Hungary serves as a warning on the populist threat to democracy

Zack Beauchamp writes:

Over the course of his eight years in power, Prime Minister Orbán has chipped away at the foundations of Hungarian democracy. It has been replaced with an authoritarian regime that wields a cynical interpretation of the law as a weapon; the country is governed by rules like the border journalism permits, regulations that can seem reasonable on their face but actually serve to undermine essential democratic freedoms.

Elections there are free, in the sense that the vote counts aren’t nakedly rigged. But they are unfair: The government controls the airwaves and media companies to such a degree that the opposition can’t get a fair hearing. Orbán’s party, Fidesz, stands up bogus opposition parties during parliamentary elections as a means of dividing the anti-Fidesz vote. In April 2018, Fidesz won the national elections, cementing Orbán’s hold on power; international monitors concluded that the opposition never really had a fair chance.

Hungary’s civil society looks free and vibrant on paper, but a patchwork of nonsensical regulations makes it nearly impossible for pro-democracy organizations to do their work. The economy seems to be growing, but a significant number of corporations are controlled by Orbán’s cronies.

An unending drumbeat of propaganda, from both official state outlets and the private media empires of Orbán allies, demonizes refugees and Muslims, warning of an existential threat to Hungarian society and culture — and touting the Orbán regime as the only thing protecting the country from an Islamic takeover. This trumped-up crisis serves as a legitimation tool for Fidesz’s authoritarianism, a pretext for the government to pass laws undermining its opponents.

Call it “soft fascism”: a political system that aims to stamp out dissent and seize control of every major aspect of a country’s political and social life, without needing to resort to “hard” measures like banning elections and building up a police state.

One of the most disconcerting parts of observing Hungarian soft fascism up close is that it’s easy to imagine the model being exported. While the Orbán regime grew out of Hungary’s unique history and political culture, its playbook for subtle repression could in theory be run in any democratic country whose leaders have had enough of the political opposition.

It’s not for nothing that Steve Bannon, who has called Orbán “the most significant guy on the scene right now,” is currently in Europe building an organization — called “the Movement” — aimed at spreading Orbán’s populist politics across the continent.

European leaders have only recently woken up to the threat Hungary poses; the European Parliament voted on Tuesday to label Orbán’s government a “systemic threat to the rule of law.” But this is likely too little, too late: Orbán has consolidated his power, and the opposition is too weak and divided to pose a major threat in the foreseeable future.

Hungary is a warning of what could happen when a ruthless, anti-minority populist backed by a major political party is allowed to govern unchecked. Americans need to pay attention. [Continue reading…]

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