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Hungary’s soft authoritarianism

PEN/Opp on EU's black sheep, one month ahead of the parliament elections

Credits TEXT: Elisabeth Åsbrink Translation: Gabriella Berggren March 14 2018

A new expression has cropped up – a new political term – because the old ones aren’t enough. It refers to countries that are not totalitarian, not dictatorships, but not democracies either. Instead, they are soft-authoritarian.

This term is used increasingly about Russia, and about Malaysia and Singapore, all countries with multiple parties and elections, but where the regime keeps the media and influential institutions on a short leash, exercising its power behind the ostensive freedom of choice. And this definition now includes Hungary.

Those who adamantly regard the glass to be half-full could interpret the analysis of Hungary’s form of government as an improvement. It all depends on what we compare it to. Not long ago, Hungary was a communist dictatorship, although it was wryly referred to as the "happiest barrack" in the East. The pálinka was abundant (a decision to prohibit serving this brandy in restaurants before 9 am sparked riotous disapproval), there were tomatoes, paprika powder, and sometimes even meat to make the family's pörkölt, what many of us call goulash. Poppy seeds could be bought for baking the moist Sunday cake. But this was a corrupt, heavily controlled society, with no liberty.

As in the former USSR, Poland and other communist dictatorships, the children learned Russian in school but not English, and they were commandeered to attend jolly marches on 1 May to demonstrate the right pioneer spirit. Religion was outlawed, dissidents were persecuted, imprisoned, sent to camps and blacklisted. Surveillance and informing was constant; people in Hungary could not speak, write, or meet freely. The repression ceased with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. Not thirty years have passed since then.

The traces of this past remain under the surface, under the words, under the government structure. This issue of PEN/Opp, commendably compiled by Daniel Gustafsson, who ordinarily translates Hungarian prose, poetry and drama into Swedish, clarifies the situation.

After the fall of communism, religious sects, pornography and anti-Semitism, everything that had seemed unacceptable under communism, became rife in Hungary. The same goes for democratic movements. Liberal ideas saw a breakthrough, and principles of market economy were introduced. Hungary opened for tourism and trade. In 2004, Hungary joined the EU. But now, only fifteen years later, debate is focusing on expelling this nation due to its lack of democracy. The author Eszter Babarczy writes with great precision about what enables the current leader Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party to dismantle what little democratic ambitions there were: on the one hand, the Hungarian scepticism of politicians, and on the other, their political passivity.

The strategy of soft authoritarian states is to diminish people’s liberty and rights step by step, by means of fear. Imaginary threats are presented, mainly to avert the citizens’ attention from real threats, i.e. the government’s attacks on legally independent institutions, civil society and the media. In an interview in The Budapest Beacon, professor of political science Daniel Kelemen analyses the strategy of the Hungarian regime.

“When we critique them, these governments want to be able to say ‘you’re just against us because you don’t like our policy on refugees.’ But really that’s a separate thing. Whether or not we like their policy on refugees is separate from whether or not we want to denounce their consolidation of power, elimination of an independent, pluralistic press, the crackdown on civil society, and attacks on the independent judiciary.”

PEN/Opp gives readers an idea of how the Hungarian media landscape has changed in only a few years. The situation for women is also directly impacted by soft authoritarianism, as the writer Orsolya Karafiáth describes in her suggestive essay. And the philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás delivers a brilliant and dark portrait of the present and future.

Other contributions give readers an insight into the effects of indirect censorship. Nothing has been explicitly banned, no one has been imprisoned, but the circumstances surrounding literature, art and the performing arts have changed in ways that curtail the freedom of expression. Directors are replaced, government funding is reallocated. Art that insults national symbols is removed.

On 8 April, elections will be held in Hungary. This does not, in effect, mean that the nation is a democracy. On the contrary, most soft-authoritarian nations have elections. But it probably won’t be that exciting. The media covering the election campaigns are controlled by owners and editors who are faithful to the regime and do not allow criticism or scrutiny of the government. Organisations promoting democracy and human rights have systematically been squeezed out from Hungarian society, their media platforms have been bought and closed down, and their funding cut. According to professor Daniel Kelemen, the election system itself is rigged to ensure that Viktor Orbán and his party stand no risk of losing. The counterforce lies in the EU and the European Council, the counterforce lies in learning from the Hungarian example – not becoming a political cynic, or resigning to passiveness. And the counterforce lies in reading these essays, in acknowledging and supporting the voices of democracy. Swedish PEN is proud give some of them a platform to speak.

Elisabeth Åsbrink, President, Swedish PEN

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