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Can We Stop Using Extreme Examples, Or Is It Too Late?

Hungary Today 2018.04.19.

Viktator, Dictator? Why Careful Language is Crucial When Discussing Orbán and His Policies

In the wake of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s huge electoral victory in the country’s April 8th elections, many international observers have published articles expressing a great deal of concern regarding what they have described as the corrupt, demagogic, and xenophobic practices of the ruling Fidesz government.

But while some of these essays quite fairly focus on real, legitimate, and frankly troubling issues, others have engaged in rather hyperbolic language; in particular, terms such as “fascism” and “dictatorship” have been thrown around with careless frequency.  This is a serious issue, as these sorts of exaggerations ultimately serve to distract from the very real issues facing Hungarian democracy today, and in fact provide ammunition for the government’s claims that the international press is somehow unduly biased against Hungary.


If we review the media coverage about the Hungarian elections in the last two weeks, we may find surprisingly tolerant opinions towards Orban’s victory. The Financial Times recently wrote about the closure of the non-governmental daily newspaper Magyar Nemzet. The article itself contains a fairly standard summary of the background of the newspaper’s closure, and the current state of the media in Hungary. What is more interesting, and frankly unusual, is the video at  the bottom of the article, in which the paper’s European editor analyzes Orban’s role in European politics, and says: “One would be going down the wrong track, to think that there is a universal abhorrence of Mr. Orbán and his methods of rule, far from it.”

Bloomberg’s Russian-born columnist Leonid Bershidsky also wrote a rather balanced analysis about the similarities between Orbán and Vladimir Putin, in an article titled “Hungary’s Orban Isn’t Another Putin.” In his piece, Bershidsky examines a number of notable issues ranging from press freedom to corruption, and makes the following judgment: “Orban has survived two genuine elections after returning to power in 2010. There’s no overwhelming need for him to go full Putin — he’s doing well enough as it is.” He notes that, while corruption, crony capitalism, and Fidesz control of state and regional media outlets are very real, and distressing, developments in Hungary, the situation is nowhere near as bad as it is in Russia, as international observers have agreed that, despite the constant stream of demagogy and xenophobia, the elections themselves were conducted professionally and fairly. The reason, for Bershidsky, is that such tactics are unnecessary for Orbán, who has managed to maintain his grip on power without resorting to the truly dictatorial techniques employed by some of the autocrats he is often compared to.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (right) with Deputy PM Zsolt Semjén on the night of the country’s April 8th parliamentary elections (Photo: MTI – Zoltán Máthé)

But of course, there are plenty of hyperbolic pieces to be found as well. For example, in an April 12th article, The Washington Post published an article entitled “Democracy is dying in Hungary. The rest of the world should worry.” The blogger reminds us how successful democracy was ten years ago in Hungary, and how the country “looked like an end-of-history success story.” The only problem with this analysis, of course, is that it is not true, as ten years ago the country was in arguably the deepest economic and democratic crisis since the end of Communism in 1989. While the author does acknowledge that this ‘vision’ was never true, as economic divisions and crises lurked under the surface throughout the rule of Socialist PM Ferenc Gyurcsány, he fails to reckon with just how thoroughly destructive and divisive Gyurcsány’s policies were for Hungarian political discourse.

And, of course, the Washington Post also attempts to turn a catchphrase that, while providing a valid critique of Hungary’s media landscape and electoral system, arguably goes a bit too far into the realm of sensationalism:

At this point, Hungary might be best described as a dictocracy: a de facto one-party state where others are allowed to compete in elections only on such unequal terms that they basically have no chance of winning.

This sort of language is taken even further by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who recently published an article in the New York Times asking,

Can We Stop Fascism, Or Is It Too Late?

(Note: The article appeared online under the title “Will We Stop Trump Before It’s Too Late?”)

In her article, which focuses on US President Donald Trump, Secretary Albright discusses what she calls the “warning signs” of fascism’s return to world politics. While discussing outright authoritarians such as Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, and Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, she also argues that these

warning signs include the relentless grab for more authority by governing parties in Hungary, the Philippines, Poland, and Turkey – all United States allies.

While there is plenty to criticize about Viktor Orbán’s rule, it is both unrealistic and irresponsible to list him in the same breath as Filipino President Roberto Duterte, whose blood-soaked “war on drugs” has claimed tens of thousands of lives, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has used Turkey’s failed 2016 coup as an excuse to tighten his grip on power and imprison journalists, professors, and activists who dare question his rule.

via machinatorium.files.wordpress.com

But the most extraordinary text was one published by Politico. On April 17th, a number of prominent intellectual sent an open letter to Angela Merkel, accusing her “enabling” Orbán’s rule, while arguing that the Hungarian Prime Minister’s rhetoric is both “anti-democratic and anti-Semitic.” Despite this claim, however, Hungarian-Jewish relations have had a number of significant milestones, such as Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Hungary , – which was the first Israeli-Hungarian PM meeting since 1989 –The close ties between the pro-Israeli Pentecostalist church (Vidám Vasárnap) and  Fidesz are also worth mentioning here. And weren’t there smaller gestures as well, such as honoring Imre Kertész with a state award or renovating the synagogue in the Serbian Subotica, which was built by the Hungarian Jewish community one hundred years ago?

Certainly, the concern that the letter’s authors raise, that the tone of much of the Fidesz election campaign’s anti-Soros rhetoric is troubling in its use of terminology evocative of the anti-Semitic slogans of the mid-20th century, is a valid one; in fact, one of the Soros billboard campaigns elicited similar criticism from Mazsihisz (the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary), who asked that they be removed because of the way in which they

stirred up anti-Semitic feelings.

While the government’s rhetoric may have anti-Semitic undertones, however, focusing on this (admittedly disturbing) terminology without also acknowledging the real and laudable steps that the Fidesz government has made to support both Hungary’s Jewish community and Israel is yet another misstep that plays into narratives of Orbán being “unfairly demonized” by a hostile international press.

Cover Photo: Mouthing Off, Anita Kunz

Images via machinatorium.files.wordpress.com and MTI


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