In Their Own Words - Bulcsú Hunyadi, Senior Analyst with Political Capital, a think tank.
Bulcsú Hunyadi, speaking at a conference - Photo: Štefan Bako, Euractiv Slovakia
Hungarian governing party MPs, with the support of the radical-right Mi Hazánk (Our Homeland) Movement, passed the controversial, so-called “Sovereignty Protection Law” in Budapest on December 12th.
The government says this is needed to protect foreign influence, particularly in the form of funding for political parties or election candidates, from influencing the possible outcomes of Hungarian elections. It will establish a new body, the Defence of Sovereignty Office, with investigative powers to support the new legislation, which carries a maximum penalty of up to three years in prison for anyone found guilty of using foreign funding during an election campaign.
However, critics say the law is vague, with poorly defined concepts and open to wide-ranging interpretation, all of which comprises a serious threat to normal, democratic discourse and contravenes both Hungarian and European Union law.
David Pressman, American Ambassador to Hungary, speaking in early December, said the draft law “makes Moscow’s foreign agent law look mild and meek”.
Bulcsú Hunyadi, a senior analyst with Political Capital, spoke to foreign journalists on what he sees as the dangers of this law a few days before the final draft was voted on in parliament.
These are his opening remarks, slightly edited to correct for grammatical errors.
Bulcsú Hunyadi – "I want to give you a framework. In our opinion, Hungary is not a democratic system anymore. There are many definitions of how you can call the system, competitive authoritarian system, or electoral autocracy.
We very much like the term 'informational autocracy', because we think it clearly describes what power of the regime is based on, which is the control over the information space, the manipulation of information and dominating the public discourse.
The government is tactically shaping and and creating public attitudes and perceptions, and one of the key tools of controlling information and controlling the public discourse are the permanent campaigns against artificially invented enemies, to consciously polarise society and maintain the sense of threat against different kinds of enemies, internal and external enemies.
And also another important tool is the discrediting, stigmatising and defamation campaigns against its opponents and critics, let they be politicians, independent organisations, civil society organisations, independent media or think tanks.
And of course, another important tool is spreading disinformation; the Hungarian state media and other media outlets organised by the governing party have become the main distributor of pro-Kremlin disinformation in Hungary, and the disinformation provided by the government is very much based on conspiracy theories. It's very much like the Russian propaganda and disinformation that you can also see in other countries and of course, especially in Russia.
The government's aim in terms of controlling the public discourse is to have one overarching narrative at one time, which rules the complete discourse. This happens in each campaign period.
Some of these topics last longer than the campaign period, like the migration topic and the campaign against Brussels
We have had a peace narrative, which has been dominating the discourse, and now we are having the discourse about defending sovereignty.
In terms of defending sovereignty, we think that as usual the government is mixing up defending sovereignty and the national interest with defending the government party power interests. When the government talks about national interest, it usually means their own interests, the regime's interests.
And also we think that this narrative, and also the law which we have seen is a preventative measure by the government for multiple purposes.
One of these is to deter foreign donors and also any potential criticism coming from either external or internal actors, and with this law, and with this narrative, they want to discredit any kind of such criticism in advance.
And also what I wanted to mention, which we have seen in many cases with regard to such laws in Hungary, is the vague formation of laws and legal concepts which are inscribed in such laws.
We think it is the conscious tactic of the Hungarian government to pass such laws that can be interpreted in a very broad manner. Many of these laws break not only Hungarian but EU law, and most of them, like the Lex NGO and the Stop Soros Law, will be, or have been abolished by the court of the European Union, and we definitely think that this will happen to this law again.
But it takes several years, since there are no checks and balances in Hungary, there are no Hungarian [institutions] that can prevent such a law from being passed by parliament.
So, it takes several years until the EU court can abolish these laws, and during these years, of course, these laws already have their chilling effects.
And, of course, representing Political Capital, I cannot prevent myself from talking about the foreign influences that we actually have in our country, [namely] Hungary has become the gateway for external authoritarian influence into the European Union and Nato.
So we definitely think that protecting Hungary's sovereignty is a legitimate and important goal, however, those who are a [genuine] threat to our sovereignty are not in the country, they come from outside: they are authoritarian powers that exert state-organised economic or disinformation influence.
And, should the government, or were the government, genuinely committed to safeguarding national sovereignty, then they should implement policies that counter these authoritarian influences, coming from especially China and Russia,
And that's why we at Political Capital have prepared 21 proposals through which Hungary's national sovereignty could be protected.
As an example, I wanted to mention a report of the National Information Centre published this year, which, among other organisations also mentions Political Capital, and says, based on bank transfers, which the National Information Centre [one of the state's security organs] can look into, because this is a kind of umbrella, super-intelligence agency.
So, the report states that nearly half of Political Capital's revenues come from abroad, mainly from NED [the US-based National Endowment for Democracy] and GMF [the German Marshall Fund], and while these bank transfers are close to the election, they are not directly linked to the election.
However, the report states that: “Political Capital is active in shaping public opinion on the Russia-Ukrainian war, which clearly qualifies as a foreign-backed political influence operation.”
And I think that this report and this statement gives you a very good impression of what can come when this law is passed and the office is established."
Part 2 to this post will follow later this week, if and when I can transcribe it.
Bulcsú Hunyadi studied history, sociology and international relations at the Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Hungary, and the Andrássy University Budapest.
He has been a senior analyst since 2013 and then the head of the radicalisation and extremism programme. His main research interests include far-right and populist radical right actors and narratives, hostility towards minority groups and radicalisation prevention.
Poliltical Capital's press release on the Protection of Sovereignty Law
Political Capital's 21 proposals for defending Hungarian sovereignty