Legally sophisticated authoritarians: the Hungarian Lex CEU

von Gábor Halmai

On 28 March the Hungarian government tabled an amendment to the Act on National Higher Education in Parliament. Even though the draft is formulated in normative terms, the only targeted institution is the Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros, one of the main enemies of the Viktor Orbán’s ‘illiberal state’. Michael Ignatieff, former professor of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, current president and rector of CEU assessed the draft as a discriminatory political vandalism, violating Hungarian academic freedom. Here I do not want to deal with the clear ideological and political motivations of the action of the current Hungarian Prime Minister, a that time liberal recipient of Soros’s financial support during his studies in Oxford three decades ago.

I want rather focus on the behavior of a contemporary authoritarian (or dictator, as Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission once greeted him). As William Dobson argues is his book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, “today’s dictators and authoritarians are far more sophisticated, savvy, and nimble that they once were”. They understand, as Orbán does, that in a globalized world the more brutal forms of intimidation are best replaced with more subtle forms of coercion. Therefore, they work in a more ambiguous spectrum that exists between democracy and authoritarianism, and from a distance, many of them look almost democratic, as the leader of Hungary, a Member State of the EU, does. Their constitutions, as the Fundamental Law of Hungary, often provide for a division of powers among the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary – at least on paper. They are also not particularly fearful of international organizations ...

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