How Viktor Orban Bends Hungarian Society to His Will

Mar 29 2018

By PATRICK KINGSLEY*  – The New York Times

BUDAPEST — Billboards. TV campaigns. Radio programs. The anti-immigrant government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban uses different levers to influence public opinion, particularly on the subject of the European refugee crisis.

Even school textbooks.

On page 155 of the latest 8th-grade history textbook, students are told that Mr. Orban thinks refugees are a threat to Hungary — and then encouraged to believe he is right. “It can be problematic,” the book concludes, “for different cultures to coexist.”

It is a testament to the scope of Mr. Orban’s controversial program for remaking Hungary that part of the far-right leader’s message is now woven into the school curriculum.

For the past eight years, Mr. Orban has waged a systemic assault on the hardware of Hungary’s democracy — rewriting the national Constitution, reshaping the judiciary and tweaking the electoral system to favor his Fidesz party. Less conspicuously, Mr. Orban is also trying to recode the software of Hungary’s democracy — its cultural sphere, civil society and education system.

His party’s appointees or supporters dominate many artistic institutions and universities. A growing number of plays and exhibitions have had nationalist or anti-Western undertones. Religious groups and nongovernment organizations critical of Fidesz have seen funding dry up. He has especially vilified pro-democracy organizations funded by the Hungarian-American philanthropist, George Soros.

National opinion surveys are used to steer public opinion as much as collect it, while history is also up for grabs. The government has jousted with educators over textbooks while promoting a narrative of Hungarian victimhood and ethnocentrism.

“The government’s goal,” said Laszlo Miklosi, president of the Association of Hungarian History Teachers, “is to create a version of history preferable to Orban.”

With Hungary holding a general election on April 8, Mr. Orban is expected to win easily, enhancing his status as a leading figure in the global far right. For many pro-democracy Westerners, Mr. Orban’s efforts to build an “illiberal democracy” inside the European Union is chilling. For many far-right populists on both sides of the Atlantic, the Hungarian leader is revered.

“He’s a hero,” Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former strategist, said this month, while touring Europe. He described Mr. Orban as “the most significant guy on the scene right now.”

That scene, some say, is the unraveling of democracy. In a report issued in March, a German research group, Bertelsmann Stiftung, said Hungary was “nearing” the threshold of autocracy.

In Budapest, government officials describe their societal revamp as a mainly technocratic reform effort, rather than an ideological campaign, one validated by Mr. Orban’s success at the ballot box.

“The government is using its democratic legitimacy not only to reform the state but to reform the society,” said Professor Andras Patyi, the head of a new university formed by Fidesz to train the public officials of the future. He said the current president of France, Emmanuel Macron, was doing the same thing. “This is common in democratic societies,” he said.

But Mr. Orban has recognized the political power to be gained by harnessing culture, history and civil society. He usually spends Thursdays reading books, essays and polling data, while meeting with writers and thinkers, two of his longtime associates said. The goal is not pleasure but power, said Zoltan Illes, a former Fidesz minister.

“He wants to see what the new developments are and adapt them to his politics, to increase the life span of his governance,” Mr. Illes said.

Authors with a sweeping vision of human nature and society seem to fascinate him. Last April, for example, he met with Philip Zimbardo, the psychologist who created the Stanford Prison Experiment, the controversial 1971 study of authoritarianism, which explored how ordinary people would respond when placed in positions of power.

The two men spent more than two hours talking alone in Mr. Orban’s office, surrounded by paintings of Hungarian history. Mr. Orban seemed uninterested in the Stanford experiment, Mr. Zimbardo said, but was keen to understand his theory about how to energize frustrated young men who feel left behind by modern society.

“I was giving him ideas,” said Professor Zimbardo, who disagrees with Mr. Orban’s politics, “about how psychology plays a central role in our lives.”

Co-opting Civil Society

Earlier this month, tens of thousands of people marched in Budapest to cheer on a speech by the prime minister in a political rally to help Fidesz win re-election.

Except the organizer was not Fidesz but a civilian named Laszlo Csizmadia — whose work embodies how Mr. Orban has attempted to influence the civil arena through like-minded culture warriors.

For the past eight years, Mr. Csizmadia has led a government institution called the National Cooperation Fund, the largest Hungarian fund for civil society organizations. The group does not provide a fully itemized list of its grants, but in 2012 the independent news website Atlaszo found that its biggest beneficiaries tended to be groups with religious and nationalist aims. Three of the top recipients were led by Fidesz politicians.

A right-wing theorist, Mr. Csizmadia has written widely that the duty of nongovernmental groups is to preserve national identity and uphold Christian values. Most tellingly, he argues that since an elected government represents the will of the people — and since civil society should strive to fulfill the people’s will — then civil society exists to carry out a ruling party’s manifesto, rather than to challenge it.

“Obviously, civil society needs to help and support the government to follow through with its promises,” Mr. Csizmadia said in an interview this month. “This is an incredibly important thing.”

While channeling money toward its supporters, the government has simultaneously squeezed alternative sources of funding for NGOs that oppose its ideas. With few funding opportunities now available inside Hungary, human rights groups have become increasingly reliant on foreign money — in particular from the Norwegian government and the Open Society Foundation, a charity run by Mr. Soros.

In response, the authorities raided some of the organizations that distributed Norwegian money, and accused several of the recipients — including the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union and the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, two of the country’s most prestigious watchdogs — of acting on behalf of foreign powers.

The Orban government later forced rights groups receiving more than 24,000 euros (roughly $30,000) from foreign sources to register with the authorities, and led a smear campaign against Mr. Soros and the groups he bankrolls.

Over the winter, the government sent an opinion survey to every Hungarian household that claimed Mr. Soros was leading a project — named the Soros Plan — to force Hungary to admit thousands of migrants, dismantle its border fences, and in the process “diminish the importance of the language and culture of European countries.” It was demonstrably false.

During the 1980s, Mr. Orban was a young liberal activist who studied civil society at Oxford University (financed by a Soros grant). But by 2014, when he won a third term as prime minister, he had decisively pivoted. In a meeting that April with Zoltan Illes, then the minister for environmental protection, he lambasted nongovernmental groups as foreign-funded enemies of the state.

“I would like,” Mr. Illes recalled Mr. Orban telling him, “to destroy all NGOs in this country.”

Infiltrating the Arts

In many Western countries, theater is an avocation for elites. Not in Hungary. In a country of just 9.8 million people, the government oversees 60 theaters that sold 6.7 million tickets in 2016.


*Patrick Kingsley is an international correspondent for The New York Times, based in Turkey. He previously covered migration and the Middle East for The Guardian. He was named Foreign Affairs Journalist of the Year at the 2015 British Journalism Awards, and is the author of two books: “How To Be Danish,” an exploration of contemporary Danish culture, and “The New Odyssey,” a portrait of the European refugee crisis. 

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