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Last week’s announcement that the European Commission plans to withhold €7.5 billion in funding from Hungary in response to rule of law violations around the corrupt awarding of public contracts might make international observers ponder: how did Viktor Orban manage to win a landslide victory just last April despite such overwhelming evidence of bad governance, his strong ties with Vladimir Putin, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine disrupting the electoral campaign?
Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party won 3 million of more than 5.6 million votes (52%) cast, resulting in its fourth constitutional majority, with 68% (135) of the seats in parliament.
Despite preliminary polling predicting a closely fought race, the united opposition only won 57 out of 199 seats — almost exclusively in the capital Budapest — while the far-right Mi Hazánk party made it into parliament with six seats.
Orban pulled off this landslide victory in circumstances that could have just as well helped Hungary’s united political opposition not only through packing institutions with his supporters to keep him in office – but by spinning information to dominate public discourse.
Orbán’s election campaign relied on four key assertions, and these should serve as warning lights to other European member states where populists are in the ascendency – such as Italy, where Orban’s ally, Giorgia Meloni, has emerged as the victor in a race-to-the-bottom electoral campaign.
First, the opposition would pull Hungary into the war and even conscript Hungarian civilians to fight in Ukraine. Second, the Hungarian opposition would take away “13th” month pensions – in which the government pays an additional month’s pension entitlement each year. Third, the Hungarian opposition secretly conspired with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to interfere in Hungary’s elections. Fourth, if the opposition won, children would be exposed to dangerous gender reassignment surgery. A referendum held by the government on the day of the election included the leading question: “Do you support promoting sex-change surgeries for children?”
These four attack lines, despite having no connection to reality, won the election. Though the opposition tried to refute them, they stuck. Before this April’s election, 86% of Hungarian voters had heard that “the main opposition candidate would send troops to Ukraine”, 79% heard that the leftist opposition would take away the 13th-month pension and 67% that the left supports sex-change surgeries, according to research by the Dimenzió Media Foundation. 60% of those heard about the opposition’s “plans” to conscript Hungarians and send them to war also believed that these statements were factual – and accepted these lines as fact.
To understand how this became possible, we should borrow the concept of “informational autocracy,” (or “spin dictatorship”), as described by Sergei Guriyev and Daniel Treisman. Orbán’s regime fits neatly into the concept.
First, an informational autocracy refrains from using violence and direct repression against its opponents. Independent journalists are not jailed, nor are NGOs formally banned, even though their phones might be tapped. Second, the regime efficiently mimics most of the institutions of democracy, creating a façade that leaves international observers concluding that elections were “free but unfair”. Third, the regime’s narratives, while lacking support among highly educated elites are so deeply embedded among less educated and less privileged groups that it can safely rely on their support
This system relies on “hardware” and “software”. From a hardware perspective, it depends on the most centralised and controlled media system within the EU. The second Orbán government, which took power in 2010, gave rise to a government-organized media empire in which more than 500 regional and local 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 rife. Hungarian pro-Fidesz media outlets frequently propagate Kremlin lines on the war in Ukraine, and push false stories on issues like migration, the influence of the international financier George Soros, NATO and the United States, and the so-called Western “liberal elite”.
Fidesz uses these talking points to mobilise its political base and to divide the Hungarian nation into two camps: a “patriotic” side represented solely by Fidesz, and an “unpatriotic” camp serving foreign interests, which is portrayed by government politicians as “fake news factories”.
The Orbán government manipulates the population through centrally controlled disinformation that is flooding through television, radio, print media and Facebook. Its rhetoric is made up of easy-to-understand, unified messages selected from the results of surveys conducted by pro-government think tanks. In short: the Hungarian ruling party’s disinformation campaign employs 21st-century methods to spread simplified narratives akin to 20th-century-style propaganda.
Europe’s leaders should take note of the informational aspects of Orbán’s rule, and support free and independent media. Since centralisation in Hungary has also been adopted by other countries in the region, its remedies might also be needed elsewhere, too. The European Media Act can be an important step in the right direction. But most importantly, Western countries should be aware of Orban’s international impact.
In the last few years, Orbán’s post-truth regime has exported its tactics. It gives a helping hand to like-minded “illiberals” in the Western Balkans (such as Serbia, North Macedonia, Slovenia, Republika Srpska) with media, political consultancy, diplomatic support and money, but also to the populist right in Italy, the United States, Brazil, France and elsewhere. Orbán has become a teacher 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 conveners of this month’s Budapest Forum (21-22 September), where a panel explored the topic of state-sponsored disinformation.