was just the tipping point which sent people out onto the streets, to stand up for their rights. During 2014, we’ve seen the growth of opposition to Orbán and his party Fidesz, which has held power since May 2010. Many citizens who have been rather reserved about the government’s actions are now starting to speak up, demanding a fair democracy, a constitutional state, and the end of corruption.
The Hungarians’ outrage caused by Orbán’s politics has even resulted in internal tensions within the Fidesz party, and uproar on the streets of Budapest has seen the party’s ratings dip. Recent polls indicate that between December and January this year, Fidesz lost around 12% of voters []. Even newspapers that were previously strong have recently reported first cracks in the strong ideological fortress that the party once held. These tensions remind us that the reason for Fidesz’s success in the past years and its two-thirds majority in the parliament were also due to a lack of sensible alternative parties to vote for.
But who really is this man who has caused such chaos on Hungary’s political arena? Viktor was brought up in Felcsut, a village of about 1,800 people, 45km from the capital. He studied law at the Loránd-Eötvös University in Budapest and in 1989 was offered a research scholarship to spend a semester at the University of Oxford. He left academia in 1990, right before the Hungarian parliamentary elections, and decided to fully devote himself to a political career. As a young lawyer, he first attracted attention when he publicly demanded the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Hungary and the country’s right to free elections. Today, as a prime minister, such liberty no longer seems to be his principal concern. In one of his speeches, Orbán described himself as “one of the rare optimistic, even enthusiastic, politicians in Europe” []. The majority of his fellow countrymen don’t seem to agree with this vision of himself and have christened him “Viktator”, comparing him to Putin. []
In fact, recently Orbán has developed a closer relation with Russia, protesting against the EU and US sanctions imposed on Moscow officials due to the conflict in Ukraine. During a speech at the London School of Economics in 2011, he stressed that “strong political leadership” was one of the “competitive advantages” central European states should offer the EU. [] Is it Orbán’s view on strong political leadership that has now brought these two Eastern European countries together? Interestingly, even though it was Orbán’s protest against the Soviet forces in Hungary which led to the beginning of his political career and popularity in 1989, today he seems to have forgot about his former ideals and openly declared that Europe needs “a strategic alliance with Russia”. Even the United States have identified the dangers that could lie in the union of these two Easter European countries: in a speech to the Congress, John McCain described Hungary as “a nation on the verge of ceding its sovereignty to a neo-fascist dictator, getting in bed with Vladimir Putin”.
What brought Orbán and Putin together must have been the anti-European attitude that they share. Since 2012, Hungary has been under strict observation of the European Commission due to a variety of laws passed by Orbán’s up to 2010. With the two-thirds majority that his party holds in the government, he has been able to pass about 850 of them since his inauguration as the Prime Minister. Alarmingly, a number of these laws violate the fundamental premises of the European Union, such as the independence of the media and the Judicial Branch of the country. These violations have also been the reason for cuts in financial help for Hungary, whose economic and financial situation has been deteriorating for the past few years. Orbán’s reaction to these cuts was radical and fuelled his anger with the EU system. Indubitably, what has thus driven Russia and Hungary closer together was their skeptical attitude towards the European Union. In one of the most anti-European speeches of his career, Orbán insisted that “traitors and international enemies of the nation have made a hostile pact to deliver Hungary and its people to the bureaucrats of the European Union as well as the international financial services industry”, declaring also that “the nation has decided not to live in captivity from abroad” and successfully “blocked the attempt of colonisation”. When he renewed his oath in the Hungarian parliament in May 2014, he again outlined the ideologies of his politics, such as fighting for the nation’s independence, rebelling against its submission to the global forces and the domination of international integration over patriotic ideals.
What is more, Orbán’s actions have not only been questionable from a foreign politics perspective, but also the domestic policy front. Whilst many of his controversial political decisions were successfully kept away from the public, some laws could not be covered up. One of these was the Hungarian Media Act, which, approved by the national parliament in 2012, has been the source of international outrage. According to EU law, the media must be independent of political influence; in Hungary, this is no longer the case. Soon after Orban’s party came to power in 2010, the Fidesz-dominated parliament adopted his new media legislation. Changes included a requirement that all media must register with the state and their output should be “balanced”, of “relevance to the citizens of Hungary” and “respectful of human dignity”. It also weakened the protection of journalists’ sources. Penalties for breaking the rules included fines and suspension. A new watchdog of the government, the Media Council (Nemzeti Média- és Hírközlési Hatóság), is now responsible for the enforcement of this law. Unsurprisingly, the council that controls this institution is made up exclusively of Fidesz party members [].
Another issue that outraged the European Union a few months later, in March 2013, was a reform of the Hungarian constitution, which resulted in an indirect disempowerment of the country’s constitutional judges. Why indirect? Hungary’s Supreme Court is now merely allowed to review laws from a formal point of view, but not with regards to their content. The judges still have the right to exercise their legal sentences, but they are no longer allowed to change these rulings. The consequences are disastrous: homeless can now be charged for sleeping on the streets and students who get a scholarship from the government have to stay in the country after graduation. Again, with a two-thirds majority, the Fidesz party was successful in changing the country’s constitution a number of times. This new regulation will also make it more difficult for the Supreme Court to modify laws that violate human rights. It is arguable how much of its role and authority as supervisory institution is still left, and even more so: how much power of the democratic principle of the Separation of Powers is left.
Orbán’s political decisions attracted the attention of the media, but the suspicious and debatable events in his private life have been a source of attention too. In Felscut, the Prime Minister’s hometown, his wife, Aniko Levai, and his father, Gyözö Orbán, as well as several close friends of the family, suddenly became large landowners and began to fund their businesses using EU funding. Orbán also recently founded a football academy in his tiny village and is currently overseeing the construction of a €13m stadium, which is built right next to his house. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the company in charge of the construction is owned by Orbán’s oldest school friend. What is interesting to note (or maybe not if one remembers the newly-introduced censorship in Hungary), is that the country’s press report about these controversial happenings is neither critical nor detailed What is more, the citizens of the country are openly manipulated and tricked to believe the party is working for the country’s improvement rather than the advantages of the few individuals. For instance, last year’s electricity and gas bills showed reductions of taxes highlighted in bright colours. Overflowing in thankfulness, the citizens of country were supposed to be too distracted from Orbán’s attempt to “un-democratise” the country.
The question we should be asking ourselves is: how much further will this go? Zsolt Váradi, who is in charge of the Facebook group “Most mi!“ (Now we!) calling all Hungarian citizens to protest, stated: “Our politicians have lost all connection to reality. It has become obvious that they no longer work in the interest of all, the people of this country, but they have started to build their own world”. His organization demands a new republic and a new constitution. Their banners say “New Democracy”, “Fight against the Mafia-ruled state”, and “Get lost, Orbán”. Although their message is clear, there is no response from the government.
The political scientists and experts agree on one point: Orbán and his party are in trouble. And now, an even more difficult period is ahead of them, marked by citizens’ protests, internal tensions within the party, and the country’s isolation from the European Union. At the protests in front of the National Opera House in Budapest, a young student recently said “They have stolen our freedom. It’s a dictatorship. This current system cannot be changed simply by elections. You cannot build an enslaved democracy. You either have a democracy or you don’t. We don’t want to belong to Putin, but to Europe”.
 German News (Tagesschau) 03/01/2015
 BBC Online, Profile: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (January 2012)
 Human Rights Watch (Parliament approved government-initiated changes to the laws on May 24, 2012)