Hungary Insight

Democratic backsliding and the rise of authoritarianism: A Hungarian perspective (2/2)

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Budapest, Hungary – Welcome to the second part of our interview series on what it looks like to watch democracy slipping away, and what can be done to stop it. If you missed part one, check it out here.

What you mentioned about the bells not really going off until a few years after Orbán won in 2010, is very interesting.

Some Hungarian politicians who are now in the opposition were still members of Fidesz back then, but they left during that time. A lot of conservative elites supported Fidesz at that time, but left because the party had become very different from what is originally was. Fidesz started going in a totally different direction during those years.

So you saw a pattern where people who supported a conservative ideology in various ways were with Fidesz, and then gradually moved away from it once they saw what Fidesz was becoming?

Exactly, and then of course new people started to support Fidesz, beginning to form the economic elite, or the “intelligentsia”.

The new Fidesz intelligentsia.

Yes, which, I might add, there aren’t many…

Did it ever feel like the opposition had a chance after Fidesz rose to power?

I think they did in 2014, the opposition would have had a chance back then. The problem was that before 2010, due to the economic crisis and other developments in Hungary and in the Social Democratic party, that party’s support significantly eroded. And Hungary had already started becoming a two-party system prior to that, Fidesz versus the Social Democrats and the liberals.

They couldn’t build themselves up from that during Fidesz’ first four-year mandate, but I think there would still have been a point where Fidesz could have been beaten in an election. After that came the 2015 migrant crisis, and that was Orbán’s saving grace, because he was able to use it to build up enormous political capital. Five years later, he’s still riding that wave.

And not only him.

That’s also when Fidesz really started to veer towards the right. Before you could say it was a center-right conservative party, but it really went far right from 2015, and basically took over the far-right electorate as well.

There was a radical right party in the opposition (Jobbik) which was rather strong at that time, but it moved towards the center, while Fidesz took up the far-right political space – with its xenophobic rhetoric, radical anti-Muslim and the increasingly vocal support for conservative values like family or religion. After that, the best hope for the opposition in 2018 was to strip Fidesz of its two-thirds majority, but even that didn’t happen.

That says something.

But now, 2022…

Do you think that Fidesz could lose a two-thirds majority at this point?

Maybe they could lose the two-thirds majority, but as for the rest… I don’t believe the opposition would be able to form a government in 2022. Now all the opposition parties are working together, supposedly, on a common list to beat Fidesz. But listening to Orban saying he plans to govern until 2030, it’s hard not to be cynical as to the opposition’s chances.

He says that straight out?

Absolutely. And not to blame the opposition per say — not that there aren’t any problems — but not only did Fidesz amend the electoral system in its favour, it also owns so much of the media that large parts of the Hungarian population only hear government rhetoric from the radio, the TV and on the internet, everywhere, day in, day out. It’s really hard to combat that.

The whole society is pretty much apathetic, because it’s not the kind of regime where “the black car comes for you”. That’s what Fidesz supporters also say, and that’s why there so much apathy today: you can still get by, you can say whatever you want, have your job, etc.

So it’s not authoritarian enough to actually encroach upon people’s lives and livelihoods, at least the way they see it …

Exactly. You can notice it in your life, but you can also block it out. You go to your job, you meet up with your friends, whatever you do in life. You go to a concert. That still happens. But if you look deeper into it, you’re probably going to a place that is owned by some Fidesz-friendly oligarch, but are you going to go nowhere? The culture war is really on now, Kulturkampf, as we call it.

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.

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