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Prevent Orban from exporting his informational autocracy across Europe | See


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Last week’s announcement that the European Commission plans to withhold 7.5 billion euros in funding from Hungary in response to rule of law violations linked to the corrupt award of public contracts may give observers pause internationals: how did Viktor Orban manage to win a landslide victory last April? despite this overwhelming evidence of poor governance, his close ties to Vladimir Putin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine disrupting the election campaign?

The ruling party in Hungary, Fidesz, won 3 million votes out of more than 5.6 million (52%) cast, which earned it its fourth constitutional majority, with 68% (135) of the seats in parliament.

Despite preliminary polls predicting a close race, the united opposition won only 57 seats out of 199 – almost exclusively in the capital Budapest – while the far-right Mi Hazánk party entered parliament with six seats.

Orban won this landslide victory in circumstances that might as well have helped Hungary’s united political opposition, not only packing institutions with his supporters to keep him in power, but spinning the news to dominate public discourse. .

Orbán’s election campaign hinged on four key assertions, and these should serve as a warning to other European member states where populists are on the rise – such as Italy, where Orbán’s ally , Giorgia Meloni, emerged victorious in a competitive race. the lower electoral campaign.

First, the opposition would drag Hungary into the war and even enlist Hungarian civilians to fight in Ukraine. Second, the Hungarian opposition would abolish ’13th’ month pensions – in which the government pays an additional month’s pension each year. Third, the Hungarian opposition secretly conspired with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to interfere in the Hungarian elections. Fourth, if the opposition won, the children would be exposed to a dangerous sex change operation. A government-sponsored referendum on election day included the main question: “Do you support the promotion of gender reassignment surgeries for children?”

These four lines of attack, although they have no connection with reality, won the election. Although the opposition tried to refute them, they remained. Before the April elections, 86% of Hungarian voters had heard that “the main opposition candidate would send troops to Ukraine”, 79% that the left-wing opposition would abolish the 13th month pension and 67% that the left supports gender reassignment. surgeries, according to a study by the Dimenzió Media Foundation. 60% of those who heard of the opposition’s “plans” to conscript Hungarians and send them to war also believed these statements to be factual – and accepted these lines as fact.

To understand how this became possible, we have to borrow the concept of “informational autocracy” (or “spin dictatorship”), as described by Sergei Guriyev and Daniel Treisman. Orbán’s regime fits the concept perfectly.

First, an informational autocracy refrains from using violence and direct repression against its opponents. Independent journalists are not imprisoned, and NGOs are not officially banned, although their phones may be tapped. Second, the regime effectively mimics most institutions of democracy, creating a facade that leaves international observers to conclude that the elections were “free but unfair.” Third, the regime’s narratives, while lacking support among highly educated elites, are so deeply entrenched among less educated and less privileged groups that it can safely count on their support.

This system is based on “hardware” and “software”. From a material point of view, it depends on the most centralized and controlled media system within the EU. The second Orbán government, which took power in 2010, spawned a government-organized media empire in which more than 500 regional and local media outlets all echo the same centrally crafted messages. In 2019, Reporters Without Borders said it found in Hungary “a degree of media control unprecedented in an EU member state”.

On the software side, fake news and conspiracy theories are commonplace. Hungarian pro-Fidesz media frequently propagate Kremlin lines on the war in Ukraine and spread false stories on issues such as migration, the influence of international financier George Soros, NATO and the United States, and the Western so-called “liberal elite”. .

Fidesz uses these talking points to mobilize its political base and divide the Hungarian nation into two camps: a “patriotic” camp represented only by Fidesz, and an “unpatriotic” camp serving foreign interests, which is portrayed by the politicians of the government as “fake news”. factories”.

The Orbán government manipulates the population through centralized disinformation that floods television, radio, print media and Facebook. Its rhetoric is composed of easy-to-understand and unified messages selected from the results of surveys conducted by pro-government think tanks. In short: The Hungarian ruling party’s disinformation campaign uses 21st-century methods to spread simplified narratives akin to 20th-century-style propaganda.

European leaders should take note of the informative aspects of Orbán’s rule and support free and independent media. Since centralization in Hungary has also been adopted by other countries in the region, its remedies may also be needed elsewhere. European media law can be an important step in the right direction. But above all, Western countries must be aware of Orban’s international impact.

In recent years, Orbán’s post-truth regime has exported its tactics. It lends a helping hand to like-minded “illiberals” in the Western Balkans (such as Serbia, North Macedonia, Slovenia, Republika Srpska) with media, political advice, diplomatic support and support. money, but also to the populist right in Italy, the United States, Brazil, France and elsewhere. Orbán has become a professor of spin dictatorship – and Western Democratic politicians should do their best to contain his influence. The more resources Orbán has, the more important his role as a “spin spoiler” can be.

Peter Kreko is the director of the Political Capital Institute and was one of the organizers of this month’s Budapest Forum (September 21-22), where a panel explored the topic of state-sponsored disinformation.

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