Wednesday

7th Dec 2022

Opinion

Orbán has hurt Hungarian culture, not just politics

  • Viktor Orbán has gained control over public opinion through dominance of media, arts, and culture - and now he faces the voting public again on Sunday (Photo: Council of the European Union)
Listen to article

Has Europe been asleep as Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has systematically chipped away at democracy from within EU borders?

For years, we have observed Vladimir Putin's consolidation of power over Russia's once democratic institutions — from the courts to the media. His refashioning of independent news outlets and censorship of arts and culture, in particular, have allowed him to construct a propaganda machine that builds and reinforces his manufactured image.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

To the West, Orbán has taken more than a few pages out of Putin's book on controlling public discourse and stifling freedom of expression.

As the Hungarian elections loom on Sunday (3 April), the prospect of Orbán's reelection for a fourth consecutive term next month may be a strategic win for Russia as the conflict rages on.

Since his election in 2011, Orbán and his Fidesz Party have brought Hungarian politics into what he calls an "illiberal" era — a putative democracy that strips away minority rights and facilitates a majority rule.

Through pointed manipulation of constitutional law, Orbán has underhandedly reshaped political institutions to serve the interests of his administration and reshape public opinion against minorities and political dissidents — including the gerrymandering of electoral districts to maximise Fidesz voters' impact on elections, and the curbing of authority of Hungary's constitutional court.

Much of Orbán's success, importantly, should be attributed to the control he has gained over public opinion through dominance of media, arts, and culture.

The consolidation of media outlets by companies and individuals with close links to Fidesz have resulted in a largely homogeneous media peddling pro-Orbán content — not unlike his ally in Moscow. International news outlets have called out the propagandisation of Hungary's media sector and have raised alarm over its recent coverage of Putin's war in Ukraine, minimising Russia's aggressions in the conflict.

As a result of Fidesz increased control of the media, the constraints that the party's legislative and constitutional changes have placed on Hungarian democracy have either gone unreported or have largely been drowned out by pro-FIDESZ outlets.

Just like Trump

Like his friend Donald Trump, Orbán has recognized the utility of culture as a catalyst for politics, stating in 2018 his intention to "embed the political system in a cultural era." Consequently, the party has been able to slowly chip away at national democratic institutions while appearing to uphold EU standards.

Once considered a global haven for artistic creation, Hungary under Orbán's influence is becoming an increasingly closed space for artists and cultural producers who oppose the government.

A new report from the Artistic Freedom Initiative documents Orbán's actions to bestow constitutional oversight authority of the arts and cultural sector to a conservative arts organisation with close ties to Fidesz , transfer the control of institutions and universities to private foundations of Fidesz -loyalists, and funnel money and opportunity to artists and institutions with "an eye for national interests."

According to Hungarian artists and cultural producers, Orbán's efforts have created a situation that encourages artists and institutions to self-censor by making funding contingent on alignment with the Party's agenda.

As a human rights researcher with expertise in free expression and an art curator, advisor and senior administrator for major arts institutions with firsthand research experience into the lived experiences of artists and cultural practitioners in the region, we know the critical role arts and culture play in challenging dominant political narratives and serve as a counterweight to centres of power.

Russia has long restricted artistic freedom and used its control of the media to advance a singular nationalist narrative. Now, it denies a distinct Ukrainian culture and asserts Russian patrimony over Ukraine.

As Hungary perpetuates the censorship of the arts and public discourse, the world is witnessing its grave democratic backsliding.

As the war in Ukraine intensifies, Orbán's insistence on maintaining a positive relationship with Russia is weakening the EU's united, anti-war stance.

Orbán's potential re-election on Sunday should serve as an important warning to the European Union, European Council and the UN to recognise the writing on the wall and closely monitor Orbán's systematic erosion of Hungary's democratic institutions and processes.

The resurgence of war is a reminder to the international community that democracy is our most important universal value and is more than worthy of protection.

Democracy is not an institution once created, but rather is an iterative process that requires vigilance, critique, and reinforcement.

As Péter Márki-Zay, Hungary's opposition's candidate for Hungarian prime minister, dutifully identifies, Hungarian voters now face "a single historic choice: to choose Europe over the East, freedom over tyranny."

Author bio

Elizabeth Grady is the civic practice manager at The Metropolitan Musem of Art in New York City. Johanna Bankston is a human rights researcher with Artistic Freedom Initiative, a legal advocacy non-profit that provides pro bono legal immigration and resettlement work for persecuted artists.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Analysis

Orbán faces toughest election challenge amid Ukraine war

This time six opposition parties — spanning from once far-right Jobbik to urban liberal Momentum — have united to take on Orbán's Fidesz party, led by conservative newcomer politician and anti-corruption champion Péter Márki-Zay.

Why Orbán won't really change his spots

Viktor Orbán will never admit in his upcoming election campaign that his Russia-policy over the past 12 years has been a huge, strategic mistake.

Why is Orban 'nationalising' three Budapest public squares?

Since Gergely Karacsony was elected Green mayor of Budapest in 2019, Viktor Orban's government has actively worked not only to constrict the capital's budget, and thereby impede its operations, but also to appropriate urban areas and monopolise large-scale development.

Emboldened Orbán will not abandon Moscow

Although overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, one key campaign instrument of Fidesz was the anti-LGBTQ referendum scheduled parallel to the elections.

Column

Autocrats make us all less secure

How should democratic states co-operate with authoritarian governments in the future? My organisation, Democracy Reporting International, has studied the security strategies of 13 democratic governments to understand how they see this relationship.

Serbia now has no choice but to join EU sanctions on Russia

Vladimir Putin himself is somewhat suspicious of Serbia's leader, as are most who deal with the opaque Aleksandar Vucic. The Russian president has preferred to keep his Serbian counterpart compliant, via a tight rein of annually-reviewed gas pricing.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLarge Nordic youth delegation at COP15 biodiversity summit in Montreal
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP27: Food systems transformation for climate action
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region and the African Union urge the COP27 to talk about gender equality
  4. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  5. Friedrich Naumann Foundation European DialogueGender x Geopolitics: Shaping an Inclusive Foreign Security Policy for Europe
  6. Obama FoundationThe Obama Foundation Opens Applications for its Leaders Program in Europe

Latest News

  1. EU takes legal action against China over Lithuania
  2. EU Commission shoring up children's rights of same-sex parents
  3. The military-industrial complex cashing-in on the Ukraine war
  4. EU delays Hungary funds decision, as Budapest vetoes Ukraine aid
  5. Borrell gets pension from MEP fund set for taxpayer bailout
  6. Autocrats make us all less secure
  7. Big Agri's lies: green EU farming not to blame for food insecurity
  8. German top court declares €800bn EU recovery fund 'legal'

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBA lot more needs to be done to better protect construction workers from asbestos
  2. European Committee of the RegionsRe-Watch EURegions Week 2022
  3. UNESDA - Soft Drinks EuropeCall for EU action – SMEs in the beverage industry call for fairer access to recycled material
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic prime ministers: “We will deepen co-operation on defence”
  5. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us