Budapest, Hungary – Even with the polls not looking so good for the world’s favorite populist authoritarian wanna-be Donald Trump, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the upcoming election after last time. So while we’re expecting the worst, why not prepare for it? In this interview with a Hungarian citizen, who prefers to remain anonymous, we look at what it feels like to watch a functioning democracy slide into something very much less than democratic. If we have any American readers who haven’t yet voted or made a plan to do so, now you’ve got one more reason.
The conversation will be published in three parts.
For the non-Central Eastern Europe followers out there, can you give us a brief rundown of the non-democratic situation in Hungary?
Well, you can look at it from more of a professional point of view, a political science point of view, or as a citizen. The state of democracy in Hungary is not good, to say the least. There are a lot of problems with the rule of law; the current government has been reigning for 10 years now under the leadership of Viktor Orbán, who has curbed a lot of media freedom, and a lot of checks and balances have been ruined in the country. The Hungarian democratic state is not good, especially for a European Union member state.
I guess that’s from a political science point of view – how would you view it from a citizen’s point of view? Is it obvious?
I think it’s pretty obvious. The system usually comes after different areas, one at a time, so you don’t always feel that it puts pressure on you personally, but there’s always the next institution — it’s like that old saying: “First they came for those, etc., and then they’ll come for us?”
It’s one university at a time, one scientific body at a time, one NGO at a time, and you can see that or read it regularly in the news that they are badmouthing a new newspaper, they are closing another university, etc. If you pay attention then, of course, you can feel it, you’re aware that something is not right. Of course you can hide in a bubble and not read the news at all, but reality comes back when you see a new stadium being built, while your hospitals are still in a catastrophic state.
You’ve already started to answer this question, but can you tell us a little about how it felt to witness this Hungarian democratic backsliding, or the transition from democracy to the current state?
It’s not like you can worry about it all the time, you can’t stress about it continuously, and obviously you get kind of used to it. It’s not like you’re going to be outraged by every corruption scandal that comes out, it’s not possible, or every institution that has been attacked. You go on and live your life, and there are some low points where it really like hits you. I think it’s really personal for everyone.
I can personally remember some very low points, like when the biggest independent media outlet, a website, got completely taken over, around 2014. I remember it as being really devastating. It felt really bad. When Fidesz won with a two-thirds majority for the third time in 2018, that was also really heavy, emotionally. So you have these points, but continuously as you’re living your life, it’s not possible to think of it in a simplistic, binary way, that there was democracy yesterday and there isn’t democracy today. Also with the 2015 migrant crisis, you could see that something had changed there. Attitudes are present in society today that weren’t there before, at least not to this extent.
Do you remember being more emotionally affected by it earlier on, and now it’s gotten less so? Or not?
No, I think it’s really like a wave. You have these periods when you notice it less, or you care less, or it doesn’t affect you that much emotionally, and then there are those points where it hits you, hard. This shouldn’t happen. But you also get cynical; it’s not like you can cry every night in the corner.
I think I wasn’t alone in feeling this way at the beginning of the Trump administration where, yes there was corruption, but more of what was upsetting for me was the new policies, like [trying to ban] transgender people from the military and the Muslim ban and things like that early on. They just threw them all at you. It was really heavy emotionally for the first several months, and then I guess I put up an emotional wall. What you’re saying sounds familiar to me, although of course back at that time, I would never have considered American democracy to be in actual danger.
Well, that’s how it is.
Early on in the Orbán administration, can you remember if that was a concern?
Orbán had been in government before, for four years starting in 1998, and there were issues but not to this extent, so when he came back to power in 2010 it was just like a change of scenery. Before we had the Social Democrats, and now it’s Fidesz; it wasn’t extreme that such a party came to power.
But we should add that they instantly rewrote the constitution, and I think the bells even started to ring for the academic elites around 2013-2014, when so many changes were being made. You could clearly see that this is a regime which plans to stay and reform the system in an anti-democratic way. Orbán came to power and proclaimed it as a revolution — that means a change of system, not simply a new government.
That’s what a revolution generally means.
And it was a revolution, because the Hungarian democratic system did change. You could say that something ended and something new started in 2010.
Main photo credit: Lani Hartikainen
Interview conducted by Lani Hartikainen and originally published on Banana Populism, an official partner of Kafkadesk.
Banana Populism seeks to shed light on the seemingly meaningless and profane actions of populist actors in different parts of the world. Their website functions as a space to gather and present insights on how what might not seem political at first sight — pets, sports, food, other aspects of ‘private’ life — becomes highly political when in the hands — or rather on the social media profiles — of your favorite populists.