Hungarian election brings little hope for academics

Orbán administration’s illiberal intrusions into institutional governance will be ‘difficult’ to reverse, say scholars 

三月 2, 2022
A cyclist drives past a campaign poster of the Budapest Mayor and candidate for prime minister Gergely Karacsony  'Parbeszed Magyarorszagert' (Dialogue for Hungary) reading 'I will defeat (Hungarian Prime Minister) to illustrate Hungarian election brings
Source: Getty

Even if a scattered band of opposition parties can unseat Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary’s April election, the legal and financial levers now attached to academic institutions will be difficult to uproot, scholars have said.

Fidesz, a right-wing populist party, has won a two-thirds supermajority in Hungary’s last three parliamentary elections, granting it sweeping legislative powers. The party has been ahead in voting intention polls for most of the past year, despite the emergence of United for Hungary, a cluttered coalition of parties that have agreed to field their single, strongest candidate against Fidesz in each constituency.

“If I should put money on it, I should say the present government will stay,” said József Pálinkás, a former minister of education and former president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

“He’s probably right,” agreed Eva Fodor, professor of gender studies at the Central European University (CEU), citing Fidesz’ poll lead. “The majority is small, so things can change, but my guess also is that Fidesz might actually win again, hopefully not with a supermajority.”

Whether Fidesz wins by a slim margin or a landslide, Professor Fodor said, the outcome would be grim for those academics not ideologically aligned with the administration. “The government has already eliminated all semblance of academic freedom, even though it claims it has ensured the academic freedom of the institutions,” she said.

Professor Fodor said colleagues in Hungary are often anxious about being associated with the CEU, such as by speaking at events, after the institution was forced to relocate to Vienna by Fidesz lawmaking. In April 2021, the government began to transfer the assets of Hungary’s public universities to foundations controlled by boards ideologically aligned to the party.

In an interview at the time, Mr Orbán said that the government would not appoint board members who were “internationalist” or “globalist” in their outlook. His justice minister, Judit Varga, was subsequently appointed to chair the board of the University of Miskolc.

The legal basis, lengthy terms of board members and higher government funding for universities that use the foundation model mean that returning them to state ownership and solely senate governance would be hard. “They are sort of cemented into power, these foundations, and it will be difficult to remove them,” said Professor Fodor.

András Jakab, professor for constitutional and administrative law at the University of Salzburg, said that Hungarian constitutional law required a two-thirds majority to regulate foundations providing public services, setting a high bar for the opposition before it can alter university ownership.

Viktor Lőrincz, vice-president of the Hungarian Academy Staff Forum, an association founded to protect academic freedom after the government’s separation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences’ research network from the academy in 2019, said whether Fidesz wins a simple majority or a supermajority, it would probably press on with pushing the last public universities into foundation governance. Another Fidesz government is also likely to realise its plan to build a branch campus of Shanghai’s Fudan University in Budapest, he said.

On the off chance that United for Hungary do win, the disparate parties must then agree on how to dismantle the foundations or overhaul their boards in a way that does not undermine the universities. “It will create a very delicate situation,” said Dr Lőrincz.



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Reader's comments (1)

The CEU is arguably not politically neutral itself. it was led by liberal Canadian politician and author Michael Ignatieff, who served as its President and Rector between 2016 and 2021, for example.