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Márta Pardavi gives expert testimony for US House of Foreign Affairs Committee members briefing

Public Members Briefing on the Erosion of Rule of Law and Democracy in Hungary, 15 November 2022


Márta Pardavi, HHC co-chair briefed members of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber at the Public Members Briefing on the Erosion of Rule of Law and Democracy in Hungary on 15 November 2022. Her testimony complemented expert remarks by Kim Lane Scheppelle, Professor at Princeton School of Public and International Affairs and Daniel Hegedűs, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund.

Chairman Keating, Representatives of the Subcommittee —

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to brief the Subcommittee today.

Hungary has become a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy. This is what the European Parliament concluded in September 2022. This designation sounds shocking for an EU member state that once was hailed as a promising democracy. However, it is justified.

Hungary is abandoning its democratic, rule of law and human rights commitments — for which it used to be admired. In fact, in the World Justice Project rankings, Hungary now ranks 73rd out of 140 countries, and it basically ranks in last place in its own European region on almost all elements of the rule of law. It is no surprise that the government of Hungary has not been invited to President Biden’s Summit for Democracy.

This regression on democratic standards is not organic. It is deliberate. It has been achieved gradually in front of our own eyes over 12 years.

By now, Hungary has become a much-cited example of state capture — a form of political corruption where instead of the public interest, it is private interests and private financial gain that significantly influence the government’s decision-making. In this sense, corruption in Hungary has become a feature and driver of democratic decay.

For someone who grew up in an era of democratic hopefulness, this is painful. My organisation sees the rule of law backsliding up close. This is why we call it out and help citizens who are affected by it. To know that younger generations of Hungarians are growing up now without experiencing democracy at work makes me deeply worried for our future.

This year, Russia’s war on Ukraine and a serious economic downturn in Hungary is being exploited by the government to boost propaganda against democratic values and our own alliances.

By now, Prime Minister Orbán’s ruling Fidesz party has

  • captured basically all independent state institutions, by using public resources to erode democratic standards, weakening the separation of powers and dismantling checks and balances.
  • In many cases, Fidesz weakening the mandates of these independent institutions and has been putting its own allies at their helm.
  • Overtaking much of the media landscape with enormous resources means that public media and private media that are friendly to and funded by the government can use it to polarise society, and as a vehicle for Russian propaganda-inspired messaging, sowing doubt about the benefits of democracy, human rights and the transatlantic alliance.
  • The government also uses public resources for partisan political campaigning. Observing the general elections in April, the OSCE observation mission found “a pervasive overlap between the [Fidesz] campaign messages and the government’s own information campaigns, […] blurring the line between state and party”,
  • It deploys highly coordinated smear campaigns, using stigmatising language and derogatory labelling, to undermine credibility and to instil a chilling effect in those who monitor, criticise and reveal democratic backsliding and corruption, such as independent civil society organisations — like the one I work at — or groups advocating for human rights of vulnerable minorities.
  • Moreover, there are concerns about politically motivated surveillance against Hungarian citizens. At least 300 Hungarians were targeted by the Pegasus spyware of the Israeli NSO Group between 2018 and 2021. Among them were journalists, lawyers, politicians, businesspeople critical of the government, former state officials, and even President János Áder’s own bodyguards. But even invasive cases of surveillance often do not formally breach the law and cannot be effectively challenged in court.
  • Ultimately, all this has permitted the government to turn public resources into private assets, enriching individuals and institutions loyal to it through systemic corruption.
  • The independence of the judiciary, the last independent bastion of formal institutions, is now seriously threatened. Capturing independent courts – both the Constitutional Court and the ordinary court system – has nearly come to full completion in Hungary by today. One weak, but independent judicial self–governing body is still left standing: the National Judicial Council. (This is why the representatives of the National Judicial Council, upon meeting the US Ambassador in Budapest in August to discuss the state of judicial independence in Hungary, became the targets of a series of severe attacks in propaganda media.)

The US needs strong democracies as its allies, which puts US/HU relations in question. So what should the US do?

  • The US and the EU should look at democracy support as also a part of their security strategy and invest in it as such.
  • The US should continue and boost its support for upholding democratic values and actors in Hungary.
  • In its bilateral engagement with the HU government, it should continue to emphasise democratic standards, press freedom and civil society.
  • It should continue to support local actors, such as civil society groups and journalists, that monitor rule of law adherence, promote anti-corruption efforts and provide assistance to Hungarian citizens.
  • Given that threats to democracy are present elsewhere in Europe, support should also enable transnational action. In this respect, the congressional earmark for promoting rule of law and democratic values in Central Europe is very welcome.
  • The US should encourage its EU partners to boost their own action to safeguard and strengthen democracy and civil society in the entire EU.
  • The US should work together with its EU partners, the EU institutions and Member States, and encourage and coordinate their initiatives in support to democracy and rule of law within the European Union.

Thank you for your attention to democracy in Hungary.

Watch the subcommittee’s members briefing here.

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