Last Saturday, tens of thousands of anti-government protesters marched through the Hungarian capital of Budapest, angry at the re-election of Prime Minister Viktor. Many demanded a new vote. Others decried the current — and wildly disproportionate — electoral system. It gave Mr Orban’s party, Fidesz, a two-thirds majority in parliament with under 50 per cent of the vote. Many on the streets were young. Many brandished Hungarian and European Union flags. More protests are planned. It was a reminder of just how much has changed under Mr’s Orban’s eight consecutive years of power.

Mr Orban and his Fidesz party were voted in for a third term on April 8. It was an election — declared free but not fair by international observers — dominated by xenophobia, conspiracy and smear. There was little discussion of the economy, education or healthcare; instead the campaign was overshadowed by the spectre of immigration in a country with few immigrants. “Migration is like rust that slowly but surely would consume Hungary,” Mr Orban said in one of his final rallies before the vote. This hate-filled rhetoric was accompanied by a worryingly level of anti-semitism directed at Hungarian-born philanthropist and financier George Soros.

Hungary was once described as a role model for EU enlargement in eastern Europe. What happened?

Viktor Orban helped establish Fidesz in the late 1980s as the Hungarian communist system collapsed. It was classically liberal, progressive, and skeptical of nationalism. While the next two decades would see the party move further to the right, Mr Orban’s victory in the 2010 election — on what was a moderate conservative platform — had few people predicting what would come next.

Capitalising on the public disillusionment with the previous government, Mr Orban moved quickly to consolidate control over the major levers of power across the country. Over the past eight years, checks and balances have been dismantled, critical voices have been curbed, civil society has been undermined. He used the majorities gained in 2010 and 2014 elections to tweak the constitution, pack institutions with pro-Fidesz loyalists, and change the electoral law (to the one thousands were protesting against last weekend). He has overseen the creation of what is best described as a ‘soft-autocracy’.

This is key to understanding how Mr Orban has maintained his grip on the country. Hungary is not a dictatorship. There is no state violence or repression. Mr Orban is too ideologically fickle. But he has built a system of centralised power that frustrates criticism and narrows the avenues for meaningful dissent. Independent media finds it difficult to be heard above the outlets owned by the government; their stories about corruption within Mr Orban’s family are smothered by anti-immigrant rhetoric. Efforts by opposition parties to reach out to the rural population — Mr Orban’s base — are hampered by complicated campaign regulation. NGOs, universities and other institutions face financial hurdles and harassment if they challenge the party line. All this, with the help of billions in public funds, allows Mr Orban and his government to shape much of the country’s public political discourse.

Of course, Mr Orban remains genuinely popular. He is seen as responsible for Hungary’s economic recovery and recent growth after the financial crisis that hit the country a decade ago. He is also seen as a protector of Hungarian interests in the face of ‘foreign enemies’ — whether it be migration, Islam or the EU. Hungary’s own history is one of conquest and occupation. Mr Orban has taken advantage of that. And while it is true that the political opposition has been stymied, the reality is that it is also fractured, weak and divided. Many Hungarians see few other options.

Perhaps the most striking characteristic of Mr Orban’s rule, however, is how it has been propped up, and protected, by certain parts of the EU. Hungary may be described as a threat to the union’s rules and norms, but it is also one of the top recipients of cash from Brussels in the form of its structural and investment fund. While the Prime Minister gets domestic praise for the country’s improving economy, it wouldn’t be possible without EU money — which has, at times, made up 6 percent of Hungary’s GDP. The EU has essentially been subsidising Mr Orban’s kleptocracy, allowing it to maintain a position of political privilege.

Worse still is the behaviour of certain EU politicians. The European People’s Party, the powerful centre-right alliance in the European Parliament which Fidesz belongs to, is one of the main offenders. It has given political cover and legitimacy to Mr Orban’s rule, shielding him from wider EU criticism. Why? Fidesz plays a key role in the alliance, maintaining its majority in the Brussels parliament. Other politicians — from Germany to Austria — have courted Mr Orban, voicing subtle (and not-so-subtle) support for his views on immigration and identity. Some have even invited him to speak at party conferences. Whether this is just cynical, short term domestic politicking or a true reflection of a moral vacuum at the heart of Europe, it undermines the opportunity for a broad EU response to Hungary’s transgressions.

So what happens next? Viktor Orban has called 2018 a “year of great battles”. Those inside Hungary who seek to hold their government to account — whether they be NGOs or journalists — will be worried about their own futures. A pro-government newspaper recently published a list of what they called George Soros paid “mercenaries”, made up of names from various human rights and anti-corruption organisations. The government also plans to pass a law next month which would target migration-related NGOs with new vetting and a 25 per cent tax on foreign funding. For now, Hungary’s future looks bleak. It will be difficult to get back the years lost to Mr Orban’s rule.

As for the EU, this should be a lesson and a warning. Brussels clearly lacks smart, effective mechanisms to monitor its funds and put pressure on dissenting members. It, naively, never expected it would have to deal with this level of democratic backsliding. While new ways to manage similar challenges will need to be found — the new EU budget may try to address this — a substantial dose of self-reflection is also needed for the many EU elites who have flirted with Mr Orban and his politics. This kind of moral decay is just as dangerous to the future of Europe as any single member state.

Whatever happens, Mr Orban has set a dangerous precedent. He has shown that an EU member can go after the rule of law, independent media and civil society and get away with it.

Published April 2018

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