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Dispatches: The End of Liberal Democracy in Hungary?
July 29, 2014

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has now admitted what many have long suspected: he wants to end liberal democracy in Hungary.

In a speech to ethnic Hungarians in Romania at the weekend, Orban declared his intention to build “an illiberal new state based on national values,” naming China, Russia, and Turkey as positive examples to follow. Orban said he thinks “that it’s not impossible, within the European Union, to build an illiberal state that rests upon national foundations.” He asserted that “I think you can. Our European Union membership does not preclude this.”

To Hungary watchers, Orban’s speech is shocking but unsurprising. Since its return to government in 2010, his ruling Fidesz party has used its supermajority in parliament to undermine the checks and balances necessary in a democracy, weakening media freedom, judicial independence, and the rule of law. Since then Fidesz has rammed through a new constitution and five amendments to it, as well as more than 700 laws, many of which have drawn criticism from the EU, the Council of Europe, and human rights organizations.

Since Orban won another term in April 2014, Hungary’s media has faced renewed pressure, prompting fresh EU criticism. The government has now also turned its sights on independent civil society, with smearing and financial inspections against critical groups. 

Orban used his speech to give a boot to civil society reminiscent of the Russian government’s branding independent groups as “foreign agents.” He said, “We are not dealing with civil society activists but with paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests [in Hungary].” He added that it was “good that a parliamentary committee has been set up to monitor foreign influence.”

The EU has struggled for years to marshal an effective response to Hungary’s authoritarian slide. Orban seems to be gambling that he can build a state that flouts the EU’s values while staying in the club. Brussels should intensify the pressure on Budapest to halt attacks on civil society, protect media freedom, and rebuild judicial independence. Because if Orban is right about EU values not being important for membership, then the EU is in serious trouble.