By Brynna Boyer
Viktor Orbán was recently re-elected as the Prime Minster of Hungary, lengthening his reign over the eastern European country to over a decade. In the national election this past April for the unicameral National Assembly, Orbán and his right-wing political party, Fidesz, won more than 50% of the vote and a two-thirds supermajority in a landslide victory. However, since coming to power over a decade ago, Orbán has promulgated a legacy of illiberalism, corruption, and dishonest elections. With this legacy, many critics of the regime are casting doubt onto the legitimacy of Orbán’s rule.
This most recent election held perhaps the greatest chance in 12 years to unseat the right-wing Orbán, as the opposition was totally united against him for the first time – even turning a far-right party into an opponent of the Prime Minister. This round of elections has made it abundantly clear that, although Hungary has free elections, it would be a stretch to call them fair.
After being elected in 2010, Orbán’s government cleverly exercised its parliamentary powers to amend the Hungarian Constitution and totally rewrite how elections are conducted. Hungary has a mixed-member parliament where seats are elected both by geographic districts and party lists allocated in proportion to the popular vote — a system many political scientists consider admirable, but which, in Hungary’s case, ‘is warped.’ The Constitution was amended to cut the size of parliament in half and used to gerrymander the entire country, which puts Orbán’s opposition at an enormous political disadvantage. The constituency structure has been made severely disproportionate- the Hungarian opposition claim it takes twice as many votes to gain a seat in some election districts as in some others.
Furthermore, the independence of the judicial system has broken down and restrictions around media, academics, political opposition, NGOs and migrants have been tightened. The country’s media ecosystem is dominated now by organisations loyal to the ruling government with many journalists critical of the Prime Minister and his party fired from news outlets.Such illiberal developments seem to antagonise the democratic tenets of what one would expect from a modern, European Nation and a Member State of the liberal European Union.
Orbán also has a close relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. In fact, so enduring is this connection that Orbán has so far refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine earlier this year, even though many of Hungary’s citizens believe Russia to be the offender in this instance and are horrified at their leader for pardoning such actions.
Further emboldened by his electoral success a few months ago, Orbán has further defied the tenets and policy of the E.U. – which, as a member state, Hungary is strongly encouraged to follow – by opposing sanctions against Russia and refusing to sign off on E.U. plans to embargo Russian oil. In late May, Orbán even declared a state of emergency in Hungary, which allows him to further tighten his control on the country, in response to what the government called an ‘economic crisis’ caused by sanctions to Russia.
Additionally, Orbán has said Budapest could pay for Russian gas in Rubles, so that Hungary would not have to go without the gas on which they, and truthfully much of Europe, have become dependent. Hungary is also staunchly committed to blocking any weapon transfers from the E.U. to the Ukraine as the country refused to facilitate deliveries within their borders.
With growing illiberalism of Hungary and Orbán’s lasting defence of Putin and defiance of the pan-European policies, it seems a wonder that Hungary continues to be tolerated as a member of the European Union- and not merely tolerated, but continually funded by the multi-national organisation.
From 2014 to 2020, a period beginning four years after Orbán came to power, Hungary benefitted from €27.2 billion (£23 billion) of funding from various E.U. national and regional schemes. Orbán’s Hungary does not adhere to many of the expectations – political, social, or otherwise – of the European Union and is proving a perpetual malcontent in the realm of foreign policy as the Prime Minister has seemingly chosen his ‘pal’ Putin over loyalty to the European body which funds the lavish lifestyles of him and his associates. So why is the E.U. still supporting this illiberal and corrupt regime after over a decade of political disobedience?
The answer, as in much of the political world, can be found in the hypocrisy and corruption of the political elite. In 2017, the President of the European Commission (the executive body of the European Union) at the time, Jean-Claude Juncker, described himself as having a ‘caring relationship with Orbán’ – one which included many frequent conversations between the two politicians – a statement celebrated by the Hungarian state media. At a summit in Latvia in 2015, in an encounter which surpasses cordial and turned downright chummy, Juncker and Orbán shook hands as Juncker boisterously welcomes the illiberal leader of Hungary, laughingly proclaiming: ‘Here comes the dictator!’
Here comes the dictator indeed. Never mind the European Union’s condemnation of the restrictions of the freedom of the press in Hungary; never mind the restrictions to the rights of queer people in Hungary; never mind the constitutional and legal violations to Hungary’s democracy all imposed by the affectionately titled dictator and his party. Why would Hungary need to comply with economically damaging E.U. sanctions against an aggressive state, the leader of which also happens to be close ally, when Orbán has such great friends leading the very organisation which imposed those sanctions? Disobedience would merely earn a performative wagging of the finger and then Orbán is sent back to his illiberal political playground with even more money to fund his regime.
In fairness to Juncker, he has been comfortably retired from the European Commission for the past two years, so cannot be personally held accountable for Europe’s tolerance of Hungary throughout the invasion of the Ukraine. However, Juncker’s past actions only exemplifies how Orbán enjoys the political tolerance a close relationship affords with many an influential Brussels Bureaucrat. The very same bureaucrats with whom Putin has also been documented enjoying a close relationship in the past. It seems they have forgotten that their institution was founded on the values of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law – perhaps they are not as impervious to the charms of autocrats as European citizens have been led to believe.
Then, there is the problem of Germany. As the largest economy in Europe, Germany is one of the most influential countries in the European Union. Thus, it is very lucky indeed for Hungary that Orbán enjoys many friendships with Germany’s elite. Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl is of the opinion Orbán is ‘a great European who thinks European and acts European’ while former European Commissioner Günther Oettinger is now being paid by Budapest to lobby for Hungary’s interests in the German government and the European People’s Party. Orbán also has a long-time friend in Edmund Stoiber, the former Bavarian Prime Minister and Christian Social Union party chief, who was even awarded the Grand Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit in 2019. Why, exactly he won the award is a mystery. Perhaps for his enduring support of the Hungarian government during his tenure in the German government?
Many German car manufactures also have profitable factories in Hungary and Orbán’s government is supplying these companies with cheap labour, protection against worker strikes, as well as direct state support from the Hungarian government. Even if the German elite disagrees with the policies and tactics of the Hungarian leader, it is certainly not in their interest to pressure the German Government, or E.U. leadership, to hold Orbán accountable.
In another incredible show of hypocrisy, and perhaps even proof of German support of not even Hungary but Russia itself, Germany has allegedly failed to provide pledged weapons to the Ukraine. This is after German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, claimed that Germany has sent the Ukraine more military aid than even the United Kingdom. In a leaked government document attained by the Germany news agency Welt, Germany has failed to provide any heavy weapons to Ukrainian forces and appears to be scaling back its military support in recent weeks. The leaked official papers show Germany had not supplied any significant weapons to Ukraine since the end of March, despite vowing to grant its forces the weapons they need to repulse the Russian army.
The hypocrisy of European leadership is being slowly revealed. How dare the European Union mislead its citizens by publicly condemning an illiberal Member state but still tolerating and funding its dangerous misbehaviour due to personal connections between the leadership. How dare one of the leading nations in the European Union publicly claim to support the sovereignty of a neighbouring country during an invasion while privately scaling back aide. To what end? Are personal relationships worth abandoning one’s publicly proclaimed morals to betray the inclinations of the citizens the leaders should, instead, be facilitating?
That is just the way the world works, some may say. And they would be right. The reality of politics is that some actors are tolerated, and even supported, because of arbitrary, personal connections. But is it not frustrating to hear the political leaders of a supposedly modern, liberal, multi-national organisation publicly condemn the actions of a leader or a parliamentarian or whoever else, only to then be photographed at the wedding of the niece of the villain whom they publicly denounced not two weeks ago? Even more frustrating still when the moral hypocrisy of these world leaders results in the funding of an illiberal government with money from taxpayers who wholeheartedly disagree with the decisions and actions of the leader and his regime.
In April, the E.U. proudly proclaimed that it had started action to create a legal precedent to deny member states funding should they prove to be corrupt. However, it has never been enacted before and months have passed since the initial report, and no further progress has been announced. Many critics of the European Union are frustrated by their lack of action against Member States such as Hungary and the example being set is other Member States of the European Union can emulate Hungary in the future and receive virtually no consequences – monetary or otherwise (that is, if they have the right connections).
Orbán’s Hungary is beginning to become a malignant tumour in the belly of the political body that is the European Union. The tolerance and funding for this enduring illiberalism and spiteful disobedience by the multinational organisation is exposing the hypocrisy of the elite bureaucrats who run the EU as well as the that of other countries in Europe, such as Germany, who covertly facilitate dangerous regimes. For Europe to continue to support Orbán, financially or otherwise, would be to sully their reputation and abandon the tenets of freedom and democracy on which the European Union was founded.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.
Image Source: eudebates.tv. Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, greets former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.