By , 90 percent of all media in Hungary was owned by either the state or a Fidesz ally, according to a count by Budapest-based scholar Marius Dragomir.
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This media empire includes every single regional newspaper in the country. Fidesz also worked to reshape the electorate itself. A law granted citizenship rights to ethnic Hungarians in nearby countries like Romania, including the ability to vote and to access Hungarian social benefit payments. Though many of these ethnic Hungarians have never set foot in Hungary, more than a million non-domestic Hungarians have signed up for the citizenship program. Some of these actions have been even shadier. In the past two elections, for example, Fidesz helped create several fake parties — including one party that was being run by someone who turned out to be homeless — that got on the ballot using signatures of Fidesz supporters and dead people.
These parties split the anti-Fidesz vote in competitive districts, making it much easier for the Fidesz candidate to win a plurality.
None of these tactics, on their own, formally ended Hungarian democracy. But combined, they effectively rigged the political system to give Fidesz a nigh-insurmountable edge. Started as a space for secular Jewish cultural life, it had turned into a sort of hub for left-wing and pro-democracy organizing. After I left Budapest, the Fidesz-controlled local government ordered its closure on health and safety grounds.
The Danube river splits Budapest into two halves: Buda and Pest. The Pest side, on the east side of the river, is where most of the office buildings and nightlife are. Buda, the western half, is traditionally wealthier and more residential. Marked by many green spaces and rolling hills, it can be a stark contrast to the flat urbanity that characterizes much of Pest. But the one I visited felt less like Wall Street and more like the site of a wake. But the government wanted his company as a way to gain access to a new stream of EU funding the state coveted. Anyone familiar with the way business in Hungary worked, the business executive said, would understand that the phone call was an implicit threat.
So he sold his company to a major state-run enterprise. One of the best ways to understand how this works is to look at the way the government gives out contracts. Most liberal democracies have open and transparent bidding and grant processes.
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But in Hungary, things work a little bit differently. What they found was striking. Contracts awarded to the four men were disproportionately likely to be awarded without a bidding process, and the companies were particularly likely to receive EU funds, over which the government exercises tight control. In , he was not a particularly wealthy man.
But the two men eventually had a very public falling-out. He fell from No.
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This effort failed, and Fidesz this April won its third consecutive two-thirds majority despite getting roughly 49 percent of the total vote. Hir TV, a Simicska-controlled channel, was taken over and turned into a government propaganda outlet in August. He said he planned to quit in protest. In July, he announced plans to sell off what remains of his business interests to one of his partners. No one pointed to actual crimes committed by migrants beyond littering, venting instead about their general sense that the migrants were dirty and scary. Many Hungarians, and Europeans as a whole, hold similar views.
The response to the migrant crisis of was a dramatic rise in xenophobia and support for far-right parties.
Hungary does not have a particularly large immigrant population. Only 5.
Yet owing to geography — Hungary is the first EU country on what was once a common migration route from the Middle East and South Asia — migrants often made it their first stop on their way to another EU destination. In a late Eurobarometer poll, 68 percent of Hungarians saw immigration as one of the top two issues facing the EU, up from just 19 percent a year earlier. He paired this heated rhetoric with concrete action.
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Very few have permanently settled in Hungary. The most recent Eurobarometer poll, from March , found that 56 percent of Hungarians considered migration a top issue for the EU today, similar numbers as in despite the fact that the number of asylum seekers crossing the Serbian border has dwindled to a scant two per day. A Pew poll found that 72 percent of Hungarians have a negative view of Muslims, a figure two-thirds larger than the European average 43 percent.
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His control over the media, together with the complete marginalization of opposition groups, allowed him to manipulate anti-migrant sentiment more effectively and get the population on board with the Fidesz regime. He has also used that demagoguery as a pretext for cracking down on political opponents. The language he used to describe the conspiracy supposedly led by his former benefactor barely concealed its anti-Semitism:. We are fighting an enemy that is different from us. Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.
Over a traditional Hungarian meal featuring peppers and poppyseed pastries, he explained that politics had forced him out of his beloved profession — high school foreign language teacher — this January. The real ambition, he said, was to build the foundations of a sustained resistance movement that could circumvent the ineffectual opposition and reenergize Hungarian democracy.
The Fidesz media apparatus is also actively working to discredit activists like Homonnay. A pro-government TV outlet ran a segment in August trying to embarrass Homonnay by publishing images from his private Facebook account of his travels abroad. The goal was to cast him as a hypocrite by contrasting his rally speeches about inequality in Hungary with his globetrotting. Changing Hungarian public opinion with a newspaper — one the government would almost certainly attempt to marginalize or shut down — is a very tall order.
Like the other Hungarian dissidents I met, Homonnay recognizes that defeat is extremely likely. In a remarkable speech in late July, the prime minister defined his project as not merely remaking Hungary but developing a new governing ideology that could challenge liberal democracy across the West.
Christian democracy is, by definition, not liberal: it is, if you like, illiberal. And we can specifically say this in connection with a few important issues — say, three great issues. Liberal democracy is in favor of multiculturalism, while Christian democracy gives priority to Christian culture; this is an illiberal concept. Liberal democracy is pro-immigration, while Christian democracy is anti-immigration; this is again a genuinely illiberal concept. And liberal democracy sides with adaptable family models, while Christian democracy rests on the foundations of the Christian family model; once more, this is an illiberal concept.
The first step, he suggested, was for people across Europe to elect nationalist candidates in the May European Parliament elections. Yascha Mounk, a senior fellow at New America, has unearthed data suggesting flagging support for democracy in some Western countries. Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt document warning signs — like rising partisan rancor — that have plagued and doomed democracies in the past.
And William Galston of the Brookings Institution argues that rising inequality has made a populist anti-democratic backlash more likely. The idea of a military coup just seems absurd; so too does Congress or the UK Parliament passing a law giving dictatorial power to a president or prime minister. Democracy in these countries is too well established, and too popular, to be openly demolished in the way that Adolf Hitler ended the Weimar Republic. But Hungary points to a different scenario: a series of changes to electoral rules and laws imposed over time that might individually be defensible but in combination with corruption and demagogic populism creates a new system — one that appears democratic but functionally is not.
All it requires is a ruling political party that cares less about democracy than about maintaining power, and a voting base willing to back the party even as it makes authoritarian rules. Many Western countries could suffer this fate. Steve Bannon certainly sees the parallels. The similarities between the American and Hungarian leaders are hard to miss. When Hungarians found out I was American, many of them almost immediately pointed out the similarities between the two men.
Several Hungarians told me, with an air of quiet sympathy, that they understood what we in the United States are currently going through. July 31, November 5, Berger is defeated in his reelection bid by William Stafford. March 10, The House of Representatives denies Berger his seat by a vote of November 11, The first annual convention of the American Legion unanimously passes a resolution calling for the deportation of Berger and the revocation of his citizenship.
January 10, January 31, November 8,