Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Hungary, Last Stop Before Dictatorship?

Hungary, Last Stop Before Dictatorship?
 Stefano Bottoni
Visiting Fellow - Europe

What is currently happening in Hungary following Orbán government’s authoritarian reshaping of the political and cultural landscape? Could the anti-government demonstrations that started in December become a system-change movement? Historian and analyst Stefano Bottoni explains the roots and the possible outcomes of a fast evolving situation.

Last week, thousands of people took the streets in Budapest to protest against Viktor Orban and his party. What prompted this protest? Who is taking part in it, and what is the people’s attitude towards it? How can it evolve?

Protests were prompted by a new fast-track legislative measure – branded as "slave law" by the opposition activists – which entered into force on January 1st, 2019, increasing hours of overtime that employers can request from 250 to 400 hours a year. The most vivid outrage was fueled by the fact that compensation will be delayed up to 36 months instead of 12 accordingly to the current regulations. According to the government, a less severe regulation on additional hours was solicited by foreign companies operating in Hungary, and most people would be happy to work a bit more to earn more money. However, opposition movements and independent media accused the government of social darwinism and economic mismanagement. Hungary is currently performing well but the increasing labour shortage undermines economic growth.

For the first time in years, protests were not only merged but also led by all parliamentary parties, grassroots opposition movements, and trade unions, which represent around 10% of the Hungarian employees.

For the first time in years, protests were not only merged but also led by all parliamentary parties, grassroots opposition movements, and trade unions, which represent around 10% of the Hungarian employees. Those protests have indirectly infiltrated a significant portion of the Hungarian public opinion, and polls that held in mid-January show a slight decrease in support for Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz. Mass rallies, flash mobs and other protest actions are still involving tens of thousands in Budapest and even more interestingly in the provinces, where demonstrations and open street actions have been organized in more than 60 cities on January 19. Several trade unions called for a national general strike of the public sector on March 14, the first since the democratic breakthrough of 1989.

It seems that the government underestimated the emotional power of the "slave law" on large portions of the Hungarian population, whose salary does not reach €5-600 net per month and find it impossible to keep up with the much-advertised improvement of living standards. 

In addition to the case of Central European University, which received significant attention in Western Europe, it seems that a general offensive against academic freedom is taking place in Hungary. What are the latest developments in this regard ? 

The hottest issue right now is the uncertain future of the 44 research institutes of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, with more than 5 000 staff. The turmoil has been caused by a radical reform of Hungary’s research system, instigated by government. A decree approved by parliament in July 2018 prompted a complete restructuring of academic research in their organization and funding. Following the pattern of the 2014 reform of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the financial control of the academy’s 28-billion forint (€88 million) yearly research budget has been transferred to the Ministry for Innovation and Technology — a move that results in a loss of autonomy over the research centers and institutes.

The decree also ordered an evaluation of every academy’s centres to be conducted by March 2019. The outcome will determine whether they will stay open, merged within a university or suppressed. After the rejection by the presidency of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences of the unilateral plans that the minister for Innovation and Technology put forward, hard-liner László Palkovics announced in December 2018 that he would withhold running costs and overheads of the research centers for at least three months. While the final outcome of these measures is still unknown, the increasingly authoritarian governance envisaged by the limitation of academic freedom cannot be overlooked.

The reform outcome will determine whether academies centers will stay open, merged within a university or suppressed.

Hungary is likely to suffer unprecedented damage, firstly regarding its reputation abroad, secondly - and probably most importantly, as far as the thousands of scholars who see their future as academics and citizens of a democratic state in danger, as concerned. 

What kind of leverage do you think other European countries, and the European Union (EU), could use to prevent a full dictatorship in Hungary? Are financial sanctions a useful tool, or could it be used by Orban at his advantage?

There is currently a debate in the scholarly community on whether the EU has been consistently using its potential leverage to prevent, or at least mitigate, the autocratic turn in Hungary. Political scientists András Bozóki and Dániel Hegedüs support the idea that the EU fulfils three different functions in Hungary’s hybrid regime, serving as:

  • a systemic constraint;
  • a supporter; and
  • a legitimizer of the regime.

Others are even more pessimistic on the capacity of the EU of limiting (or even punishing) non-compliant Member States like Orbán’s Hungary. Up to now, financial sanctions have only been approved against those Member States who have failed to comply with budgetary issues, and Orbán’s Hungary has gained recognition over the last years for its self-imposed fiscal discipline as an unorthodox form of social austerity. Disciplinary procedures such as the activation of Article 7 for undermining democratic rules last too long and require too many unanimous votes to be effective. For now, I see little or no room for an external intervention aimed at influencing internal dynamics in Hungary. The only destabilizing factor might be a sudden financial or economic collapse, but the probable economic slowdown from last year (5% to 3-4% year-on-year growth in 2019 and 2020) does not seem to be able to significantly affect the popularity of the Hungarian Prime Minister and his party.

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English