Monday

15th Apr 2024

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)
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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.

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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.

The problem of corruption in Ukraine — and a solution

Sunlight is the best disinfectant— so in a way, it is encouraging to see corruption scandals coming to the fore, as this may deter potential future graft, a key prerequisite for Kyiv's eventual EU accession.

This 'deregulation' lobbying now threatens EU economy

Next week's EU summit (17-18 April) will discuss the strategic agenda for the next five years. The current "competitiveness agenda" is to a large extent driven by a big lobbying campaign — so far, not well covered by the media.

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