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Not Just a Lovable Rogue

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban holds a news conference in Budapest, January 9, 2020. (Tamas Kaszas/Reuters)
Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have harmed Hungary in many ways.

In National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty seeks to rebutciting two of my recent articles, the claims that Hungary’s democracy has deteriorated significantly under Viktor Orban’s premiership. Instead, he paints Orban as one of the “capable and canny European nationalist and conservative leaders, who include Ireland’s Eamon de Valera and France’s Charles de Gaulle,” and who “[annoyed] the Europeanists by striking political deals better than their nations were held to deserve.”

Alas, the article fails to engage with the substance of my earlier piece in the same outlet. Instead, the critics’ accounts of Orbanism’s domestic abuses, consistent with Hungary’s clearly deteriorating performance on various indicators of democracy and rule of law, are dismissed as “listing odd facts about it without context.”

Yet that is precisely what Dougherty chooses to do himself, by cherry-picking and acknowledging relatively trivial episodes of political overreach — e.g. “[rushing] through a park renovation opposed by a mayor of the opposition party and [making] it so that state-issued ID cards carry the birth sex of the holder” — and declaring victory. Since all politicians do opportunistic, objectionable things some of the time, why pick on Orban?

Elsewhere, Dougherty block-quotes a paragraph in which I describe Hungary’s geopolitical overtures to Russia and China. “If doing deals with Russia and China is evidence of serious democratic backsliding, what is Germany’s interest in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline?” Indeed, while awarding energy and rail contracts to Russian and Chinese companies is problematic, it does not constitute “evidence of creeping authoritarianism” — and I have not heard anybody claim it does.

What does constitute such evidence, however, is a host of domestic practices. Those were the thrust of my article, which Dougherty chooses to ignore: the forced (and unconstitutional) retirements of large numbers of judges, compromising the judiciary’s integrity; a new constitution curtailing the possibility of judicial review of laws; the staggering corruption, crackdowns on independent media, and de facto colonization of the entire public administration by Fidesz loyalists; the branding of foreign-funded non-governmental organizations as “foreign agents”; or kicking Central Europe’s best university out of Hungary — just because it was founded by George Soros.

To be fair, Dougherty concedes that “Orban has created centralized political structures” and that “pro-Orban business leaders have bought up some opposition organs [read: newspapers] and made them pro-government.” Nothing to worry about, though, he says, “Orban’s reforms could be compared to Margaret Thatcher’s in the 1980s, which pulled powers away from local government and put them into Whitehall” — as if no relevant differences existed between the birthplace of constitutionalism and limited government and an emerging post-communist democracy with a significant history of homegrown authoritarianism.

Orban’s political success is all about providing “consistent economic growth,” we are told, “at a rate 2 percent higher than the average growth of the European Union as a whole.” Well, in real terms, Hungary’s average real GDP growth rate over the period of 2010–2019 is just below 2.8 percent, compared to 1.6 percent in the EU as a whole. While not terrible per se, it falls below the 2 percentage-point target on which we are told to believe that Orban “has consistently delivered.”

One relevant comparison is with Hungary’s post-communist neighbors. In real terms, the wealthier Czech Republic has grown at an average rate of 2.3 percent since 2010. Poland’s growth rate averages 3.6 percent, Slovakia’s 3 percent, and Estonia’s 3.7. At purchasing-power parity, Hungary’s income per capita, accounting for 73.5 percent of the EU average, is the lowest among the Visegrad countries and also lags behind the Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania.

The drivers of Hungary’s economic performance also belie the notion of Orban as an economic-policy virtuoso. Like its neighbor to the north, Slovakia, Hungary has benefited from foreign direct investment into export-oriented manufacturing, particularly in the automotive sector. Hungary’s growth, pre-COVID, has more to do with its low labor cost, proximity to Germany, and benign international economic environment than with the acumen of Hungarian authorities. Moreover, a serious discussion of Hungary’s economy is impossible without at least a passing mention of EU funds, which account for more than half of all public investment in the country. The real question is whether Hungary’s current growth model is sustainable in the light of growing wages and stagnant productivity (worst-performing among the Visegrád Four), and what happens when the largest employers — Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Samsung, and Suzuki — relocate farther east.

It is also not true that the EU has “shelved all Article 7 procedures against Orban’s Hungary.” The procedure against Hungary, triggered in 2018 by the European Parliament (EP), is ongoing — and, as MEPs noted in a resolution adopted earlier this year, the situation in the country has worsened. The reasons for the failure of the European Council to act on the EP’s demands beyond conducting hearings are political: Any sanctions against Hungary would require the unanimity of the remaining member states, impossible to achieve given that Poland is facing Article 7 proceedings of its own, triggered by the European Commission (EC). Fidesz furthermore benefits from its membership in the European People’s Party (EPP). But it would be a mistake to infer from the EU’s (or the EPP’s) inability to do anything effective about Hungary’s rule-of-law problem that the problem is nonexistent.

Also, Brussels gave no “preliminary ruling that [Orban’s COVID-related] emergency law contained no threat to democracy.” What did happen, in contrast, is that the Commission did not launch (another) formal rule-of-law procedure against Hungary. That was, in my opinion, a mistake, but the reasons behind it are not especially puzzling given the enormous coronavirus-related challenges that European policymakers found themselves facing in the spring of this year.

By claiming that “there was no diplomatic pushback” against the law, Dougherty contradicts the spokesman of Hungary’s government, Zoltan Kovacs, who expressed his “outrage” about the “witch hunt and coordinated smear campaign” that the “enabling act” prompted. That included a statement by 13 EU foreign ministers, including Germany’s Heiko Maas (not to speak of the more strongly worded one from the head of the Bundestag’s foreign-affairs committee), and concerns (and ultimately a warningexpressed by the EC’s president, Ursula von der Leyen — and indeed the statements coming from the chairmen of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee (the latter a Republican in good standing).

Finally, one is left with the idea of Orban’s government as a bulwark against brain drain and emigration. But, as Dougherty admits, he is failing at that task miserably. Hungary’s fertility rate ten years into Orban’s rule is at “national-suicide levels, 1.53 children per woman.” The country’s population has shrunk by more than 2 percent since 2010 — something definitely not true of Hungary’s otherwise comparable neighbors such as Slovenia and Slovakia.

Yes, keeping the Hungarian language and culture alive throughout the 21st century is a noble aim, as Dougherty reminds us. Yet that should not blind conservatives to the obvious: that successful, self-confident societies are not built on the foundations of authoritarian populism and conspiracy-mongering, which have been the bread and butter of Fidesz’s ten years in power.

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