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Hungary: Populism in power

What would it look like if the AfD won? Where will Trump’s America be in four years? Hungarians have an idea – and it’s not pretty.

Image for Hungary: Populism in power
Viktor Orbán, Illustration by Agata Sasiuk

What would it look like if the AfD won? Where will Trump’s America be in four years? Hungarians have an idea – and it’s not pretty.

Seven years ago, the right-wing populist Fidesz (“Hungarian Civic Alliance”) and its leader Viktor Orbán became the ruling force in Hungary, gaining a parliament supermajority and revising the constitution to consolidate more power in Orbán’s hands. Two Hungarians and a Syrian tell us about the reality on the ground.

Márton Gergely The death of free press 

The 40-year-old journalist will always remember the date: Saturday, October 8, 2016. “It was around 9am. I was making breakfast at home when a colleague called and told me he’d been denied access to his email account. I tried and was denied access too.” At the time, Gergely was working as a deputy editor at Népszabadság (People’s Freedom), the largest left-leaning daily newspaper in Hungary. “At first I thought: ah, it must be a problem with the server due to our office moving.” The staff had recently been told to pack up their stuff in preparation for the move, which was ostensibly to take place that weekend. Never mind that one of Gergely’s colleagues had received an anonymous call warning him that something bad was being cooked up. “I still didn’t think it was true,” Gergely recalls. “I didn’t want to believe it.”

He had to find out the news online: Mediaworks, the Austrian company that had taken over Népszabadság in 2014, had announced that they were suspending the paper’s publication due to poor financial performance. Since he couldn’t access his email account, Gergely wasn’t officially informed until a few hours later, when a courier hand-delivered him a note saying he’d been “exempted from the obligation to perform work”.

Neither Gergely nor his colleagues believed the paper’s declining readership was the real reason for its closure. Over the past two years, Népszabadság had carried out a number of investigations on Viktor Orbán and his cronies. Most recently, they’d published an article hinting that Antal Rogán, the minister of Orbán’s cabinet, had used public money to take a private helicopter to a wedding. Their work didn’t escape the attention of the government. Ruling party Fidesz had been expanding its influence on the press since 2011, when a new law gave a government media council the power to impose sanctions on media that didn’t meet its standards for “balance” or “respect for human dignity”. Meanwhile several opposition news sites were sold to government-friendly owners, leading to a media landscape in which TV and the internet spread misinformation about refugee violence and “no-go zones” in Germany, while accusing liberals and NGOs of being in the pocket of Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros. People say that Orbán met with Mediaworks owner Heinrich Pecina to discuss Népszabadság in June 2016.

“We might have lost readers, but our stories were regularly picked up by TV and online, so we were a reference. We were doing a very important job,” says Gergely, who had worked for the paper for over 12 years. He was lucky enough to find a new job with HVG, an independent weekly magazine and website, where he feels somewhat safer. The void of Népszabadság has not disappeared, though. “This wasn’t only about Hungary’s last opposition newspaper shutting down, these were lives. We are still living the stages of grief.”

Krisztián János No help for the helpless 

Fidesz was founded in 1988, originally as a libertarian, anti-communist party, switching from liberal to conservative rhetoric in 1994. At the time, many saw the young party as the future for a democratic Hungary. János, 65, was one of them. The former cameraman voted for Fidesz in 1998, helping Orbán win his first term as prime minister. Like many others, he wanted to give the young, democratic party a chance after decades under the communists. But now he recalls how quickly he was let down. “There was just such a sudden change of narrative. Orbán turned into a loud nationalist, and the everyday people started struggling” he recalls. “By the following elections, I wasn’t supporting them anymore, but people were so blinded by his campaign that many friendships ended because they were on opposite sides. Hatred built up, and that was scary to see.” In the 2002 elections, Orbán’s party lost to the left-leaning Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP). “But then that government wasn’t great either, of course. It turned out their win wasn’t entirely clean and that they misused public money all the time. Of course, now Fidesz is doing the same,and even more! And they’re just completely shameless about it. If Orbán’s daughter needs a job, they’ll create one at the Corvinus university for her… I don’t know who’d be better, though. There’s hardly any alternative.”

Around that time, Krisztián started battling health issues; in 2009, he went blind in one eye and could no longer work behind the camera. “I tried to find a job, but my health didn’t allow me to do physical work. I had to go on the disability pension, about €400/month. Then in 2010 Fidesz won again, and that same year they took away the private pension funds to reduce state debt. I ended up with €200 a month, which hardly even covered my bills.” In 2011, he lost his disabled parking permit and his allowance was further cut after a newly mandatory checkup with the National Office for Rehabilitation and Social Affairs. “The doctor told me to walk in a straight line, and basically that was it. I can walk in a straight line, for God’s sake! I can’t do it for long though because I have two hernias, I’m diabetic and half blind but I wasn’t disabled enough for them.” New reforms in 2015 meant that many of Krisztián’s medications are now no longer covered by health insurance, and the government provides no help for those who cannot afford a nurse or social worker. “I don’t know what I’ll do when I can no longer take care of myself,” he says. “I definitely don’t want to go to a hospital, but I can’t afford a nursing home… I will be a burden on my children. But hopefully I will die before then.”

Image for Hungary: Populism in power
Migrants in Hungary near the Serbian border. Photo by Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed

Mohammed Torture at the border 

Mohammed* is quick to mention: he wants no trouble. At least no more than he’s already in. The 38-year-old Syrian man has been living at a camp in Horgos, a Serbian town just outside the Hungarian border, since the end of August 2016. He arrived with his two sons from the outskirts of Aleppo. His wife and two other children died months before, when their house was bombed. The boys were out with him, trying to get some food. Now they’re living in ripped tents, trying to find shelter in ruined buildings and warmth by lighting fires. “We don’t have enough food and water, we cannot bathe, we don’t have a proper bed to sleep in. I have never been so cold in my life as in the past few months!” Mohammed’s English is broken but easily understandable, and his sons, aged 13 and 15, are fluent by now thanks to lessons from camp volunteers. There are around 1300 people “stuck” along with them, getting help only from civilian-run non-profits such as the Hungarian Helsinki Committee and the Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary.

Orbán’s government completed the 175km fence along its Serbian border in summer 2016. In October, the prime minister denied the country’s participation in the EU’s refugee quota system, refusing to host the 1294 refugees who were supposed to stay in the country. A vote on a “Referendum Against Compulsory Resettlement” was held on October 2, following a €48.7 million campaign; though 98 percent of voters sided with Fidesz, only 40 percent of the population took part, rendering the referendum invalid. Hungary’s refugees therefore remain in limbo in transit zones along the Serbian border, and the situation is about to get worse: as of March 7, those who have already filed an asylum application in Hungary will have to wait for their case decision in those zones, with only three days to appeal if rejected. Both the UN and the EU have declared this to be a violation of international refugee laws, and the case will most likely be brought to the court of Luxembourg.

They took us back to the border and made us read a text saying we were not abused by the Hungarian police.

When Mohammed learned the Hungarian government had absolutely no intention of taking them in or allowing them to pass through, he, his sons and a group of about 40 others attempted to illegally cross the border at the end of December. They crossed at night, in the middle of a forest. “After only a few minutes in Hungarian territory, a group of young men in blue uniforms appeared in a police van. I told my boys to hide among the trees, but eventually we were caught. The next two hours of our lives were hell. They made us sit in a puddle, they set dogs on us, we were tear-gassed, they took our money, food and warm clothes away… I kept begging them not to hurt my sons, but they laughed and hit them even harder, calling us terrorists. They eventually took us back to the border in the van and made us read a text saying we were not abused by the Hungarian police.” Officials deny that so-called “border hunters” would deliberately hurt asylum seekers, but the non-profits assisting in the area hear testimonies like Mohammed’s almost every day.

“So now we are back here,” the Syrian concludes. “But for how long? What’s going to happen to us? What’s going to happen to my children? It feels like there is a rope around my neck and they are just waiting to push me.”

*Name changed