Commentary

Hungary’s Goulash Authoritarianism

With parliamentary elections coming up in April, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s center-right Fidesz party is leading in the polls. Yet the bold, Oxford-educated reformer of the late 1990s has become an outcast among Central European politicians, and for good reason. In the last four years, Mr. Orban’s government has overseen one of the most important economic and political backslides in post-Communist Europe.

Viktor Orban has gone from bold reformer to promoter of petty nationalism.”

True, some of the bad press that Hungary is receiving is not of Mr. Orban’s own making. For instance, the virulently nationalistic Jobbik party currently occupies 43 opposition seats in Hungary’s 386-set parliament and will likely retain its influence after this year’s elections. Jobbik’s leader, Marton Gyongyosi, urged the government in November 2012 to draw up lists of Jews who “pose a national security risk,” including parliamentarians.

Within Hungary, Jobbik has succeeded in diminishing the stigma that accompanies racism; the term “gypsy criminality” is now a buzzword among Hungarian pundits, politicians and the mainstream press. These developments on Mr. Orban’s watch do nothing to improve Hungary’s reputation around the world, but it’s hard to blame the prime minister for his opponents’ platform.

Nor can one blame Mr. Orban for the rise of racist militias. After a court in Budapest banned one group calling itself the Hungarian Guard (initially founded by Jobbik) in 2009, the New Hungarian Guard was established almost immediately. In the town of Gyongyospata, uniformed militiamen threatened and chased Roma residents, including a child and a pregnant woman.

Yet Mr. Orban cannot duck blame for these developments entirely. Fearing a backlash from his nationalistic electorate, he has done little to confront the extremist groups. Instead he fans nostalgia for the era that preceded the 1920 Trianon Treaty, when Hungary controlled territory stretching from modern-day Slovakia to Serbia, Romania and Ukraine.

Mr. Orban’s catering to petty nationalism often borders on selective amnesia about certain parts of Hungarian history. Recently the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, the Mazsihisz, announced it would not take part in the Orban government’s Holocaust commemorations. According to the Mazsihisz, the framing of the ceremonies whitewashes the role that the Hungarian government played and focuses exclusively on the crimes perpetrated by the Germans—despite the fact that Hungary adopted its first anti-Jewish laws as early as 1938.

Mr. Orban’s tone-deafness when it comes to historical symbols goes hand in hand with a concerted effort to undermine the foundations of liberal democracy and rule of law in Hungary. Since Mr. Orban came to office four years ago, Fidesz has consolidated its political power and used it to pass controversial legislation tightening media oversight, as well as constitutional changes that curb judicial power and restrict political advertising, among other measures. In 2011, the Orban government seized $14 billion worth of assets from private pension funds to fix Hungary’s ailing public finances, and adopted ad-hoc levies on the financial, telecommunications and retail sectors.

When the country’s independent fiscal council criticized a government budget in 2010, Mr. Orban stripped the watchdog of its powers. A 2011 reform of the Hungarian National Bank gave government appointees (currently all members of Fidesz) a greater say in setting interest rates and other aspects of monetary policy—a move that inspires little confidence in the independence of the central bank from political pressures.

Mr. Orban’s euroskeptic rhetoric appeals to his electorate, and he does have a valid point—Brussels is often intrusive and lacks democratic accountability. But make no mistake, Mr. Orban is not in the business of rectifying the flaws of European integration. If anything, his winner-takes-all politics and his receptiveness to nationalist ideas do a greater disservice to Hungary’s political and economic future than Brussels ever could.

Dalibor Rohac is a policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute. He tweets at @daliborrohac.