Hungary: from epidemic to dictatorship



The reading of the Orbán phenomenon, on the trail of Agnés Heller

One of the most unexpected and paradoxical consequences of the spread of the coronavirus was the seizure, in Hungary, of full powers by the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, a seizure of power that will certainly last longer than the epidemic itself.

Other countries, such as Tunisia, Chile, Bolivia, Philippines, Thailand, saw their respective Prime Ministers or Presidents assume full powers, but they did so by establishing a time limit – almost always two months, consistent, therefore, with the spread of the epidemic and its opposition – or, taking advantage of the epidemic to consolidate its own undemocratically elected power – is the case of the former president of Bolivia, Jeanine Añez – or, very little understood democratically – is the case of the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.

None of these countries are in Europe, Hungary, on the contrary, is a member of the European Union. There is no doubt that Añez or Duterte took advantage of the epidemic to dismantle what little democracy there was in their regimes and, equally, it can be said of Orbán, above all for one reason: at the time of the parliamentary granting of full powers (March 30 last year), in Hungary 447 cases of contagion by the coronavirus have been registered and there have been 15 deaths.

This is the paradoxical nature of Orbán's seizure of full power, if we compare the few hundred infections in Hungary with the tens of thousands of deaths in Italy, the United States, Germany, England or France. But these last countries have a long tradition of democracy; Hungary, on the other hand, is a country “devoid of any democratic tradition”,[I] says Agnes Heller. In reality, there has been substantial democracy in Hungary from 1989 until today. Between 1998 and 2002, Orbán came to power, but still held centre-left positions. In 2010, Orbán returned to power and moved increasingly to the right, and on March 30, he completed his regression.

Orbán's political base is in the countryside, in small villages, while his opposition is rooted in Budapest, which elected a left-wing mayor in the last municipal elections. It is a tradition of Hungarian cultural history to divide the popular (nepiekin Hungarian) and the inhabitants of Budapest, the urban (cities), some linked to the most original Hungarian traditions, others attracted by the West, often German speakers, at the time of the Double Monarchy Habsburg. Today, this difference is reproduced and its first victim is Western culture: Orbán is against any form of multiculturalism. He closed the Central European University, founded by billionaire George Soros, accused of favoring immigration abroad, of being practically a window to the outside.

Now Orbán can govern without a parliamentary vote, he can even suspend the laws in force and not call elections for an indefinite period. The minimum condition for obtaining these powers was to control 2/3 of the parliamentary votes. The opposition has no function and the autocrat Orbán – one can define it that way because he has practically given himself full powers – has no democratic sensitivity to dialogue with it, a measure that would be desirable precisely in an emergency such as the epidemic. In reality, however, Orbán took immediate action not against the epidemic, but against transgender people, a small minority of Hungarian civil society: just four days after assuming full powers (April 3), Orbán vetoed sex reassignment.

Not even epidemiologists know what sex change has to do with the spread of the coronavirus, but for Orbán it was an essential measure to be taken quickly. This measure, however, suggests that the epidemic, although unexpected, has facilitated the transformation of the Orbán government into a regime that persecutes and oppresses minorities. All totalitarian regimes begin by identifying a public enemy, and Orbán found it in transgender people; he wanted, then, to give his regime a sexist identity, oppressing a small minority, traditionally unpopular with civil society, an easy enemy to point out to public opinion.

According to Heller, today's Hungary is paying for the mistakes made in the period of transition from communism to democracy, which she lists in the failed formation of a government of national unity among the major parties, in not immediately publishing the lists of informers of the communist regime – a measure that would have widened the divisions in civil society, because Hungarian civil society is not that of South Africa which, with public processes, managed to turn the sad page of the apartheid – and for not involving civil society in the formulation of the Constitution.[ii]

Orbán's autocratic regime is established in a nation where civil society, which experienced the end of the communist regime as a liberation, has always been particularly weak, if not absent, as was, incidentally, characteristic of countries with concrete socialism. Philosopher Tibor Szábor observes “two characteristic negative traits of Hungarian political culture […]. One is the political intolerance towards all 'different' positions and the other is the tendency towards exclusivity, to monopolize certain currents of ideas. Consequently, people have not learned to respect the thinking of others and, even today, reject different points of view and condemn them”.[iii] Orbán mirrors Hungarian civil society in this religious minority trait, and transgender oppression easily finds consensus in Hungarian civil society. Furthermore, the Orbán regime was already famous in Europe for having refused to accept the quotas of immigrants that the European Union divided among its members based on their own population; for Hungary a few hundred immigrants were expected, who were rejected on the grounds that the country wanted to maintain its cultural purity, that is, Christian, and its ethnic purity – a word that hides an even more obscure one, “race”.

Hungary is a small country, like almost all countries in Central Europe, with around ten million inhabitants. Since 1920, i.e. since the end of World War I, parts of the Hungarian national territory have been separated from the central body of the country and thus approximately 2 million Hungarians live outside Hungary. As of January 1, 2020, the Orbán regime allows dual citizenship for Hungarians living outside of Hungary, which has created some problems with neighboring states such as Slovakia, which does not allow dual citizenship. Relations with neighboring countries that are part of the European Union, ie Slovakia, Romania, Austria, Croatia are no longer idyllic; with the extra-Union states, namely Serbia and Ukraine, it definitely got worse, which creates problems for the entire European Union.

The unifying element of the Hungarian ethnicity is the language. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language, but an Ugrofin language, in other words, it does not belong to the great family of languages ​​spoken by the Urals and from India to the Atlantic – after the Conquest of America, we can say to the Pacific. It is a language that has few speakers (in practice Hungarians, Finns and few other minorities) and, therefore, gives great pride to this linguistic and ethnic minority. The Hungarian historian and political scientist István Bibó comments on this ethnic-linguistic peculiarity: “In the particular situation of Central and Eastern Europe, linguistic belonging becomes a political and historical factor, and it is above all the factor that presides over the territorial definition in the existing borders and, in some cases, for the formation of new nations”.[iv] So, where there is a Hungarian, there is Hungary. But that's not true for the Finns, who show no ethnic identity in terms of the rare language they speak.

Thus, Orbán's nationalism has an ethnic and linguistic foundation that makes it foreign to the multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism that the leaders of the European Union and an overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the Union crave. Orbán's example, like all examples of nationalism, is not always imitable. Agnés Heller sounded a worrying alarm: “'Orbanismo' is not an exclusive specialty of Eastern Europe, but it can serve as a model for the conquest and use of political power in many European countries, perhaps in most of them. Ethnic nationalism is mistakenly labeled “populism” because it appeals to popular resentment, but unlike populism, the resentment is directed not against the rich classes of the same country, but against the “others”, such as the EU, migrants and liberal, rational and pragmatic policies”.[v]

Heller is certainly right about the resentment of the European Union and the migrants who are role models for other EU countries, but his reflection on ethnic nationalism seems insufficient. Heller recognizes that “national identity can be based on citizenship, but in the Hungarian case (and in many European cases) it is of an ethnic type, nationalism is ethnic nationalism. Even if it's not racism, ethnic nationalism can get to that point."[vi]

We have already seen that Hungarian ethnic nationalism is based on linguistic particularity. But at present, in the problem of the Hungarian language, the typical problem of linguistic usage arises: it is more convenient to speak English than other minor languages. In fact, today English is a very widespread language in Hungary, especially among young Hungarians, that is, the adults of tomorrow; Hungarian, like Finnish, is destined to become a second language.

At this point, it is obvious that a Europe of nations would be a Europe of nationalisms, that is, the return to the Europe of the first half of the XNUMXth century, which was characterized by a very high level of mutual conflicts, because nationalisms do not admit alliances, but subordinations, or rather, there are no equal allies, but allies in which one commands and the other executes.

The only case in Europe where Orbán's ethnic-nationalist policy has any parallel is in Catalonia. There, language is the unifying element of the Catalan nation and Catalan separatism is rooted in the sense of belonging to the Catalan linguistic community. Even there, there is no lack of contradictions: Catalan is also spoken in the province of Valencia and in the Balearic Islands, but there is no claim for separation from the rest of Spain. Basically, it is convenient to speak a language, Spanish, spoken by about 600 million human beings against a language, Catalan, spoken by 11 million human beings. Catalan is actually a second language.

We think of Orbán as a role model for our nationalists. If everything written above about the contradictions of ethno-linguistic nationalism is true, then we Italians are calm: Italian has been the language used by Italians for only 65 years, that is, since 1954, when broadcasts began television; despite the public school, Italians did not use Italian in everyday life, but today also our young people – the adults of tomorrow – speak English widely. In fact, Italian nationalists have never insisted on language as the unifying element of the Italian nation, probably aware of what is written above. Our nationalists did not use Orbán's other nationalist weapon: Italians abroad. There are five million Italian citizens abroad, but there are 50 million who are entitled to apply for citizenship, in other words, it is almost the same as there are in Italy. In the countries of the European Union, only Germany and Belgium have a large presence of Italians, then the others are on the other side of the ocean, in order: Brazil, Argentina, United States, Australia, among others.

Unlike Hungary, Italy still exports its workforce: around 130.000 Italians have emigrated abroad (2017 data, the latest available) in search of work and the vast majority of them are “brain drain”. More Italians migrate than immigrants enter our country. It is a tradition in Italy, since it joined, the expulsion of the workforce and our nationalists, defenders of traditions, do not care at all about it. The “brain drain” is not a topic of political programs. Hungarian emigrants outside the borders of “Greater Hungary” emigrated for political reasons. Even today, Hungarian emigration in search of work is irrelevant, the Orbán regime is able to offer work; the same cannot be said of our governments.

After having analyzed the limits of the model of ethnic nationalism, let us return to Heller's reflection on the Orbán regime. The Hungarian philosopher's biggest concern was Orbán's policy towards the European Union. Heller argues that Orbán conducts a policy of “re-feudalization”: “The give/take/give back relationship is in fact closer to feudalism than typical capitalist corruption. The Orbán government creates its own oligarchy. The wealth of this oligarchy depends entirely on [Orbán's] Party,”[vii] and that wealth largely comes from the European Union: "It's probably true that something like 20-30% of the money Hungary receives from the EU ends up in the pockets of Orbán's closest supporters."[viii]

There is obviously no recognition for the European Union, as we have seen before, indeed, according to Heller: “Until the defenders of ethnic nationalism take control, a liberal, conservative and socialist EU will remain the enemy. When ethnic nationalism dominates the EU, who will be the enemy of ethnic states? […] The enemy of a National State is always another National State. The small diplomatic skirmishes of today will become wars tomorrow.”[ix].

I obviously hope that Heller's prediction does not come true and that the feared – by her – dissolution of the Union does not happen. I'm afraid of making mistakes and I don't make predictions, but I can see that up to now Orbán's policy has been substantially anti-European Union, so why continue to keep him within the Union and not show him, on the contrary, where the door?

*Antonino Infranca He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Author, among other books, of Work, individual, history – the concept of work in Lukács (Boitempo)

Translation: Juliana Hass


[I] HELLER, A. Orbanism. Il caso dell'Ungheria: dalla democrazia liberale alla tirannia. Translate M. De Pascale and F. Lopiparo. Rome: Castelvecchi, 2019, p. 5.

[ii] See. Ivi, pp. 17-18.

[iii]SZABO, T. Le sujet et sa morale. Essays on moral philosophy and politics, Algyõ (Hongrie): Innovariant, 2016, p. 170.

[iv]BIBO, I. Miseria dei piccoli Stati dell'Europa orientale. Translate A. Nuzzo. Bologna: Il Mulino, 1994, pp. 30-31.

[v]HELLER, A. Orbanism, cit., pp. 5-6.

[vi]Ivi, P. 35.

[vii]Ivi, pp. 28-29.

[viii]Ivi, P. 28.

[ix]Ivi, P. 8.

See this link for all articles


  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • The STF, Artificial Intelligence and the Labor Courtsouto-maior_edited 07/06/2024 By JORGE LUIZ SOUTO MAIOR: The implementation of the replacement of the human being by AI presupposes that it has already been trained to act in the way desired by the ruling class
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Union registrationSUBWAY 11/06/2024 By LAWRENCE ESTIVALET DE MELLO & RENATA QUEIROZ DUTRA: The Ministry of Labor has decided to grant union registration to Proifes. However, union registration is not the same as union representation
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Confessions of a Catholic LadyMarilia Pacheco Fiorillo 11/06/2024 By MARILIA PACHECO FIORILLO: Congenital reactionism is not only the preserve of evangelicals
  • Regionalist literature in the 21st centuryCulture the corridor 06/06/2024 By DANIEL BRAZIL: Commentary on Benilson Toniolo's novel
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space