Case Study: Illiberal democracy versus open society in Hungary

The saga of the Central European University in Hungary will have a lasting impact on domestic politics.


In April 2017, the Hungarian government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing Fidesz party, launched a national consultation on how Hungary should react to E.U. policies ranging from immigration to energy. This was supported by a massive advertising campaign featuring billboards with the slogan ‘Let’s Stop Brussels!’. The questions were highly biased and the possible answers phrased in such a way that supporting the government’s policies seemed the only rational choice.

With the results of the national consultation unsurprisingly supporting the government’s rejection of E.U. policies, Orbán has been further emboldened in his vision for an ‘illiberal state’. He is sceptical of the success of liberal democracy and in 2014, hailed Russia and Turkey as examples of non-liberal success stories. He envisages ‘a new Hungarian state, globally competitive…a work-based society…of a non-liberal nature’.

George Soros: hero or villain?

This is the antithesis of the message spread by George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist who has become Orbán’s nemesis. The international charitable network he founded, the Open Society Foundations, has as its mission the consolidation of liberal democracy across the world, particularly in former communist countries. The foundations give grants to programmes that improve human rights, fight corruption and ensure the separation of political powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary.

Soros’s ultraliberal worldview has earned him enemies in his home country

It also offers bursaries to promising students from former communist countries, allowing them to study in reputable universities around the world. Orbán himself was the recipient of an Open Society grant that funded his time at Oxford University.

Soros’s ultraliberal worldview has earned him enemies in his home country and throughout Central Europe. Many Hungarians, remembering his career as one of the world’s most successful currency speculators, associate him with the painful financial crisis of 2008, although he was not the cause. His voluble support for refugees has also angered many Hungarians, who overwhelmingly oppose immigration – at least according to the government’s survey.

Orbán is infamous for his large-scale advertising campaigns, paid for through public funds. In June, full-page advertisements in print media and vast billboards appeared, displaying a picture of Soros with the words, ‘99% [of Hungarians] reject illegal immigration. Don’t let Soros have the last laugh’.

Central European University and the battle against liberalism

One of Soros’s greatest successes has been the Central European University (CEU), founded in 1991 and based in the Hungarian capital Budapest. It is one of the best institutes in Hungary and attracts an international body of students and academics. Dubbed ‘Soros University’ by Fidesz politicians, it nevertheless claims to now be independent of him, though he remains an important symbolic figure.

In April, the Fidesz-dominated parliament overwhelmingly voted to pass a law that opposition activists had called the ‘Lex CEU’ because of its blatant targeting of the university. The new legislation stipulates that any ‘foreign university’ based in Hungary must also have a campus in any other country in which it is registered. The CEU is registered both in Hungary and in the U.S. state of New York, though its only physical presence is in Budapest.

Orbán originally insisted on negotiating only on a country-to-country basis

The CEU has until February 2018 to build a campus in New York, where it is theoretically also registered. If it fails to meet this deadline, it can no longer enrol students from 2018 onwards and must close by 2021.

Additionally, the law specifies that universities registered outside of the E.U. cannot award degrees in Hungary without an agreement between the two national governments. Although the U.S. government says that the issue does not fall under federal jurisdiction, and the governor of New York issued a statement indicating his readiness to begin discussions with the Hungarian government immediately, Orbán originally insisted on negotiating only on a country-to-country basis before finally giving in to pressure. In late June, a Hungarian government delegation travelled to New York to open negotiations on a possible new agreement, that the CEU hopes will be concluded in time to accept new students this autumn.

Shift to the right

Orbán’s attack on liberal symbols is partly an attempt to win conservative voters back from the far-right Jobbik party, which has become the second most popular party in the country, ahead of the 2018 parliamentary elections. Jobbik has successfully drawn voters’ attention towards allegations of corruption against Fidesz politicians, including Orbán himself. Like many previously centrist European politicians, Orbán has employed increasingly inflammatory rhetoric to attract rural, religious voters.

Orbán recently described Hungary’s fascist wartime leader as ‘an exceptional statesman’

Despite often claiming to pursue a zero-tolerance policy against anti-Semitism, his shift to the right has worried the country’s Jewish community, which numbers around 48,200 adherents. In a recent speech, Orbán described Hungary’s fascist wartime leader, and ally of Hitler, Miklós Horthy as ‘an exceptional statesman’. Some of the billboards featuring Soros, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Mazsihisz, Hungary’s largest Jewish organisation, has called on the government to end the campaign and the Israeli ambassador to Hungary issued a statement sharply criticising the advertisements. The poster campaign also roughly coincides with a police raid on a Jewish community centre in Budapest that activists believe was politically motivated.

While Orbán has not been explicitly anti-Semitic, he has legitimised the sentiment of those who are, exacerbated by the stridently xenophobic rhetoric of Jobbik.

However, when faced with major opposition and international scrutiny, Orbán can backtrack rapidly. After several weeks of strong international and domestic criticism, the Hungarian government agreed to remove the posters.
Orbán has previously been taken by surprise by the scale of popular opposition, and the Lex CEU sparked some of the biggest protests that Orbán has encountered in his seven years in office. At the largest demonstration, some 70,000 people marched over the Danube river and gathered outside parliament before a smaller group staged an impromptu protest outside the Fidesz party headquarters and blocked Oktogon square, one of the major intersections in the city centre.

In 2014, large protests against a proposed tax on internet data traffic forced the government to retract its plans. Though he has so far stood firm on the Lex CEU, if widespread opposition continues, he could soften the deadline or even amend the legislation.