When Hungary’s government passed a law last week which was effectively intended to shut down Budapest’s Central European University, it surely anticipated that there would be a backlash. It probably did not anticipate mass demonstrations, or senior European politicians threatening to suspend Hungary’s membership of the European Union. Here is how Hungary’s government has gotten into this mess.
Hungary’s leader doesn’t like liberal democracy
Over the past several years, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in liberal democracy — the kind of democracy that characterizes consolidated democratic states, such as the United States and the countries of Western Europe. In a notorious speech in 2014, Orban proclaimed that liberal democracies were not globally competitive anymore. Instead, Orban said that he looked to states such as Russia, Turkey and China as examples of success, and argued that it should be possible to build an ‘illiberal democracy’ within the European Union. Instead of the liberal belief that disagreement is part and parcel of democratic politics, illiberal democracy looks to strong nationalism and a purportedly united population as the basis for democracy.
For a long while, Orban’s program appeared to be working. His party has dominated Hungarian politics in recent years, taking enough seats in Hungary’s parliament to be able to remake the constitution, and replacing troublesome judges on Hungary’s highest court. His liberal opponents have been in disarray.
Orban has targeted civil society groups
When the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary and other countries in Eastern Europe seemed on the verge of a democratic renaissance. Many people talked about the revival of “civil society” — groups and organizations which were not run by the government, or dominated by political parties, but which were supposed to play a crucial role in allowing people to talk about politics. NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) enjoyed a resurgence. Some of that resurgence was funded by George Soros’s Open Society organizations, which were built in part on the arguments of Karl Popper’s book, “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” distinguishing between societies in which free debate was possible, and those which aspired instead to an impossible unity. Soros, who is Jewish, was born in Hungary, but left in 1947 after having to hide from the Nazis as a child. After the collapse of Communism, he devoted much of his considerable wealth to helping rebuild civil society in Eastern Europe, including providing a scholarship for a young Orban to study at Oxford. Soros also endowed the Central European University in Budapest, a graduate institution that would educate people in the social sciences, humanities, law and related disciplines.
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