Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán before the Visegrad Group (V4) summit on 11th June 2020 © MARTIN DIVISEK/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

How democracies die: the case of Hungary

Viktor Orbán is extinguishing liberty one freedom at a time
August 28, 2020

When Szabolcs Panyi started working at Index in 2013, he was excited to join one of Hungary’s most widely-read independent news sites. The outlet had started in the early days of the internet as a liberal, freewheeling place, posting quirky content for Budapest’s intellectuals. Eventually it had started to cover more serious stories. Panyi, a political and investigative journalist, was part of that shift. Index published stories on Russian meddling in Hungary, on alleged corruption involving individuals in Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s inner circle, and on policies that threatened democratic institutions. It won national prizes for its reporting, and the number of daily readers continued to increase. But even back then, there was a sense of looming threat.

In 2014, one of Index’s main competitors, another independent news site called Origo, was bought by media executive Miklós Vaszily, an associate of Orbán’s. Soon after, Vaszily sacked Origo’s editor-in-chief, and the majority of the staff resigned en masse. Origo soon transformed into a government propaganda outlet. Around the same time, Népszabadság, the country’s largest daily newspaper, was bought and shut down, its entire staff laid off. Dozens of other independent outlets—print, online and broadcast—met a similar fate, with Orbán-sympathising businessmen buying majority stakes and either forcing changes in their editorial line or shutting them altogether. Staff at Index feared they would be next. “It was really stressful,” Panyi recalls. “There were constant rumours that our fate was sealed, and that it was just a matter of time until someone bought us up and closed us, or turned us into some tamed, unimportant outlet.”

Hungary is a small country—just 10m people—and at Index, the closure of so many competitors felt very close. Many of the journalists ousted by other publications found work at Index, meaning that Panyi had colleagues who were veterans of two or three takeovers. “At some point it is so absurd that you just have to laugh,” he remembers. “Some of these journalists would say ‘we are a bad omen, wherever we start working, that place will be dead in a year or two.’” The rumours about imminent takeovers became the source of dark humour too. “We didn’t understand why we survived,” says Panyi.

Pursuing serious investigative and political reporting was a constant challenge. Politicians from the governing party, Fidesz, generally ignored requests for interviews, and access to information and official documents was heavily restricted. Orbán gave so few domestic press conferences that sometimes Panyi had to travel to Brussels to attend EU press briefings if he wanted to ask the prime minister a question. But despite these constraints, Index was thriving. It soon had a million unique users every day—a tenth of Hungary’s population. This gave Index serious clout: a single article could attract hundreds of thousands of readers. As well as pursuing its own reporting, Index elevated stories of local corruption or scandal from smaller outlets. And as each year came and went without a takeover, some staff felt a tentative optimism.

That changed this year. In March, as Hungary—like the rest of the world—was consumed by the pandemic, changes to the ownership structure of Index were quietly announced. Miklós Vaszily, the businessman who had bought and gutted Origo a few years earlier, had acquired 50 per cent of Index’s advertising business. In June, editor-in-chief Szabolcs Dull posted an uncompromising statement on the website warning: “The editorial staff of Index is in danger” and that “there are two basic prerequisites for our continued operation: Index’s editorial independence and that there is no outside interference in our staffing decisions.” In July, Dull was fired, and more than half the remaining staff—around 70 people—resigned in protest. Panyi watched in horror; he’d left Index in 2018, but was still friends with many staffers. The takeover felt deeply personal. Along with other journalists, he attended the protest. The mood was dour. “It was like a funeral march,” he told me. “It wasn’t angry, just really sad.”

“Dozens of independent media outlets—print, online, broadcast—either changed their editorial line or were shut down”

The slow but remorseless decline of independent news outlets is part of a wider slide towards autocratic rule in Hungary—and beyond. The closest parallel is with nationalist-populism elsewhere on the continent, especially in Poland. The re-election of President Andrzej Duda this summer was extremely narrow, but there is concern that it could be enough to fundamentally alter the nature of Poland’s democratic system. But what is happening in Hungary can also be thought of as part of a tide of rising despotism in countries from Erdogan’s Turkey to Duterte’s Philippines and Bolsonaro’s Brazil, to say nothing of Xi’s China or even Trump’s America. Closer to home, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings have launched broadsides against independent institutions from the civil service to the judiciary and the BBC. Ferdinand Mount—a Tory intellectual, and a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher—has written that the “overall goal” of the Brexit administration could be “described, and with justice, as a sort of national populism, of the kind practised by Orbán.” Whether you buy that or not, if you care about democracy anywhere, you can’t afford to ignore Hungary.

Orbán first emerged an anti-Communist campaigner in the late 1980s, calling for free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. He has been prominent in Hungary ever since—a shape-shifting political figure who soon transformed into a nationalist conservative. He was first elected prime minister from 1998 to 2002, but returned to power in a landslide in 2010. In both his stints as leader, he has pursued a hardline right-wing agenda. During the last decade, his Fidesz government has rewritten the constitution, changed electoral law to favour the party, brought media outlets under the control of his allies, and overhauled the justice system.

The story of Index is also the story not only of multiple media outlets, but of all manner of Hungarian institutions: “The path and the playbook that was used is very similar to other fields of public life,” explains Dávid Vig, director of Amnesty International Hungary. “The government is really not keen on having any independent voices out there that can significantly put checks and balances on the executive power.”

The erasure of hope

Exploiting “emergencies”—real or confected—in order to override normal procedure and centralise power is a tactic common to despots through the ages. Orbán has done this throughout his time in government. During the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe, for example, despite Hungary’s already unusually stringent asylum rules, he manoeuvred to declare a “state of migration emergency.” Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has been used to accelerate the slide into authoritarian rule.

In March, Orbán declared Hungary to be in a “state of danger.” In March, parliament voted through measures that gave Orbán the power to rule by decree. This was permitted under Hungary’s constitution as a temporary measure to allow swift action during a crisis. But the initial failure to spell out a time limit or “sunset clause” and the sweeping nature of the decrees issued by Orbán, as well as other legal changes that went through parliament at the time, betrayed a wider agenda that went far beyond the pandemic response. The package of special measures included new prison sentences for anyone deemed to be “spreading misinformation” about Covid-19, which journalists feared could be used against them. Power was taken away from local municipalities—often controlled by opposition parties—and given to county legislatures, which are generally Fidesz-run. Although the “state of danger” is now officially over, a so-called “omnibus bill” turned most changes that had been made under emergency decrees during the pandemic into permanent law. Coming after a long period in which political power has become increasingly centralised, and democratic institutions steadily undermined, many are asking: is Hungary still a democracy?

Orbán’s decrees were not the only warning light: while all eyes were on the health crisis, a number of drastic but entirely unrelated legal changes were pushed through parliament. On 31st March—not only the day after the “state of danger” was imposed because of supposedly all-consuming demands on the state, but also International Transgender Day of Visibility—the government found time to announce a new law that would end legal recognition for trans people. It defines gender as being based on chromosomes at birth, abolishing previous provisions that meant that trans people could alter their gender and name on official documents. Debate was minimal—an opposition politician who tried to read out the views of trans people to a parliamentary committee was dismissed and told to sit down. It became law in May.

Journalists work in the news room of Index, one of Hungary’s biggest opposition news portals © Chris McGrath/Getty Images) Journalists work in the news room of Index, one of Hungary’s biggest opposition news portals © Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Journalists work in the news room of Index, one of Hungary’s biggest opposition news portals © Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Orbán’s government has long championed “family values,” demonising gay and now trans people as part of this culture war—last year, the speaker of parliament compared gay couples that adopt children to paedophiles. Even in this context, the timing and the extent of the new law still caught campaigners by surprise. “The media attention was really focused on the pandemic,” says Luca Dudits, communications officer at the Háttér Society, a Hungarian LGBT rights group, who decries the law as an assault on “a fundamental constitutional right.”

She points out that the law goes against international human rights norms, case law in the European Court of Human Rights, and previous rulings of Hungary’s own constitutional court. In Hungary, people have to show ID frequently—at the post office, making a large credit card payment—which means that trans people denied legal gender recognition could soon face discrimination and practical barriers in day-to-day life if the name they are using or their appearance doesn’t match that on the ID card. The Háttér Society runs a helpline: numerous trans people have called it expressing suicidal thoughts since the new law was passed. “Right now, there is no legal way to [change gender],” says Dudits. “It’s an erasure of hope.”

“Exploiting 'emergencies' as an opportunity to centralise power is a common tactic of despots”

Trans people make up a tiny minority of the overall population in Hungary, and yet a government supposedly preoccupied with the coronavirus crisis was happy to take the time to target them. “This was,” Vig reflects, “a clear case of passing legislation that curbs the rights of a marginalised group, and then acting as if nothing happened. It’s shocking.” He adds: “Most changes that have happened since March perfectly fit into the trend of what came before, but some red lines were crossed.” The ratcheting up of oppression is therefore hard to notice, and easy to deny.

Scapegoating the vulnerable is a trademark of authoritarian populists, and Orbán and his Fidesz colleagues have repeatedly done so to shore up chauvinist votes—and outflank their rivals on wilder far-right fringes. There has been much grandstanding against immigrants, gay people and, since 2015, Orbán has relentlessly vilified the financier and philanthropist George Soros, claiming that he is behind a plot to flood Europe with immigrants. In a campaign with distinctly anti-semitic overtones, Orbán has used “Stopping Soros” as a catch-all justification for efforts to clamp down on civil society.

Beyond the law

Before the pandemic hit, Hungary was in the throes of a controversy in which this scapegoating collided with questions over not only the independence but the very authority of the judiciary. Earlier this year, a case that had dragged on for over a decade through Hungary’s lower courts finally reached the Supreme Court. It centred on a school in the eastern town of Gyöngyöspata that was allegedly unlawfully segregating pupils from the long-disadvantaged and discriminated against Roma community. The school had been keeping them in separate classrooms and giving them substandard teaching.

This practice might seem reminiscent of the practices of the old American South, which ended after the US Supreme Court famously ruled against the “separate but equal” education for African Americans. There, despite deep personal misgivings, President Eisenhower understood his constitutional responsibility to uphold the rule of law, and was ultimately ready to send in federal troops to enforce it. That was back in the mid-1950s, and so the 21st-century Hungarian Supreme Court unsurprisingly ruled in favour of the 60 Roma students, ordering that €290,000 be paid to the families.

But Orbán responded to the Supreme Court not by upholding the constitution, but by taking the chance to wage war on it. After the ruling, Orbán intervened to block the payout, saying that the Roma children who were deprived of a good education were actually “aggressors against the majority,” and that everyone should work if they want to receive money. “The Fidesz propaganda machine went into full force over this idea that Roma are getting money for nothing,” says Jonathan Lee of the European Roma Rights Centre.

Orbán announced a “national consultation,” in reality a sort of glorified opinion poll, which usually takes the form of a questionnaire posted to millions of Hungarians, the questions posed in heavily loaded language. Eight had been held previously, on subjects from Soros to migration to the EU. Critics had already denounced these “consultations” as a tool that creates the illusion of popular consent for divisive campaigns and policies. But invoking such a nakedly political device to undermine a Supreme Court judgment was, for many, a step too far. More than 2,000 people—including Roma families, who usually avoid drawing attention to themselves—marched on parliament to protest. “This has really shown a coming together of ordinary Hungarians and Roma, who are both fighting for democracy,” says Lee. “Orbán has been challenging the rule of law for a while,” but if he effectively “overrules” a judgment of the country’s highest court “based on one of his consultations, that’s another step down for democracy.”

Playing Göd

Systematically since 2010, key institutions—the media, elements of the judiciary and education sector—have had their power, independence or funding stripped away. Usually this has been done, as Vig puts it, via “mechanisms [that] look like they are democratic, but they are not really democratic in nature.” It’s mostly been a slow creep rather than an abrupt power grab, pursued through legalistic channels that lend a veneer of respectability. But the veneer is beginning to wear thin.

Göd is a small city in central Hungary, north of Budapest. Between 2001 and 2014, it was home to a large Samsung factory, which shut down because the technology had become outdated—the money to improve facilities was hard to come by in Hungary’s depressed economy. In 2017, however, it was announced that the Samsung plant would be reopened and expanded as a hub for producing electric car batteries, creating 2,700 jobs. The government agreed to invest over €108m, and pushed approval through, granting permits speedily without, according to critics, doing proper due diligence. Construction forged ahead.

In 2018, journalists from Index travelled to Göd and interviewed residents. Many complained about the alleged environmental consequences of the reopened plant—noise, chemicals, dust, and the knock-on effect on health. Some said that the value of their homes had dropped markedly, others that they had already decided to move away. One man told Index: “The window cannot be opened because the house is full of dust. See what cracks have been on the wall since this factory started being built here. We can’t stay here anymore. And we can’t sell the house.” But these complaints fell on deaf ears. The mayor József Markó was from Fidesz, and central government strongly backed the factory.

Index Deputy editor Veronika Munk talks to journalists at the website, after the editor was ousted © REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo Index Deputy editor Veronika Munk talks to journalists at the website, after the editor was ousted © REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Index Deputy editor Veronika Munk talks to journalists at the website, after the editor was ousted © REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

In October 2019, Hungary held local municipal elections. For the first time since the 2010 landslide, the country’s disparate opposition parties decided to pool their resources and work together to defeat Fidesz. This unification effort was largely successful. While Fidesz retained its dominance at county level, there was the shocking loss of a swath of municipal councils and mayoralties to the opposition—Fidesz had entered the elections holding 38 of the 47 most significant mayoral positions, but retained only 19. One place where the opposition triumphed was Göd, where Csaba Balogh of the liberal Momentum party became mayor. During the campaign, Balogh had highlighted the adverse effects of the Samsung factory, criticised the terms of the government investment there, and promised to make sure the construction carefully abided by regulations and protections. In voting him in, the local population had made their views clear.

But this victory was short lived. Even if the government has not prevented votes for opposition parties from being counted, it is energetic and imaginative in making sure that they don’t ultimately count. When the government declared its pandemic “state of danger,” one of Orbán’s decrees was to create “special economic zones”—a new concept in Hungary. In these zones, both decision-making power and revenue (in the form of industrial taxes) would be diverted away from the municipal council, going instead to the county assembly. The location of the first special economic zone surprised no one: Göd. Decisions about the future of the factory and its regulation were essentially taken away from the opposition-controlled municipal council, and handed to the Fidesz-controlled county legislature. Soon after the announcement, Balogh said that he would seek help from Brussels. “We want Europe to know that, using the epidemic, they can take one third of our town’s tax revenue and one fifth of its territory where a huge chemical plant is planned to be built with obvious damage to the environment. And all this without the locals having any say.” But as yet, the EU has said nothing, and construction of the new Samsung factory is ploughing ahead.

“Jurisdiction was transferred from the local community to the county,” says András Léderer, senior advocacy officer at the -Helsinki Committee, a human rights watchdog in Hungary. “What does it have to do with Covid-19? With ‘flattening the curve’? Nothing. Instead of acknowledging public opinion in this area, they are creating this outrageous way to overcome the local population’s opposition to the factory.”

A tragedy that’s ceased to shock

When the rule by decree powers were announced in March, the US-based NGO Freedom House declared that Hungary was no longer a democracy, but a “hybrid regime” with elements of autocracy. Although the “state of danger” ended in June, due to that “omnibus” bill the decrees from the emergency have been passed into regular law. At the same time a new provision for a “state of medical crisis” has been created, which allows Orbán to continue to pass decrees, albeit with a more
limited scope.

Votes are still cast and counted, and the form of regular political process is mostly still observed. But what of the substance? If democracy is “government by conversation,” there is an alarming tendency to close consequential conversations down. Vig sums up the situation pointedly: “Is there a consultation in which legislative bills are adopted in parliament? Yes. Also, does this sometimes last less than one hour? Yes. If you receive a 200-page omnibus bill and have 50 minutes to respond to it, for instance, then I wouldn’t call that a real consultation. It’s legal authoritarianism.”

Hungary remains an EU country and a member of the Council of Europe. Civil society activists value having recourse to European courts when they bring legal challenges against the government. The EU said in April that it would carefully monitor different emergency provisions put in place during the pandemic. But thus far, there has been no further action when it comes to Hungary and its clear violation of democratic norms. As Léderer says, the EU is “practically nowhere.”

“Orbán is consolidating control by stamping out the dissent, undercutting the power of his opponents and demonising minorities”

Hungary’s next election is in 2022, and the campaigning starts in earnest next year. After the opposition successfully united against Fidesz in last year’s local elections, Orbán is seeking to consolidate control. Not through any positive policy programme, but rather—it appears—by stamping out dissent, undercutting the power of his opponents, and demonising minorities. This is not a government that is willing to be held to account: it has conducted a sustained and effective campaign to paint civil society groups as traitors.

When Amnesty International published a short statement of basic human rights requirements for the government to observe when dealing with the pandemic, Vig says that the office was inundated with abusive messages, including death threats. And with the takeover of Index, the biggest independent media outlet in the country has been neutralised. A smear campaign has already begun against the owner of one of the few remaining independent news sites,, which most see as a move to pressure him to sell up.

“The whole information flow is centralised and controlled. And the stakes are much higher when instead of ten separate teams doing political reporting, we only have three or four,” says Panyi, who now works for an investigative outlet. “It is not a huge surprise but still, when it is actually happening, it’s really tragic.”