Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been described as “creat[ing] the template for the populism sweeping western democracies”, and the evolution of his rhetoric over time has been extensively analysed. According to the Global Populism Database’s comparative study of speeches given by global leaders, Orbán, although not considered populist during his first term through to 2002, since later returning to the country’s premiership in 2010, has become “one of Europe’s most populist prime ministers”. The two core elements of populism are present in the case of Hungary:
anti-elitism: Orbán has moved anti-immigration and anti-Muslim cultural populism from the margins to the mainstream, pitting the Christian Hungarian majority (“the people”) against accused immigrant invaders (the “other”) who are supposedly supported by “the elite” — human rights organisations and liberals — and pose a threat to Hungary’s traditional, Christian fabric.
anti-pluralism: Erroneously equating migrants with terrorists has won Orbán votes. Now, he has presented himself as the defender of Hungary (and Europe) against Muslim migrants. “We will never allow Hungary to become a target country for immigrants”, he has claimed. “We do not want to see significantly sized minorities with different cultural characteristics and backgrounds among us. We want to keep Hungary as Hungary”.
Additional features of populism are also present:
anti-debate: The constraints placed on opposing voices have actively discouraged and limited public criticism of the government and other politically sensitive topics. Elections have been routinely held in Hungary but are regularly influenced to ensure the victory of the ruling Fidesz party.
resistant to countervailing facts: Corruption by the Fidesz party and close associates is frequently reported. However, this has failed to bring his administration down; to the contrary, corruption is often justified as an unofficial policy for Hungarian interests. Prominent Orbán supporter Andras Lanczi has claimed that “[w]hat some call corruption is essentially the main policy of Fidesz …the government has set goals like forming a layer of domestic businessmen, building pillars of a strong Hungary in rural areas or in industry”. In fact, even Orbán has claimed that his revolt against international capital and liberal values has sought to build “Hungarian national capital” by empowering a class of Hungarian entrepreneurs.
rejects intermediaries: Orbán has waged a war against all institutions and sectors in Hungary that he deems illegitimate representatives of the “popular will”. Since 2010, Fidesz has pushed through constitutional and legislative changes that have enabled it to monopolise control of the country’s independent institutions. It has also enacted policies to constrain the operations of opposition groups, media, academia, religious groups, and civil society organisations (CSOs). The country’s status has declined from “free” to “partly free” in the Freedom in the World 2019 index, and has become classed as obstructed civic space in the CIVICUS Monitor. The Fidesz government has pressured CSOs with heavy new compliance, registration and reporting burdens aimed at sidelining dissenting voices and organisations, such as the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Central European University, and other CSOs and media outlets. Guarantees of freedom of expression, protected in the constitution, have been undermined by complex media legislation and politicised regulation enacted by Fidesz. It is estimated that 90% of all media in Hungary is now directly or indirectly controlled by the party or government loyalists.
use of crisis, breakdown or threat: Orbán has always used the supposed threat of an immigrant “takeover”, underwritten by George Soros, the person he has tagged as the Hungarian people’s nemesis and connected actors, including CSOs supported through his philanthropy. This so-called “crisis” has been used to justify illiberal policies and the repression of dissent.
The attacks on traditional media and civic space in Hungary makes it challenging for CSOs to communicate with the public to champion societal change. In this context, it is critical for them to appear as objective, non-partisan entities and to publicly and judiciously criticise government actions in a way that highlights issues of key importance when it most matters to the organisation’s cause and values.