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Trump’s Friend from Hungary is No Role Model for Supporters of Democracy

Published in: The Hill
Hungary President Viktor Orban arrives at the NATO Heads of State summit in Madrid, June 30, 2022. © 2022 Bertrand Guay, Pool via AP, File

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s cozy relationship with Donald Trump should raise red flags for people in the United States who care about preserving and building an inclusive, healthy, U.S. democracy. Trump makes no secret about his admiration for the authoritarian strongman who has ruled Hungary since 2010. During Orban’s visit to Mar-a-Lago on March 8, Trump referred to him as “the boss.” Those are chilling words.

People in the U.S. should be worried when a presidential candidate fawns over another leader’s anti-democratic rule. The Hungarian leader Trump admires has openly undermined his country’s democratic institutions, including courts, media and civil society. He changes the Hungarian constitution on a whim.

The Hungarian prime minister stops at nothing to silence critical voices, including activists and independent media. Orban spends large amounts of taxpayers’ money on nationwide billboard and media campaigns with fearmongering disinformation about migrants, LGBT people and European allies.

Imagine a United States where the opposition — whatever its party or ideology — gets only five minutes on public service TV every four years to talk about their political perspectives and hopes for the future of their country. That’s today’s Hungary.

Orban, during his 14 years in power, has systematically centralized power, hollowed out democratic safeguards and weakened the rule of law.

Orban has declared several states of emergency, which allow him to rule by decree, side-stepping parliament. Not that the parliament at this point has any democratic function — it’s a mere rubber-stamp, and the presidency acts as Orban’s personal signing-off pen. With his two-thirds majority in parliament, he can pass any law without prior public consultation. Indeed, Orban has changed the constitution 13 times.

Over the years, Orban has taken control over the majority of the country’s media, using it to shower people with misleading information; demonize the opposition; vilify minority groups, including migrants and LGBT people and smear imagined enemies. By keeping people in the dark and distorting reality, the crackdown on the media is a direct threat to a functioning democracy. And according to international election observers, it made a material difference in Hungary’s most recent 2022 elections, which were free but not fair.

Power is not complete without money. Corruption is rampant, so much so that even the EU got fed up and froze funds to Hungary, as it became evident that EU funds were misused to award contracts to Orban’s allies. While some of those funds were released in December, a sizable amount remains frozen.

Hungary’s government presents itself as family friendly, focused on protecting children. But that consists of conflating LGBT people with pedophiles and prohibiting items that contain anything that could be perceived as promoting homosexuality or gender in schools. Meanwhile the country’s president in February had to resign following a scandal over pardoning a person implicated in the cover up of child sexual abuse. The real problems facing Hungary’s children, like an underfinanced education system and a health care system in shambles, are not addressed.

European Union institutions have initiated numerous legal proceedings against the Hungarian government and triggered a mechanism that could ultimately lead to Hungary being stripped of its voting rights in the EU. The Hungarian government’s alignment with Russia has put the country on a collision course with other EU countries over its position on Ukraine, as it tried to block EU support to Ukraine and obstructed Sweden’s NATO membership bid.

Democracy is not a given. It requires constant attention and people to fight for it. No country is immune to a descent into authoritarianism if society lets down its guard. Hungary is a cautionary tale of how the actions of one leader led to the deterioration of democracy, with people’s rights and freedoms severely curtailed, and a corrupt government led by an autocratic leader.

When it comes to democracy, Viktor Orban is no hero. What has happened to Hungary should be a wake-up call for the U.S. and not something anyone who cares about democratic values should wish to emulate.

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