Orbán era producing deep changes
Hungary has been governed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party since 2010. In the parliamentary elections in April 2018, Fidesz succeeded in gaining its third successive two-thirds majority in the parliament. This has given it leeway to continue what it has described as “systemic change.” Since 2018 at the latest, observers have been speaking of an “Orbán era” in Hungarian history, comparable in the breadth and depth of changes only to the Horthy and Kádár eras.
State taking over, consolidating media sector. Active harassment of opposition parties
Since Fidesz’s election victory in 2010, almost all checks and balances have been gradually destroyed. The takeover of the media has culminated in the consolidation of about 500 media outlets closely associated to Fidesz under the Central European Press and Media Foundation (KESMA) in late 2019. In the campaigns for the European Parliament elections in April 2019 and the municipal elections in October 2019, Fidesz made heavy use of its power to weaken the opposition. The national and local public TV stations did not invite opposition candidates on air, and did not organize any public debates. The opposition could not make itself heard via billboard advertising. Fidesz also ran a smear campaign in the media, it sought to discredit the opposition and to confuse voters by promoting fake candidates, it “imported” non-resident dual citizens from neighboring countries to vote, and it disturbed the opposition’s public meetings and demonstrations. Despite these obstacles, however, the opposition succeeded in winning in large parts of “urban Hungary” in the municipal elections. Key to this success has been cooperation between opposition parties, which agreed on a common anti-Fidesz democratic political program and nominated just one candidate in all places.
Economic policy captured by Orbán circle; putting academic freedom at risk
While the Hungarian economy has grown strongly since 2014 and has been one of the few countries to withstand the international slowdown in economic growth in 2019, economic policy has remained subject to power politics and state capture by the “(royal) court” (udvar) around Orbán. A “re-nationalization” of the economy has gone hand-in-hand with a “re-feudalization” of public procurement. An openly aggressive, predatory politico-business elite has privatized the market economy and the state by grabbing huge fortunes. As a result, the new oligarchs are now richer than the richest Hungarians were under the Austro-Hungarian monarchy or during the Horthy era. After a pro-cyclical fiscal policy in 2017 and 2018, the government tightened fiscal policy in 2019. While the structural deficit is expected to decline, the decline has been smaller than recommended by the European Council. Since the 2018 elections, the government has sought to strengthen R&I, which had long been neglected, by increasing spending, and by initiating a reorganization of higher education and the public research sector. However, the dismemberment of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (HAS) has put academic freedom at risk, and has stirred massive protests both inside and outside Hungary. While a new research network (ELKH) has been established under the control of the Ministry of Innovation and Technology (ITM), which is led by the new strong man of the Orbán government, László Palkovics, the future institutional structure of the R&I sector remains unclear.
Post-election cabinet reshuffle; policymaking centralized in Orbán’s hands
The creation of the ITM was part of a more comprehensive reshuffling of the Hungarian cabinet in the wake of the 2018 elections. Only three ministries kept their previous function and minister . In the period under review, the competencies of the ITM have been further strengthened. Moreover, Judit Varga replaced László Trócsányi (who was nominated for the European Commission, but eventually rejected by the European Parliament) as minister of justice and the ministry gained responsibility for European affairs. What has not changed, however, has been the strong centralization of policymaking in the hands of Orbán and his clique. This centralization has made quick and radical decisions possible, but has also created bottlenecks. If the prime minister has not been available, ready or able to decide, issues have remained in the air without any decision being made. The fact that the Orbán government has largely ignored independent expertise and refrained from engaging in any substantial consultation has resulted in poor decisions being made and frequent policy changes.