Vostok Cable contributor Lili Bayer explains why the comfortable election predicted for Viktor Orbán is so controversial both inside and out of Hungary.
As Hungarians go to the polls today (6 April), the international media has focused heavily on the Fidesz government, which is expected to return to office. Over the past four years, the Orbán government has become notorious for its revisions of Hungarian history, pressure on banks and energy companies, poor treatment of minorities, and limits on free speech.
One element missing in much of the coverage of Hungary, however, has been the rise of fear in Hungarian society. A few outspoken Hungarian journalists have come out and spoken about their experiences of being intimidated and censored, especially in the state-run media, where some topics are considered off-bounds. Some former state employees, from ex-Fidesz agriculture official József Ángyán to bureaucrats at the Central Bank have described corruption and intolerance of dissident opinion throughout the government bureaucracy. Some of the country’s most talented television hosts and policy experts have lost their jobs. Fidesz and its oligarch supporters control not only the state bureaucracy and most of the media, but also many businesses and all government contracts. Husbands, wives, and friends of opposition figures have therefore become unemployable. As a result, some Hungarians have come to fear speaking their minds.
The fear extends beyond ministries and media institutions. It is present in private corporations, in schools, and in households across the country. At its root, the fear comes from the decline of Hungary’s democratic institutions and the lack of checks on the Fidesz party’s power. Fidesz has used its two-thirds majority in parliament over the past four years to gain control over nominally independent institutions. The Media Council, which oversees both state-owned and private news outlets, is dominated by Fidesz loyalists. Justices from the country’s top court have been forced out to make way for Orbán’s appointees, thus undermining the judiciary’s ability to act as a check on the government’s actions. There is therefore no institution to protect those fired on political grounds, no one willing to start a formal inquiry into censorship.
The fear is not, of course, comparable to the fear of Chinese, Uzbeks, or Iranians, who live under the rule of much stronger and more authoritarian regimes. But the return of fear to Hungary after a two-decade absence is significant. It impacts the daily lives of millions, and has no place in a modern democratic society. The existence of this kind of fear in the European Union should ring alarm bells across the continent.
Fidesz is likely to win the elections, but the fear does not have to continue along with the Orbán government. While Hungary’s courts are no longer independent, citizens can turn to the European Union, which should match its rhetoric with concrete actions, including withholding EU funds as long as Hungary continues violating the rights of its own citizens. Bureaucrats who come across abuses of power should speak out. Ordinary citizens should feel empowered to debate current events with their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. There are Fidesz members with reservations regarding the direction of their party. They need to challenge its leadership. As Vaclav Havel wrote in the Power of the Powerless, we must live within the truth.