Kati Marton: Hungary’s Freedom Election

Over the past 12 years, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has turned Hungary into a corruption-ridden "illiberal democracy" that is at odds with the rest of Europe. But now that the usually fractious opposition is united behind one candidate, Hungarians finally have a chance to show Orbán the door.


NEW YORK – When Hungarians go to the polls in April, liberal democracy will be on the ballot – and not only in Hungary. Former US President Donald Trump is promoting the populist prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Tucker Carlson, Fox News’ most-watched on-air personality, has traveled to Budapest to promote Orbán’s brand of ethnic nationalism. Nonetheless, Orbán is facing his most serious challenge since returning to power in 2010.
Hungary’s normally fractious opposition has finally united behind a single candidate: Péter Márki-Zay, the conservative mayor of Hódmezővásárhely, a small, rural town in the center of the country. A devout Christian with seven children, Márki-Zay is running on a pro-European, pro-rule of law, anti-corruption platform. He describes himself as “everything that Viktor Orbán pretends to be.”
Orbán, now 58, was a reform-minded firebrand 30 years ago. But over the past decade, he has transformed Hungary into an “illiberal democracy” whereonly his voice represents the people. During his first term as prime minister in 1998-2002, Orbán shepherded Hungary into NATO and the European Union. But after being defeated in 2002, he vowed never again to risk an electoral loss. Ditching his former pro-Europe, pro-democracy agenda, he embraced the politics of ethno-nationalism and anti-globalist grievance.
Upon returning to office in 2010 with a two-thirds parliamentary majority, Orbán rewrote Hungary’s constitution and election laws to entrench himself in power. His party, Fidesz, soon controlled the country’s media and judiciary – including the Constitutional Court. And Orbán and his cronies became very rich.
In gearing up for this year’s election, Orbán has held rallies accusing the EU of attempting to “seize Hungary from the hands of the Virgin Mary, to cast it at the feet of Brussels.” Yet despite his rants and flagrant violations of EU rules and values, Hungary remains a member of the bloc. The EU’s convoluted bureaucracy simply wasn’t built to handle an autocrat like Orbán. It lacks any mechanism to bring him to heel, largely because he has been able to rely on Poland’s own illiberal government to veto any action taken against him.
As a Hungarian by birth, this year’s election is personal for me. I was six years old in 1955 when I opened the door of our Budapest apartment and faced three men in workers’ overalls. “We came about the gas meter,” one lied. “Get your mother.” I called out my mother’s name, returned to my room, and did not see her (or my father, who was already imprisoned) for almost two years. My parents, the last independent journalists in Soviet-controlled Hungary, were convicted of espionage and sentenced to long prison terms.
Even by Cold War standards, the jailing of a couple with two small children was sufficiently shocking to merit front-page coverage in TheNew York Times. Fortunately, my parents were freed 18 months later, just in time to cover the October 1956 Hungarian uprising. But that year’s revolution was brutally crushed by Soviet tanks and troops, inaugurating an occupation that would last until 1989. “Budapest,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed in his Second Inaugural Address in January 1957, “is no longer merely the name of a city; henceforth it is a new and shining symbol of man’s yearning to be free.”
I was still a small child when we began our westward journey the following year. But I have remained immensely proud of the land we were forced to abandon. On June 16, 1989, I stood with 300,000 Hungarians in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square, for the reburial of those who had died in the failed revolution.
Moved to tears by the solemn ceremony, I still recall the final speaker, a skinny, bearded 26-year-old who declared, “If we are determined enough, we can force the ruling [Communist] Party to face free elections.” With those rousing words, the young Orbán launched his political ascent. Within a few months, he had left Budapest to study at the University of Oxford on a grant from the American financier-philanthropist George Soros, whom Orbán now routinely smears as an all-purpose scapegoat.
In 1995, while regional demagogues stoked a genocidal war in the Balkans, I chose my hometown as the place to wed the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who was still in the midst of negotiating the end of that conflict. In his wedding toast, flanked by Hungarian President Árpád Göncz, my new husband said, “With this marriage, I also welcome Hungary back into the European family of democracies – where she belongs.”
Richard and I had friendly relations with Orbán during his first term, even hosting him for dinner in our home. Although he is not a murderous dictator in the manner of Russian President Vladimir Putin, he lacks deep convictions beyond amassing power for himself. His genius lies in stoking feelings of thwarted nationalism, assuring Hungarians that only he can defend them against a hostile, non-Christian world. I frequently heard the same language from Balkan warlords 25 years ago.
Hungary may no longer jail independent reporters, but Orbán’s regime has silenced critical voices in more subtle and equally effective ways, such as by withholding broadcast licenses and consolidating news outlets into holding companies run by Orbán’s allies. The Soviet troops who once patrolled my neighborhood are long gone. In Orbán, however, Putin has an ally inside the EU – even as the Kremlin threatens Hungary’s security from the east, in Ukraine.
Orbán proved unfit to realize the promise he voiced in Heroes’ Square in 1989. When 90% of the media in Hungary is state-controlled, it is hard to call elections there “free.” Nonetheless, the choice this spring is not up to Trump or Carlson or even Orbán; it is up to Hungarian voters.
Almost a half-million Hungarians (out of a population of ten million) have opted to emigrate since Orbán assumed power. Now we, the Hungarian diaspora, have a special responsibility to make our voices heard, so that tomorrow’s Hungarians will not have to realize their potential elsewhere.
For the second time in my lifetime, Hungary has an opportunity to be “a symbol of man’s yearning to be free.” But Hungarians must seize it while they still can.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2021.

Kati Marton

Kati Marton, Founding Advisory Council Chair of Action for Democracy, is the author, most recently, of The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel (William Collins, 2021).

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