Following is the conversation with Political Tours founder Nicholas Wood and Nick Thorpe, the BBC’s correspondent in Budapest:
Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban is accused of leading possibly the most authoritarian government in Europe since the collapse of Communism.
Viktor Orban is famously unapologetic about his “illiberal” style of government, and proud that he challenged the EU on migration. In the course of two elections, he has introduced sweeping changes across all aspects of life, from ownership of the economy, influence in the media, domination of parliament and the judiciary, giving his party overwhelming control of political life. The dilemma for the EU is what to do about it; Orban is seen as increasingly close to Russia, and some worry that his steps could be repeated elsewhere.
Nicholas Wood (NW): Just to start with, there has been a lot of criticism of Hungary within the EU and how the Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has led the government there. Very simply, what are they so critical of?
Nick Thorpe (NT): He has practiced a form of democracy, which I suppose is normally called as majoritarian rather than consensual. In other words, the winner takes all, he’s won three landslide victories in 2010, 2014 and then in 2018, and basically he’s rebuilt the Hungarian system in his and his party Fidesz’ image.
He rewrote the Constitution, for example, he created laws that can only be changed by a two-thirds majority.
He created those with his two-thirds majority in the full knowledge that it’s very unlikely that any opposition party or parties in the future would ever be able to challenge those.
He rewrote the media law, he changed the makeup of the constitutional court. He changed the structure of the media to tilt it from his previous admittedly liberal bias to a bias now very strongly, 80% of those sources and are coming from his side.
NW: So that’s really interesting. He’s done that effectively through a very large democratic support if you like. And directing the way so that he can remove any obstacles, opposition to him, whether it be within the judiciary or within the media. Obviously the EU has been very critical of it. The European parliament has been very critical of it.
Is there any suggestion that any of these laws could be in contravention of EU law or human rights law?
NT: There is that suggestion. His critics don’t just come from the left or liberal or green side, they’re also coming from the centre right, The European People’s Party, the Christian Democratic block to which Fidesz, his party belongs.
That has reached such a point that Fidesz, his party, is now suspended for the time being from its membership of the European People’s Party (EPP). So it can’t take part in EPP gatherings or its decision making processes.
Of course, he does have the democratic legitimacy to do this. That’s his defence every time when he’s accused of being an authoritarian, or riding roughshod over checks and balances. But he’s also said very publicly that he doesn’t believe in checks and balances.
He says these are things that happen in the United States, for example, there’s no need for them in a European system, and effectively he defends his own model whereby the winner takes all.
So although there are still independent figures in Hungary, there are still strong independent media that are very critical of him, but there is room for manoeuvre. Their space has been eroded over time.
The president of the Republic very rarely refers or challenges any decision, taken by the Fidesz government, to the constitution court for example; he has packed the constitutional court with people loyal to him. No one’s accusing him of actually dismantling our democracy lock, stock and barrel. They’re saying basically he’s twisted the game to his own favour and then he’s used power very effectively. Some would say very cynically.
NW: Is there any hope that the opposition could gain strength and challenge it in any particular way?
NT: Well, this is actually a very interesting moment because despite three parliamentary election victories of Fidesz, and despite them coming out well ahead of the others in the European elections in May 2019, in the local elections just recently in October 2019 the opposition scored a pretty significant breakthrough.
They won back Budapest, which had been in Fidesz control since 2010 and they won control of 11 other provincial cities or towns across the country. So basically they re-emerged as a credible force.
But wait a minute, who are they? They’re a hodgepodge of many different parties because Fidesz/ Orban basically turned Hungarian democracy into a two party system during that period in the full knowledge that there was no other single party as well organised, as powerful or as well financed as Fidesz.
So what the opposition finally did in October 2019 was to bite the bullet and realise they could never challenge Fidesz and Orban personally, unless they got together.
So you now have this raggle-taggle opposition as a slightly uncomfortable but surprisingly well functioning alliance drawn from what used to be the far right that’s now moved more to the centre, to the more leftist old Hungarian socialist party with interesting new parties like Momentum—a kind of liberal green party, especially attractive to young voters emerging in the centre.
So they basically shocked Fidesz by doing so well in those October local elections and now they’re trying to maintain and build on that co-operation with one another because it’s an Alliance. It’s not a coalition as such, just an Alliance of very disparate parties, and they’re now building on these successes and (aiming for a breakthrough) in the next parliamentary election in 2022.
NW: Is there any one in particular to watch, are there any key movements to watch out, either within Hungary or within the EU in terms of this political battle?
NT: After the setback that Fidesz and Orban suffered in the October elections, he has since claimed a pretty major success, namely that his candidate for a European union commissioner, Oliver Várhelyi, has now been chosen as Hungary’s commissioner and not with just any post, but is responsible for neighbourhood and enlargement policy of the EU.
There were challenges to Fidesz in the European parliament, for example, in those committees had suggested that Hungary was not worthy to be in charge of such important issues as enlargement and neighbourhood policy, especially looking towards Ukraine with which Hungary has had a long argument.
The question’s over its rule of law; How could a country like Hungary, (MEPs) asked, teach countries like Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, to prepare to suit rule of law criteria, which Hungary, if it were to apply now for the EU, might well not satisfy itself?
Nevertheless, at the second attempt Orban’s candidate Oliver Várhelyia—a career diplomat— passed through those committee stages and will now become Hungary’s commissioner for this very important position.
Of course, this increases Hungary’s stature within the EU. It gives them a very important position and together with its ally, Poland, no one can ignore Hungary at all in the coming years.
Nick Thorpe is a writer and award-winning BBC journalist, specialising in eastern Europe, born in England in 1960. He studied Modern Languages at the Universities of Reading (UK), Dakar (Senegal) and Freiburg (Germany), graduating in 1982. He has lived in Budapest since 1986. He reported on the fall of Communism throughout eastern Europe and the break-up of Yugoslavia for the BBC, Observer, Guardian and Independent newspapers, including the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.
Nick has been Central Europe Correspondent for the BBC since 1996. With BBC colleagues, he won a Peabody award for his coverage of the Refugee crisis in 2015. He is the author of 3 books and many essays, Nick has also directed 10 films: The Fairy Island (documentary, 1993), Vigilance (feature, 1997), The Vineleaf and the Rose (documentary, 2001), The Travels of a Gadjo in Romanistan, seven 52 minute documentaries on Roma communities in 9 European countries (Duna TV, 2015).
Nick Thorpe, will be leading Political Tours upcoming tour of Hungary in March 2020 https://www.politicaltours.com/tours/hungary-tours/
Nicholas Wood set up Political Tours in 2011 after ten years’ experience working as a reporter in the Balkans. The aim of the company was to give travellers the opportunity to learn about current affairs and news first-hand. They now operate in over 30 countries and enabling people to have a better understanding of places in the news. He was the New York Times Correspondent for the Balkans from 2003-2008. Previously he worked for the BBC, The Guardian, The Observer, The Washington Post and CBS’s 60 Minutes.