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Trump Praises Hungary’s Far-Right Prime Minister Despite Democratic Backsliding

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister, Hungary in September, 2017. (Photo: Annika Haas, EU2017EE)
Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister, Hungary in September, 2017. (Photo: Annika Haas, EU2017EE)

“Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party.”

President Trump welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the White House on Monday, despite condemnation from human rights groups regarding the prime minister and his self-described “illiberal democracy.” At the meeting, President Trump praised Orbán’s leadership:

“Well, people have a lot of respect for this prime minister. He’s a respected man, and I know he’s a tough man, but he’s a respected man, and he’s done the right thing according to many people on immigration. And you look at some of the problems they have in Europe that are tremendous, because they’ve done it a different way than the prime minister.”

President Trump’s ambassador to Hungary recently told the Atlantic’s Franklin Foer, “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the situation that Viktor Orbán has, but he doesn’t.”

Hungary’s ‘Democratic Backsliding’

Hungary is frequently used by political scientists as an example of “democratic backsliding,” the process in which a ruling faction slowly erodes their country’s democratic checks, such as the press, courts and opposition organizations, in order to entrench power.

The respected democracy index Freedom House uses criteria like individual freedoms and checks on executive power to broadly categorize countries as either “free,” “party free” or “not free.” In 2019, Freedom House downgraded Hungary’s democracy from “free” to “partly free,” making it the first country in the European Union to lose free status. Hungary has ranked as free in Freedom Index’s annual report every year since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990.

As Freedom House explains:

“Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010.”

Orbán Calls His Alternative to Liberal Democracy ‘Anti-Immigration Christian Democracy’

Orbán has been denounced by Amnesty International for his “systematic crackdown on the rights of refugees and migrants,” which he has called “Muslim invaders.” In November, the Hungarian government refused UN inspectors visiting the country to ensure immigration centers met international norms. According to Human Rights Watch:

“Asylum seekers are detained indefinitely in substandard border camps without a possibility to challenge their detention. They face violence during operations to force them back to the border, and limitations on meaningful access to asylum.”

The prime minister describes his alternative to liberal democracy as anti-immigration Christian Democracy. President Trump complimented Orbán’s model, saying, “You have been great with respect to Christian communities. You have really put a block up, and we appreciate that very much.”

The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer told NPR Orbán not only pushes anti-Islam rhetoric, but also encourages anti-semitism:

“The week that I was in Hungary, CNN published a poll showing that Hungarians had become the most anti-Semitic country in the whole of Europe. One of the pro-government publications published a magazine that had a cover featuring the head of the Jewish federation. And his face was put against a black backdrop, and money was raining down.”

Is Orbán Dedicated to Democracy or Power?

Foer recently wrote about Orbán’s “War on Intellect,” through his efforts to subvert universities that criticize his regime:

“Like Pol Pot or Josef Stalin, Orbán dreams of liquidating the intelligentsia, draining the public of education, and molding a more pliant nation. But he is a state-of-the-art autocrat; he understands that he need not resort to the truncheon or the midnight knock at the door. His assault on civil society arrives in the guise of legalisms subverting the institutions that might challenge his authority.”

Orbán’s Fidesz party has heavily gerrymandered Hungary’s electoral districts, as the party won a parliamentary supermajority in 2014 despite receiving fewer votes than it did when it lost elections in 2002 and 2006. Additionally, about 90 percent of Hungarian media is controlled by people with close connections to the prime minister and his party.

These developments inhibited both of President Trump’s predecessors from hosting the Hungarian leader. Critics are concerned Orbán’s style of democratic backsliding is a source of inspiration for President Trump, who has repeatedly praised authoritarian leaders throughout the world. As Vox’s Zach Beauchamp warns:

“This is the lesson the Hungarian experience offers for the United States. A political party that was once dedicated to democracy can, over time, become so preoccupied with holding power that it no longer cares enough about the substance of democracy to play by the rules.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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