In Eger, a mid-sized town about two hours northeast of Budapest, someone has plastered “Allahu Ackbar” on an opposition party’s billboards. In Budapest, “Orbán vagy Turbán” (Orbán or Turbans) is scrawled on a bridge across the Danube. In every town and hamlet across the Hungarian plain, you’ll find campaign posters from the ruling and opposition parties strewn along the main roads. A few have even made it across the northern border, into villages that list Hungarian names under Slovakian ones on traffic signs, places where they still call the town hall the “város háza” instead of the Slovak equivalent.
Some foreign observers—and, to be fair, quite a few Hungarians—worry that Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s populist-conservative prime minister, is on the verge of installing a one-party state. More excitable critics insist that Orbán is already an autocrat in all but name, and that the recent elections were an elaborate sham. Steve Bannon, whose name inspires a kind of existential dread among American liberals, has called the Hungarian prime minister a hero. The parallels between Bannon’s old boss and Orbán are almost too obvious: Fidesz party billboards feature the prime minister’s face right next to the words “Nekünk magyarország az első”—“With us, Hungary comes first.”
On Sunday, this message was enough to return Orbán as Hungary’s prime minister, along with a healthy Fidesz majority in parliament. But is Hungary a sham democracy, as Orbán’s critics contend, or merely a country whose electoral outcomes offend the sensibilities of American liberals and EU technocrats? The answer, like most issues in Eastern Europe, is complicated. Orbán is no Putin, and regardless of the election results, Hungary is not a one-party state. Much of the criticism directed at Orbán in the Western press is undoubtedly fueled by disdain for his outspoken opposition to the EU, particularly his stance on immigration (here it bears mentioning that it’s Orbán who’s in sync with Hungarian public opinion—there isn’t much enthusiasm for open borders in Eastern Europe). But there are worrying signs on the horizon, and less than a generation after the fall of communism, it would be wrong to take the health of liberal democracy in Eastern Europe for granted.
First, the good news. Despite a run of sustained electoral success, the ruling Fidesz party still faces challenges from across the political spectrum. Social media is rife with criticism of Orbán and his associates, while independent media outlets openly—and vehemently—criticize the government and its policies. Two banal factors explain Fidesz’s recent victory: a relatively strong economy and the fragmented state of the opposition. Incumbent parties typically benefit from robust economic growth, and there’s a reasonable case that Orbán’s policies helped Hungary weather the financial crisis and its aftershocks.
The fault lines within the opposition were exacerbated by the curious case of Jobbik, a neo-fascist party that is awkwardly trying to rebrand itself as the respectable center-right alternative to Fidesz. Given the party’s checkered history, it’s unsurprising that the left was reluctant to coordinate with Jobbik candidates or vote tactically to deny Fidesz a majority. Meanwhile, many of Jobbik’s original supporters were unenthusiastic about its turn towards the center. Scrawled across several of the party’s billboards in Eger is a single word: “áruló” (traitor).
A Fidesz loss in a February mayoral election that was supposed to be a shoe-in for the ruling party is evidence enough of the continued vitality of Hungarian democracy. Other signs are not so reassuring. The Internet remains a free and vital forum for debate, but print media is increasingly dominated by powerful businessmen friendly to Orbán and Fidesz. The watchdog organization Freedom House, hardly a hotbed of left-wing agitation, now rates Hungary’s media as only “partly free.” Political groups across the ideological spectrum struggle with voter apathy and indifference to public corruption.
Some legacies of communist rule are readily apparent, like the brutalist apartment blocks that dominate Hungary’s suburbs. Public indifference isn’t as obvious as the ugly architecture, but it’s real nonetheless, a persistent reminder of what a half century of communism does to a country’s political culture. Professor András Tarnóc, who teaches American studies and political science at Eszterházy Károly University in Eger, says that the problem is particularly acute in Hungary because of the country’s unique post-war history. After the 1956 uprising, the Hungarian regime allowed its subjects more personal freedom in exchange for an implicit understanding that politics was strictly off-limits. This arrangement gave Hungarians an unprecedented degree of autonomy within the Eastern Bloc, but it also engendered public indifference to corruption and a sense that politics is somebody else’s problem.
Sunday’s surprisingly high turnout suggests that the country is beginning to shake off this pre-1989 mindset. Still, when discussing political corruption in Hungary, a weary fatalism often creeps into the conversation. Over drinks with a group of Hungarians on the eve of the election, a friend casually dismissed the idea that any party or politician would actually tackle corruption. Almost everybody at the table nodded along resignedly.
Lurking in the background is the specter of immigration, an issue that Fidesz relentlessly hammered and the opposition largely avoided, preferring instead to focus on a few high-profile corruption cases and a general sense of fatigue with the incumbent party. The least charitable interpretation of Fidesz’s immigration campaign is that it’s the latest sign of the country’s slow descent into fascism, a crude political ploy that leverages a modest EU refugee resettlement program to exploit the xenophobia and chauvinism lurking just below the surface of Hungarian society.
A more charitable observer would raise two counterpoints. First, Hungarians read the news. The permanent state of emergency that has prevailed in France since the Bataclan attacks, the spate of truck and van attacks throughout Western Europe, the rash of sexual assaults in Cologne, the persistent failure of integration in places like Molenbeek—these problems are real, not a figment of social media or an excitable right-wing press. If Western European countries, with their ample financial resources and comparatively longer histories of assimilating newcomers, are struggling with immigration, how would Hungary fare? A recent Guardian dispatch from Miskolc incredulously reports that Hungarians worry about immigration despite having never met any migrants. But is it really shocking that people in Miskolc, a city that has become a byword in Hungary for post-industrial decline, might worry about adding another problem to an already lengthy list?
The second point is grounded in the history of Eastern Europe. Hungary and its neighbors jealously guard their sovereignty because their history is, in large part, a history of foreign domination. The idea of having national immigration policy dictated by the EU, an organization with a severe democracy deficit and its own history of bureaucratic overreach, is an affront to the patriotic sensibilities of many Hungarians. When Hungary joined the EU, it was hoping, according to Tarnóc, to join “a Europe of nations, not a United States of Europe.” Accession was supposed to spur economic growth and ratify Hungary as a member in good standing of the Western club. Ceding a vital component of its national sovereignty to Brussels was never part of the deal.
Patriotism can easily shade into something uglier, but it would be a mistake to dismiss these sentiments as mere chauvinism. A country like Hungary, conscious of its distinctive cultural inheritance and weighed down by a history of foreign meddling, will always be sensitive to concerns over sovereignty and national identity. Any account of Hungarian politics that fails to grapple with this fact is simply incomplete.
Will Collins is an English teacher who lives and works in Eger, Hungary.