U.S. Should Prioritize Hungarian Relationship as Critical NATO Ally Courts Russia, Erodes Democratic Norms

Budapest, Hungary – Human Rights First today urged the Obama Administration to place a greater priority on the U.S.-Hungarian relationship after Sunday’s election that solidified the power of the increasingly-authoritarian government led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban. One in five Hungarian voters cast a ballot for the far-right Jobbik Party, which has been widely criticized for four years for its antisemitic, anti-Roma and xenophobic ideology.

“As a NATO ally, Hungary’s importance to European peace and security has risen since Russia’s annexation of Crimea,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke, who is in Hungary now. “International tensions remain high over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions toward Hungary’s neighbor, Ukraine, which has a large Hungarian minority.”

At the same time, Prime Minister Orban’s policies pose a challenge to the U.S. interest in maintaining a peaceful, free, and rights-respecting Eastern Europe. Orban has expanded political and economic ties to Russia, including signing a $15 billion deal in February to have Russia build a nuclear power plant. Hungarian citizens discovered the terms of the secret deal only from an official Russian website. Orban has also pushed through constitutional “reforms” that have significantly eroded democratic norms, judicial independence, and human rights protections inside a European Union member state. While Orban has denounced hate crimes, he has failed to prosecute them or to attack the underlying hatred and discrimination that remain widespread. He hasn’t confronted Jobbik, but competed with them for votes by instituting several of their policy proposals. All of these developments have raised the stakes for the United States.

“Hungary matters. The situation is now far more challenging and sensitive than it was before the crisis in Ukraine,” noted Stahnke. “The United States should publicly prioritize the relationship and stand up for democracy and human rights.”

A Human Rights First team has been visiting Hungary to investigate the implications of the rise of the far-right parties on human rights. It is documenting how the revised Hungarian constitution and a series of new laws have eroded checks and balances, and limited the ability of citizens to challenge official abuses. This is in line with prior conclusions by the European Union, OSCE, Council of Europe, and United Nations bodies as well as Hungarian and international human rights groups.

“Orban’s authoritarian reboot is succeeding,” said Sonni Efron, a Human Rights First fellow currently in Budapest. “The leftist opposition is in tatters, but not the far-right party that wants Hungary to quit the European Union and ally itself with Russia.”

Orban’s Fidesz won about 44.5% of the popular vote, down from the 52.8% it received in its 2010 landslide. Because of the winner-take-all election system that it alone wrote, Fidesz is expected to maintain the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution at will. According to the Political Capital think tank, Fidesz lost the 2006 elections with 42% of the votes, while in 2014, it might gain a two-thirds majority with only 44%. The leftist alliance received about 26%. The Jobbik Party won nearly 21% of the vote, up from 17% in 2010.

In an attempt to win moderate voters away from Fidesz, Jobbik candidates observed by Human Rights First avoided statements that could run afoul of anti-hate speech laws. “Instead, we heard Jobbik candidates using coded language to evoke hateful stereotypes about Jews and Roma people, strident attacks on Brussels bureaucrats, and revanchist and pro-Russian rhetoric,” Efron noted.

This does not indicate that all Jobbik voters necessarily share the party’s ideology; some said they see Jobbik as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption, law-and-order alternative to Orban, and many saw Jobbik as the best option for a protest vote. However self-described racist groups, including the paramilitary “Outlaws Army” openly supported Jobbik.

Jobbik’s rhetoric also drew from the ideas of the ultra-nationalist mayor of the town of Erpatak. Human Rights First staff witnessed potential election law violations in Erpatak, and heard credible allegations of unchecked rights abuses, all of which merit an independent official investigation.

“No outside power will change Hungary; its fate is rightly in the hands of its own people,” Efron said. “But Jobbik’s growing popularity, in spite of its track record of fomenting antisemitism, racism, and a corrosive narrative of Hungary’s historical victimization, should be a wake-up call.”

For more information, see Human Rights First’s fact sheets, “The 2014 Hungarian Elections and Human Rights” and “Antisemitic and Racist Statements by Hungarian Political Leaders.


Published on April 7, 2014


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