Hungarian PM Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” bears striking similarities to Singapore’s model?

Hungarian PM Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” bears striking similarities to Singapore’s model?

The prevalence of alleged cronyism and nepotism, the muzzling of independent press and opposition party supporters, and the use of state resources for election propaganda are some of the elements that characterise Hungary’s “illiberal democracy”, presently led by prime minister Viktor Orbán.

British historian and Professor of European Studies at Oxford University Timothy Garton Ash, who prefers to label Orbán’s administration as a “hybrid regime” modelled on “neither democracy nor dictatorship”, observed in his op-ed piece for The Guardian last Thu (20 Jun) that Orbán’s government specifically “punishes independent media owners and NGO or opposition supporters with arbitrary tax investigations”.

The “one-party” present Hungarian government, according to Prof Garton Ash, also allegedly “uses state resources for Fidesz [the ruling conservative political party] election propaganda, and even refuses local planning permission to an architect known for his anti-Fidesz views”, as he had learnt from his recent visit to Budapest.

He added that Orbán’s right-wing party “has effectively demolished the independence of the judiciary, as documented in an extensive report by Judith Sargentini for the European Parliament”.

“It has also changed the electoral law so that in 2014, Fidesz got 66% of the seats in parliament on 44% of the vote (whereas in 2010 it needed 53% of the vote to get the parliamentary supermajority that enabled it to change the constitution),” added Prof Garton Ash.

A tightly controlled Hungarian press was also one of the things Prof Garton Ash had observed, as a huge segment of the media, which is “already dominated by owners closely tied to the Orbán regime”, has now been “consolidated in a so-called Press and Media Foundation”.

“Hungary has sunk down the World Press Freedom index to 87th this year,” noted the academic.

Civil society and academia have not been spared from the Hungarian government’s iron grip, Professor Garton Ash observed.

“A new law on NGOs, similar to Vladimir Putin’s, has effectively forced out the Open Society Foundation of George Soros – the Jewish philanthropist against whom Orbán’s regime stirs up hatred, with propaganda imagery recalling the worst periods of European history.

“The Soros-funded Central European University has been compelled to move to Vienna for its core, degree-granting activities, and the government is now taking control of the research institutes and property of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences,” he added.

“All this is done while keeping the outward appearance of a liberal democracy complying with European standards. A bevy of articulate, English-speaking Fidesz spokespeople, starting with Orbán himself, are at hand to denounce such criticisms.

“Look, they say, of course there are still independent media! Look, opposition parties got eight of the 21 seats in the European elections! […],” said Professor Garton Ash.

However, conservative political scientist András Körösényi argues that contrary to the view espoused by Prof Garton Ash and many others that the current Hungarian administration is a “hybrid regime”, Orbán’s government more closely resembles “a plebiscitary democracy”, which revolves “around personalities” than the urge to represent “social classes”.

Hungarian press review Budapost cited Körösényi’s view in Hungarian economic and political weekly publication Heti Világgazdaság: “Körösényi believes that in the ruling political élite can be voted out of office, although PM Orbán’s popularity is overwhelming at the moment.”

“However, he continues, changes may occur, as with Jobbik [a nationalist far-right party]’s downfall, the ‘central power field’ that initially guaranteed the government a comfortable majority in parliament, ceased to exist.

“The PM’s elbow room in international politics may also narrow, Körösényi adds, and concludes by pointing out that economic prosperity never lasts forever,” according to Budapost.

Similar signs of a “hybrid regime” have been observed by many dissidents and members of civil society closer to home.

An example lies in the consolidation of multiple mainstream media outlets under the roof of Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp, and what Nicholas Yong of Yahoo! News Singapore has recently dubbed “a caste system”, in which SPH and Mediacorp outlets are given priority for important press releases, speeches and event invites over other media outlets.

Mr Yong said that even decades with the proliferation of social media and alternative news sites, the Singapore government hasn’t altered its approach to the media – “it has simply gotten smarter and much more sophisticated about it”.

This can be seen in the government’s latest piece of legislation – the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, or the “anti-fake news” law – that grants ministers broad powers to determine what constitutes a falsehood. Consequently, this requires journalists and reporters to tread more carefully than they have previously done.

Political science researchers Allen Hicken and Erik Martinez Kuhonta observed in their book Party System Institutionalization in Asia: Democracies, Autocracies, and the Shadows of the Past that opposition parties in Singapore “have to compete on a highly uneven playing field” as the long-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) allegedly uses “state funds for partisan gains” in order to maintain its “hegemony” over the island republic.

Nonetheless, it is possible for Körösényi’s prediction to translate into reality for both Hungary and Singapore once the leaders’ purported “cult of personality” wears off in the eyes of the electoral and discontent against the governments’ increasingly tightened grip reaches its peak, as seen in the backlash against Singapore’s POFMA in the recent months.

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