During our recent visit to Budapest, like most I was dazzled by the city’s grandeur. But I wanted to dig a bit deeper. Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been accused of stifling press freedom, of undermining democracy. The European Union accuses him of “electoral autocracy.” He has rewritten the constitution to consolidate his power. Election laws have been changed to favor his party. He has undermined the independence of the courts He has sealed the country’s borders with Serbia and Croatia with fences which are being made taller and taller to keep immigrants out.
“We move, we work elsewhere, we mix within Europe, but we don’t want to be a mixed race, a multi ethnic people who would mix with non-Europeans,” Orbán said at a conference in Romania in July.
The racist comment was denounced by many world leaders. He later tried to walk it back. (During my four days in Budapest, I saw only four black people.)
It is no surprise that Orbán is a darling of American MAGA Republicans. He spoke at the August Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas. Trump entertained him at his New Jersey club, and Orbán is rooting for Trump’s return in 2024.
Tourists enjoy Budapest unaware of political turmoil. Life seems good. Restaurants are full. Merchandise is plentiful. But, since there are too many dangerous similarities to the current political climate in the US, I was curious. What does the “man on the street” have to say about Orbán. I asked a few folks, as well as a journalist colleague. The following is not meant to be a definitive treatise on Hungarian politics, just a brief glimpse behind the scenes.
“It’s shame what is going on in my country because of Orbán, journalist friend Agnes told me. “Hungary is not Hungary anymore. It is Orbánia. Democracy does not exist in my country.” She explained that only one newspaper and one television station report real news, the truth. Others spew government propaganda.
“We are not as bad as Russia yet, but we are going in that direction. Slowly the government is trying to kill a free way of thinking.” The education system, she said, is in a “critical state.” Teacher’s salaries are very low. Young people no longer want to be teachers. There was a major demonstration on October 6 with 10,000 students, teachers and parents blocking a bridge to support teachers’ fight for higher salaries.
Among the people I spoke with, some share Agnes’ opinions on Orbán. Others love their leader.
A 74-year-old woman at a bus stop who is “very proud of Hungary” had this to say: “Believe me there are no problems in Hungary. It is not by chance that Orbán won for the fourth time.”
Edith, another elderly woman, is also an Orbán, fan. I asked about democracy and freedom.
“Everything is free here, Look around. What is not free?” Edith asked.
A young man hawking souvenirs agreed. ‘I do what I want to do. If we had no democracy that would not be possible.”
At a paprika stand in the Great Market Hall, I spoke to a young vendor with an opposing view. “People in the countryside are brainwashed,” he said. “They only have three TV stations all controlled by the government. People in cities see the reality, but these are hard times… the economy, the war in Ukraine. What can we do?”
Indeed, the country is not in great shape. The economy is heading into a recession. The currency, the florint, has plunged to new lows. Inflation has risen to double digits.
Daniel;, a 24-year-old waiter, left his home in a country village to find work in Budapest, but he is now looking for work outside of Hungary. “I want to leave Hungary. Things are getting worse.” According to Agnes, Daniel is not alone. “Many young people are leaving the country,” she said.
Daniel considers the political situation “very bad…almost as bad as Russia…there is no democracy.” He said he does not vote because there is no one better than Orbán. “That’s our problem. Our politics are very amateur.”
“The opposition is impotent,” Agnes said. “They do nothing. There are no strong characters.”
The war in Ukraine is another divisive topic. According to “fake” Hungarian news, Ukraine invaded Russia. I spoke to a young souvenir salesman who echoed Orbán’s rhetoric on the war. “If the West stopped supplying Ukraine with weapons, the war would be over in two months,” he said. “You went to war in Syria and many other countries. No one cared. Why do you care about Ukraine now?”
Elena, a Ukrainian who fled war in her country and is now working in Budapest, finds that many she meets live in a vacuum, watching and listening only to state news. She explains reality and shows pictures from Ukraine. She has changed many minds, she says. “This country still has a post-Soviet footprint. It needs to change.”
Orbán has been prime minister in Hungary since 2010, steering the country farther and farther to the right. Poland has followed his example. Far Right Democrats in Sweden did so well in recent elections, they pushed the center-left from power. Giorgia Meloni, a far right candidate, was the winner in Italy’s recent election. Trump and MAGA Republicans are hoping to be on the same track in the US.
The scenario is precarious.
“I feel ashamed that I am Hungarian,” Agnes said. I hope I will not have to say that I am ashamed to be an American
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