Much of your work has focused on Hungary, particularly on the weakening of democratic values under Viktor Orbán. Your article, Explaining Eastern Europe: Orbán’s Laboratory of Illiberalism, makes the claim that the causal factors for this decline are not unique to Hungary and could be replicated in other countries. Since that article’s publication, how has the situation changed?
Hungarian illiberalism has kicked into a higher gear, partially as a result of a pandemic power grab, but partially as a result of the government’s attempts to maintain control of the political agenda with symbolic issues around the “life and death” of the nation as we approach the 2022 elections. Hungarian illiberalism is increasingly infiltrating the everyday life of citizens, as with the recent homophobic legislation officially aimed at “defending children,” which was inspired by (but is, in many instances, stricter than) the Russian anti-gay propaganda law, and discrimination against singles, gay couples, and couples living in civic partnerships in favor of married couples. The relationship with the European Union has become even more bitter: the West is increasingly only a negative reference point in governmental communication, while authoritarian countries such as Russia and China are constantly praised. Orbán has tightened his grip on the economy through endemic corruption, abusing the special legal order that prevailed during the pandemic and the fact that citizens’ attention was focused on their survival.
At the same time, the nature of the regime has not changed. And yes, the argument that Zsolt Enyedi and I made in that article is still valid: Hungary has become a champion of illiberalism in Central and Eastern Europe not because this is the historical fate of Hungary and the preference of Hungarian voters, but because of a combination of situational (the 2008-2009 crisis), personal (Viktor Orbán as a charismatic leader able to centralize the regime), and institutional (the electoral system that gave a two-thirds majority to Fidesz with only 45% of the vote in 2014 and 49% of the vote in 2018) factors. And it is no coincidence that we can now see similar patterns in Poland and Slovenia.
Should we interpret Fidesz’s expulsion from the European People’s Party as a sign of changes at the European level?
I was never a huge and enthusiastic fan of the idea of Fidesz being expelled from the EPP. I think it was a good move to defend the European values and image of the political mainstream in the European Parliament. I never thought though that it would change anything in Hungary for good. The departure of Fidesz from the European People’s Party has produced a more vocal and combative Hungary, but also a less influential one. The rhetoric against the European Union and Brussels is more hostile and aggressive than ever before—but still, Hungarian public opinion remains strongly supportive of the EU. Politically, Orbán is in no-man’s-land, having failed to join any European groupings. He has also lost many allies in the European Council, especially since passing the homophobic law this summer. But Orbán is strengthening his grip on the Hungarian institutional system and accelerating his attempts to make Hungary more conformist, more conservative, and more hostile toward the EU. As Orbán finds himself with fewer and fewer allies on the world stage (in the last year, he has lost important allies in DC, in Tel Aviv, and in Berlin), he becomes increasingly aggressive toward the West and its institutions. Of course, there are limits to his illiberal adventures, as he is interested in a well-functioning economy. Contrary to the common wisdom, big business is highly tolerant of (predictable) illiberalism. EU funds and big companies are still the most important financial resources for Orbán’s illiberal regime. But the EU’s Recovery Funds are currently suspended due to rule of law concerns, and Hungary also stands to lose a huge amount of money from the Norway Grants (compensation paid by Norway, Liechtenstein, and Iceland to EU countries for their use of the single market) due to the government’s lack of willingness to compromise on who can handle one-twentieth of the funds that would go to NGOs. Orbán’s regime is becoming less pragmatic, more ideological and, in many senses, more irrational.
You previously wrote about the relationship between Fidesz and Jobbik, arguing that Jobbik used the “stolen transition” theory to motivate its political ambitions and that this paved the way for a more moderate Fidesz to step in and transform Hungarian legal and institutional systems. Can you expand on the “stolen transition” theory and explain its significance? What has the relationship between Fidesz and Jobbik looked like in recent years? How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the dynamic between the two parties, if at all?
Jobbik, especially until around 2014, played the role of the “pioneer,” exploring uncharted territories and proposing policy measures (Eastern Opening in foreign policy, banking tax, Trianon commemoration day) that were later implemented by Fidesz. Jobbik has now become a more or less moderate centrist populist party that is part of the anti-Orbán coalition; another party, the even more extreme “Our Homeland,” (Mi Hazánk) has taken over Jobbik’s pioneer role. Orbán always likes to play the centrist, and a more extreme right-wing party—which is currently enjoying huge media support from the pro-governmental media—helps him to do so. Our Homeland was the first, for example, to propose the ban on “pro-gay” TV news and books for children under 18, a measure the Hungarian government later implemented.
You have also written a lot about conspiracy theories and false information. What aspect of countering the prevalence of false information do you think is undermentioned? How prevalent or accepted are false narratives in Hungarian politics?
In Hungary, conspiracy theories and disinformation have reached the level of officiality. Media capture has increased and government-organized media increasingly serve as part of the disinformation machinery, constantly fabricating fake news and conspiracy theories about George Soros, the pro-pedophile and pro-migrant Brussels, and domestic opponents of the regime. I have been a target of this myself—and I am just a political analyst and academic. State-sponsored disinformation increasingly makes the Hungarian public discourse Orwellian, and the state invests unlimited resources to maintain popular support and mobilize against enemies. And while there are governmental-critical media (especially online), their outreach is slowly shrinking, as pro-governmental information from a huge number of media outlets and political advertisements is simply omnipresent—it’s in your face, on billboards, every time you go out into the street.
Finally, our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you understand the term “illiberalism”? How would you characterize the intersection or overlap between illiberalism, populism, and radical politics?
While many think that “illiberalism” as a term makes no sense, I do think it is a tremendously important term for describing contemporary politics. For me, the most important aspects of “illiberalism” are (1) strong authoritarian, transformative politics disguised as populist majoritarianism—the politics “of the majority”—and (2) a rhetorical style that makes liberalism and its institutions the bogeyman and blames them for undermining national interests. My favourite term, though, is “tribalism,” a political style and attitude that combines Manichean thinking (an understanding of politics as constant war between political tribes), authoritarianism (rallying around the leader of the tribe), and anti-pluralism (a lack of tolerance of dissent in times of political war). But I think both illiberalism and tribalism are better terms for describing our Zeitgeist than “populism,” which is increasingly empty, meaningless, and non-distinctive.
Dr. Péter Krekó is a social psychologist and political scientist. He is the Director of Political Capital Institute, a Budapest-based think tank since 2011. He is an Associate Professor at the ELTE University. During 2016-2017 he worked as a Fulbright Visiting Professor in the United States at the Central Eurasian Studies Department of Indiana University. His main research interests are disinformation, sharp power political influence, and political tribalism. He was the co-chair of the PREVENT working group at the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) between 2013 and 2016. He received many prestigious fellowships in the last few years, such as the Reagan-Fascell Fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, He was a Europe’s Futures Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) and Erste Foundation, and a non-resident Associate Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Institute of Policy Research. He is the author of two books. The first is entitled The Hungarian Far Right, which was co-authored by Attila Juhász. The book was published by Ibidem Verlag in 2017 and it is being distributed by the Columbia University Press. His second book on fake news and conspiracy theories was published in Hungarian in 2018, becoming a social science best-seller. He is a regular commentator in the international media, and published articles, among others, in Foreign Affairs, Guardian, Newsweek, Financial Times, and Journal of Democracy.