Europe must stop this disgrace: Viktor Orbn is dismantling democracy | Timothy Garton Ash
The Hungarian leader is consolidating his illiberal regime with the help of EU funding, says Guardian columnist Timothy Garton Ash
When European Union leaders gather in Brussels on Thursday they will have a guilty secret: among them will sit the leader of a member state that is no longer a democracy. Viktor Orbn, Hungarys prime minister and de facto supreme leader, will sit there smiling as a democrat among democrats, but in reality he has demolished liberal democracy in his country over the last decade. Adding insult to injury, he has used EU taxpayers money to consolidate his illiberal regime. With a new European parliament and fresh institutional leadership in prospect, the EU must show that it will defend democracy in its own member states. Otherwise, all the fine words of article 2 of its basic treaty will be worth nothing.
To say that Hungary is no longer a democracy is a stark claim and I have thought, read and looked hard before making it. Often people apply the term that Orbn has himself used approvingly: illiberal democracy. But illiberal democracy is a contradiction in terms. That label may usefully describe a transitional phase in the erosion of a liberal democracy, such as we see in Poland, but Hungary is way beyond that. This year the human rights organisation Freedom House downgraded it to the status of partly free country, the only EU member state to earn that dishonour. The most neutral description I can find is that this is a hybrid regime, neither democracy nor dictatorship.
Here are just a few characteristics of Orbns self-styled system of national cooperation. (How Orwell would relish that deceptive euphemism.) The ruling party, Fidesz, has so completely penetrated the state administration that Hungary is again a one-party state. On a recent visit to Budapest, I was given numerous examples of how governmental powers are routinely used for purposes of political control. The state administration favours Orbn cronies and family members with government contracts, punishes independent media owners and NGO or opposition supporters with arbitrary tax investigations, uses state resources for Fidesz election propaganda, and even refuses local planning permission to an architect known for his anti-Fidesz views.
Fidesz has effectively demolished the independence of the judiciary, as documented in an extensive report by Judith Sargentini for the European Parliament. It has also changed the electoral law so that in 2014, Fidesz got 66% of the seats in parliament on 44% of the vote (whereas in 2010 it needed 53% of the vote to get the parliamentary supermajority that enabled it to change the constitution). Much of the media, already dominated by owners closely tied to the Orbn regime, has now been consolidated in a so-called Press and Media Foundation, effectively a pro-government cartel. Hungary has sunk down the World Press Freedom index to 87th this year.
A new law on NGOs, similar to Vladimir Putins, has effectively forced out the Open Society Foundation of George Soros the Jewish philanthropist against whom Orbns regime stirs up hatred, with propaganda imagery recalling the worst periods of European history. The Soros-funded Central European University has been compelled to move to Vienna for its core, degree-granting activities, and the government is now taking control of the research institutes and property of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.