Orban alarms critics with plan for ‘illiberal’ Hungary

Workfare and ‘national approach’ should replace ‘failed’ state, says controversial PM

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban: “The new state that we are building in Hungary today is not a liberal state . . . I don’t think our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Photograph: Bloomberg

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban: “The new state that we are building in Hungary today is not a liberal state . . . I don’t think our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations.” Photograph: Bloomberg

Thu, Jul 31, 2014, 01:00

Opponents of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban have expressed alarm at his pledge to remodel the EU member state along “illiberal” lines, taking inspiration from the way countries such as Russia and China are run.

Mr Orban’s latest controversial speech reinforced his reputation as a leader who is happy to scandalise critics at home and in the EU, while striving to radically overhaul Hungary and strengthen it through relations with partners to the east.

Addressing ethnic-Hungarian supporters in Romania on Saturday, Mr Orban said countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, India and Singapore were successful while not being “western, not liberal democracies and in some cases probably not even democracies”.

“While breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West, we are trying to find the form of community organisation, the new Hungarian state, which is capable of making our community competitive in the great global race for decades to come,” he said.

Warning that “provincial copying of the West” would “kill” Hungary, Mr Orban said the debt-laden welfare state had failed and should be replaced by a “workfare state” that is non-liberal but respects Christian values and human rights.

“The new state that we are building in Hungary today is not a liberal state. It doesn’t deny liberalism’s basic values such as freedom but doesn’t make it its core element . . . I don’t think our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations,” he said.

Mr Orban (51) has sought a “national approach” to key issues since his centre-right, populist Fidesz party took power in 2010 with a two-thirds parliamentary majority, which it retained when securing a second term this year.

He has defied criticism of his new, conservative national constitution, his eradication of many checks and balances in the system, his appointment of allies to powerful institutions that were formerly independent, and his allegedly unfair new laws on elections, the media and other fields.

To bolster weak finances he nationalised private pensions, imposed tough taxes on sectors with strong foreign involvement, and boosted state involvement in an economy that has brought strong profits to politically loyal businessmen.

He has also regularly lambasted the EU for meddling in Hungary’s affairs, and rallied support by depicting his government as defending the nation against venal foreign bankers and hostile bureaucrats.

Bigger state role 

Liberals accuse Mr Orban of claiming to know what is best for the entire nation and for depicting dissenters as traitors, but his latest speech only suggested that he favoured a bigger state role in reshaping a Hungarian society that he believes was deeply damaged and distorted by the communist era.

“The Hungarian nation is not a mere pile of individuals but a community which needs to be organised, strengthened and built,” he said.

Viktor Szigetvari, co-chairman of Hungary’s main centre- left opposition alliance, said the European Commission must be alert to the “constantly deteriorating quality of Hungarian democracy”.

“Serious and active means are needed to put an end to the demolition of Hungarian democracy,” he added.

Top EU officials believe a new tax law is intended to put pressure on Hungary’s independent media, and Budapest authorities have raided the offices of NGOs that administer aid from Norway, on suspicion that they are politically biased.

“We’re not dealing with civil society members but paid political activists who are trying to help foreign interests here,” Mr Orban said of some NGOs in his speech.

“It’s good that a parliamentary committee has been set up to monitor the influence of foreign monitors.”

Such moves are reminiscent of Russia, with which Mr Orban has assiduously boosted economic and political ties.