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Viktor Orban's Assault On Democracy Quietly Got Much Scarier This Summer

Not the same imminent threat as Vladimir Putin, but the Hungarian prime minister is posing a bold challenge to the West, with a troubling speech in Romania that flew below the radar.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban
Jacques Schuster

BUDAPEST — Since his 2010 election victory, the words of Viktor Orban have been seen by the West as a bitter pill that must be swallowed.

When the Hungarian Prime Minister, for example, claimed that the "Magyar race" was in "serious danger," the phrase may have seemed cut from World War II propaganda reels. Still, Western observers weren’t unduly worried, repeatedly succumbing to Orban’s virtuosity with double meanings.

When speaking English, he can can seem very affable, his language full of irony and a graceful willingness to seem harmless. In Hungarian, on the other hand, Orban's sentences have a snap as tight as the click of a cellar door lock. Hardly anybody speaks Hungarian in Europe, however. So things stayed relatively calm in Brussels and Berlin — also out of respect for the fact that Orban had after all been democratically elected.

Progressively, some of his decisions began to cause more than a little concern as divisions of power in Hungary were gradually worn away, judges were disempowered, pressure on the free press built up and cultural life was hemmed in.

But despite all reservations, it was not forgotten in Paris, Brussels, Berlin and Vienna that a government with power of absolute majority clearly has the right to implement reforms — although admittedly they saw this in terms of European values. And there was something else: Hungary is a small country that is easily overlooked when there are major crises and wars elsewhere.

The hotter the crisis in Ukraine got, the less European Union member states were inclined to focus on Hungary.

All of this may help explain why people are only now beginning to wrap their minds around a speech Orban gave in late July in the Romanian town of Baile Tusnad. Quite frankly, it goes well beyond anything the prime minister has ever said before. Worse: It’s not only a declaration of war against the EU and Europe, but against Western democracies and their foundations. Nothing that Europe stands for, what it fought for, what it suffered for, inhabits Orban’s speech.

Instead, this is essentially a democratically elected head of government pledging to discard the core ideals of the American and French Revolutions, in order to ring in an age of idolization of narrowly defined peoples and races that has nothing to do with tolerance, liberalism and individual freedom.

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Budapest's Hungarian Parliament Building — Photo: Jason Halsall

According to Orban, Hungary must turn towards societies that are "not Western, not liberal, that are not liberal democracies in fact, maybe not democracies at all." Liberal democrats are not capable of "protecting the necessary public assets for the self-preservation of the nation" and the "interests of people that must be seen as being closely linked to the life of the community, the life of the nation."

During the high point of his speech, Orban declares that his government was in a position to eradicate liberalism in Hungary and to create an "illiberal state" based on "our own, national approach."

Democracy without democrats

The prime minister remains vague on exactly how this state and its society would look. However there would probably no longer be civil rights movements and associations that monitor rule of law. Most NGOs — "political activists paid by foreign interests" — wouldn’t survive either. They already have to be monitored and controlled just the way it has become customary to do in Putin’s Russia.

Indeed, states like Russia, China and Turkey are "stars," as Orban calls them. "Dogmas and ideologies accepted in Western Europe" are of no interest to them. That these very "dogmas and ideologies" underlie the fact that Hungary since the early 1990s has become one of the largest net recipients of European aid and has since 2004 received some 25 billion euros from Brussels is wisely left unmentioned.

Then again the prime minister appears unconcerned with the pettiness of daily doings when grand visions of the future are at stake. Anything is possible in the future, Orban said at the end of his speech instilling hope in his audience, Romania’s Hungarian minority. The "Hungarian community in the Carpathian Basin" should not lose heart: Since anything is possible "it’s quite possible our time will come."

This may make some Germans recall something that Reich Chancellor Hermann Müller wrote in 1930: "A democracy without democrats represents a danger both on the inside and the outside."

But one doesn’t need to go back to the darkest chapter in German history, particularly as it wouldn’t be fair to today’s Hungary. Suffice it to say that there is an ongoing “Putinization” or “Erdoganization” of Hungarian society, the aim of which is a conservative Christian-Magyar revolution that subjugates individuals to the power of the nation. It would have nothing in common with the democratic-center-right conservatism of Europe — let alone the core Western value system.

Perhaps for this reason alone Europe's center-right parties, including the European People’s Party (EPP), should openly debate whether Viktor Orban’s Fidesz still belongs to their political family or not.

After his summer speech in Romania, one thing is crystal clear: In Budapest, the flag of democracy is at half-mast. We must ensure that some sad day it isn’t taken down altogether.

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