Between democracy and despotism: Hungary's transitional hybrid regime

September 8, 2016


“The Hungarian head of government has permanently joined the club of Western opponents, where national collectivism, unlimited state power, and bureacracy exist in place of individualism, liberal democracy, and freedom.”

Translation of “On birds of a feather and illiberal friends” appearing in daily online written by Political Capital analyst  Edit Zgut.

Following his 2014 speech at Tusnádfürdő (Băile Tușnad) Orbàn is often mentioned on the same page as the presidents of Turkey and Russia who run openly autocratic regimes, serially violate human rights, and progressively undermine democracy.  It might be said about birds of a feather that an illiberal can be recognized by the friends he keeps.  There may be similarities between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, but Viktor Orbán does not fit into the picture—Jaroslaw Kaczynski recently said about his Hungarian prime minister political ally.

The ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party chairman said this in response to a question from a reporter whether Poland was following the illiberal example of Orbán, Erdogan and Putin.  Not disputed is the fact that he considers the Orbàn government to be a good example, and from time to time refers to these regimes, which is difficult to explain from the point of view of purely pragmatic economic interests and the values-free foreign policy strategy announced within the framework of the eastern opening.

A conspicuous example of this is the domestic evaluation of the Turkish situation.  The AKP government started an unprecedented political purge after the July attempted coup: within days more than 40,000 people were arrested, teaching permits were withdrawn from 20,000 educators, and around 3,000 judges were suspended.  (Hungarian) Minister for Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Péter Szijjártó does not see any undemocratic processes in Turkey in connection with these measures.  Viktor Orbán, on the other hand, has often taken Erdogan’s side. However, thanks to the antiterror laws it was practically inevitable who would be held responsible (for the failed coup) and on what grounds, and that over the course of a political purge those would also fall victim who previously expressed condemnation in connection with the running of Turkey. Turkey had already imprisoned a number of journalists, and like anywhere else in the world, the tendency is only strengthening.  The Hungarian foreign minister thinks all of this is an acceptable and proportionate response to the intervention of the army.  This was rapturously received by the Turkish foreign minister, who things Hungary’s attitude is a good example for all the European Union Member States.  Although the European Union visibly stopped treating Erdogan like a pariah last November in the interest of the migration agreement concluded between Turkey and the EU, even Germany condemned the “beyond all measure” purge, even though recently it has expressly handled the Turkish regime which violates the freedom of speech and minority rights with kid gloves.  There is no precedent for the Hungarian attitude:  After the putsch Szijjártó was the first to arrive to Ankara to publicly defend Turkey’s leadership in the face of the EU’s concerns.

Hungarian-Turkish bilateral economic relations would hardly seem to justify such a degree of political support on the part of the Orbán government.  So there is reason to suspect that there are macroeconomic and political interests in the background that are less visible to the public.

In the same way Hungary’s dependence on Russian raw materials would hardly seem to warrant Péter Szijjártó’s latest statement regarding Russia, according to which Moscow does not constitute a threat to NATO.  Taking place only a few weeks after the NATO summit in Warsaw, it contradicts the declaration adopted by all members, including Hungary, which called Russia’s activities within the region an unprecedented security challenge.  It is as though Hungary’s foreign minister did not notice that Moscow had annexed part of a sovereign country (the Crimean peninsula) in the immediate vicinity of NATO.  Moreover, it has packed it full of weapons (eg. Sz-400 air defense rockets) capable of threatening NATO ships stationed in the Black Sea. Not to mention that Putin has threatened a number of NATO member states (Poland and Romania) and not only with words.  Russian fighter aircraft regularly violate the airspace of the Baltic states.  Ironically, it was for this reason that NATO created the air defense mission (Baltic Air Policing) at the beginning of the year in which the Hungarian air-force actively participates.  Russia regularly holds snap military exercises involving tens of thousands of soldiers in the region.  Most recently on August 25th Russian units mobilized along NATO’s entire eastern frontier.

Even if Szijjártó’s statement involved factual errors, the political dependence of the Hungarian government on the Kremlin has become obvious in recent years.  We could list here the planned Paks investment financed from Russian credit which is difficult to defend with rational energetic principles, the promotion of cooperating with Russia at any price, and the complete disregard of Moscow’s role in the refugee crisis.  Kaczynski consistently shares the critical opinion of the Kremlin out of momentary interests and out of sympathy arising from his personal connection with Orbán, who is now monitoring everything, which is why in the mentioned interview he defended the Hungarian prime minister.

Furthermore, it is an important point of view that in his Tusnádfürdő speech praising illiberalism, Viktor Orbán cited Russia as a good example. If we take into consideration the Fidesz government’s actions after returning to power in 2010—the electoral system custom tailored to the needs of the governing party, the efforts to influence public media, and the takeover of the role of independent institutions by personal dependent relations, the system-wide corruption and official persecution of certain civil organizations which serves the interests of those exercising power, Putin’s methods do not seem all that distant.

Even if it is impossible to compare the two systems due to completely different power structures, politically, economically, civilizational and culturally, the ideology underlying the exercise of power in Russia, Turkey, and Hungary has a number of common points.  This includes, for example, the concept of the leader, the social traditionalists, the construction that takes place within a religious political interpretive framework, the sharpening of divide between the countryside and city, and the anti-Western, nationalist-populist rhetoric.  There is a very important difference, however, between Turkey and Russia who imprison those who think differently, and which, functioning in a different framework, have made far more progress building an illiberal state than the Hungarian government, which has less room for maneuver as a member of the European Union.  It is possible to disagree over what to call the System of National Cooperation (NER) built after 2010.  Some believe that, in contradiction to his own rhetoric, Viktor Orbán is maintaining a liberal democracy, and that his illiberal concept is only directed at the destruction of his liberal based left-liberal political opponents.  However, with the weakening of the system of checks and balances, the horizontal limiting of accountability, clientelism and the nearly unbridled corruption, the continuous narrowing of societal openness and the civil sphere, the Orbán government has pushed Hungary into the gray zone of a transitional hybrid regime.

The leaders of hybrid regimes do not completely do away with the democratic institutional system, but endeavor to limit liberal democracy.

Although praise of the illberal state visibly circulates among Hungarian governing circles, the system built since 2010 continues to merrily function.

Let’s not forget that long before the 2014 speech, after coming to power in 2010 the Orbán government weakened practically every institution that could limit the government’s power:  it is enough to cite the Constitional Court which was first circumvented and then filled with Fidesz nominees, the head prosecutor which cannot be held to account, or the Fidesz-led State Auditors Office.

Putin and Erdogan can be attractive examples for Orbán, who believes in leadership with a strong hand, from a power organization point of view as well: the former has led the country for 16 years, the latter practically for 13 years, despite that constitutionally he does not stand at the head of the executive power.  With their populist rhetoric, they project that they are the only ones capable of representing the interests of their people. Viktor Orbán has been following the same strategy since 2002, when he first announced that “the homeland cannot be in opposition.”  Perhaps from the outset Fidesz stepped onto this path from a purely pragmatic point of view, but it is as though it has fallen prisoner to its own ideology, which has become the main connecting force between the governing party and its supporters.  In terms of principles, the current Hungarian right-wing stands almost entirely on anti-liberal bases: national collectivism, the national community taking priority over the individual, in the name of which it supports the strong state intervention in economic, social, and cultural spheres.

Another thing they have in common is the marked anti-Westernism, which, by the way, is a general side effect of the authoritarian-oriented transitional regime:  Erdogan and Putin in the past ten years—each his own way—have employed more and more expansive anti-Western rhetoric, in which they represent the national interests and the political opposition operates as the puppets of foreign powers.  Viktor Orbán has been whipping what he calls the failed West, and has stigmatized bodies critical of the government as foreign agents, who are treated by government media—primarily because of their role in the refugee crisis, as though they were the civil legions of George Soros.

In this chain of events the prime minister’s endorsement of Donald Trump is organically consistent, emphasizing that the Republican candidate does not think much of political correctness either. Apart from having similar opinions on the subject of migration, Orbán primarily sees his own anti-elite rhetoric validated in the politics of the American candidate who owes his nomination, in part, to progressively more intensive anti-establishment sentiment in the US.  However, there is an important difference between Trump, the “political outsider”, and Orbán, who, running his third government, is the greatest survivor of the political elite that changed the system, and who has managed to engage in anti-migration rhetoric despite this being a practically unknown expression in this region, as opposed to the United States.  In this way the Hungarian head of government has permanently joined the club of Western opponents, where national collectivism, unlimited state power, and bureaucracy exist in place of individualism, liberal democracy, and freedom.

The author is an analyst with Political Capital