In The Light that Failed Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes write how elites of the former eastern bloc started to imitate western democracies after 1989. The perceived promise was that by doing as Austria, Hungary would eventually become as prosperous as its former partner in the Habsburg empire.
Today Hungary has all the hallmarks of liberal democracy, from the institutions to the laws and elections. For all his talk about illiberal democracy, the Orbán government – whenever it faces criticisms from abroad – points to the fact that Hungary is not only committed to western values, it is their true defender. Orbán’s ministers and Fidesz media regularly paint the West as a chaotic place, with decreasing freedoms, ravaged by immigration and cancel culture.
What has changed during the Orbán era is that Fidesz – instead of imitating western democracy with the intent of adopting it – has instead started to fake it.
Instead of taking the name of an institution at face value, one should look at how it is functioning. Does it serve its stated purpose?
Nominally independent institutions have been packed by Orbán-loyalists. The state media is churning out government talking points and worldview, Fidesz propaganda workers are masquerading as independent experts and pundits. Real debate between government and opposition is almost non-existing. The last television debate between a prime minister and leader of opposition was in 2006.
Privately owned media outlets have been bought and converted into propaganda tools by Orbán-friendly businessmen. Of course, Orbán-friendly “businessmen” are as fake as the Orbán friendly “journalists”. Getting rich on rigged public tenders doesn’t make you a businessman. The closing of independent media outlets is always explained as a business decision by the owners or independent regulators, something which the government has no influence over.
The authorities seem for some reason unable to uncover major crimes in one of the most corrupt countries in the EU. Those who are prosecuted seem like small fry, with amounts involved in the hundred-thousand-euro category.
The elections system has given Fidesz a two-thirds supermajority in parliament with less than 50% of the votes. Ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries without a registered address can vote by mail, while Hungarian citizens with Hungarian addresses currently staying or living abroad can only vote in person, at designated embassies and consulates. This may be time consuming and a financial burden for many. Legal and technical reasons have been given for this, but it is no secret that Fidesz is polling stronger among ethnic Hungarians than those living in mostly western countries. Local governments not controlled by Fidesz get less funding than those who are “smart “enough to vote as Orbán would like them to.
Orbán’s people are immune to scandals which would end careers in most democracies. Thanks to the election system and Orbán’s power, his people are more afraid of him than the wrath of the public. If they are not a liability to Orbán himself no scandal is big enough to hurt them.
In his 11 years in power, Orbán has created an imitation of liberal democracy with no intent of being one. For those who want to get ahead, unconditional loyalty to Orbán is expected, not professional commitment to their chosen vocation. Laws and regulations are created and amended to Fidesz’s needs. These are the foundations Orbán’s system is built on.
The imitation with the intent of adopting has not stopped, it has just moved on to other fields. Orbán likes to imitate the image of the strongman, with Putin as an obvious role model. He has tried to import the Kulturkampf from America, as if feminism and gender studies had any real influence in Hungary. The ratio of women in parliament and government is among the lowest in Europe. LGBT people have replaced immigrants and Muslims as the new enemy.
A new television channel- Pesti TV- was established to reach out to the youth and convince them that being conservative can be sexy and rock & roll (direct quote). ‘Conservative’ in this setting means being a committed Orbán follower. The young “conservative intellectuals” would like to become the new Milo Yiannopoulos (as he was before his fall from grace) or Ben Shapiro. It is rather ironic that those who are criticizing the imitation of the West have become imitators of American products themselves, namely Trumpism and the Alt Right movement. Their shows have English names, like the Fair Right or the Right Brothers – odd choices for a nationalistic Hungarian television channel. They mostly rant about the left-liberal elite which – despite 11 years of Orbán rule – somehow still dominates Hungarian life.
Of course, the biggest difference between pundits like Ann Coulter and Fox News and their Hungarian imitations is that the former ones can function in a market environment, whereas the latter are dependent on direct or indirect funding from Fidesz.
Orbán’s democracy is like any other fake product – it looks like the original, but you cannot expect it to work like one. It’s a fraud designed to generate money for dishonest people. A regime unwilling or unable to play by the rules of a democracy cannot be defeated through a regular democratic election. By participating in rigged elections and at the same time telling their voters that there is a real chance of winning, the opposition parties legitimize Orbán’s fake democracy, and mislead the electorate. As long as the majority in Hungary and abroad keep treating Orbán’s regime as a democracy without understanding it’s true nature nothing will change.
Orbán once told foreign diplomats to pay attention to what he does, not what he says. It’s time to take him up on that advice.