Hungary and Zimbabwe — And thoughts from activist Doug Coltart

We would be loath to draw sweeping parallels between Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule, now on the brink of collapse, and the much younger “System of National Cooperation” regime established by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary in 2010. After all, Mr. Mugabe truly did rise to power as the consequence of a political revolution (and a protracted guerrilla war), whereas Mr. Orbán’s wars thus far have been strictly rhetorical exercises in propaganda and shadow boxing. The Hungarian leader’s claims of returning to power through a “revolution in the voting booth” is also hyperbolic. Moreover, Mr. Mugabe’s comrades, with involvement from his long-time ally and likely successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, committed acts of genocide against the Ndebele from 1983 to 1987 in a crime called the Gukurahundi. It is estimated that some 20,000 were murdered. Mr. Mugabe conceded, years later, that this was “a moment of madness.” Of course, nobody is accusing Mr. Orbán or his political lieutenants of genocide. Yet it’s difficult not to point out at least a handful of similarities between Zimbabwe under ZANU-PF rule and Hungary under Fidesz.

Firstly, supporters of Mr. Orbán often point to the existence of competing opinions in the media and the sharp criticism of the regime that often appears in the Hungarian press as a clear indication that Hungary is still a functioning democracy and accusations of autocracy by opponents of Fidesz are false. It is true that despite the government’s decision to shut down the nation’s largest daily newspaper, Népszabadság, through a proxy owner, or the the regime’s almost complete control of the regional press, a large handful of Budapest-based publications offer a forum for dissenting opinions and criticism of Mr. Orbán. In a similar way, the Zimbabwean press even under ZANU-PF rule still provides an imperfect outlet and platform for criticism against the regime. Zimbabwe is not North Korea. If you read Zimbabwean publications, you do see a diversity of opinions.

Secondly, similarly to Hungary, the opposition in Zimbabwe is fractured and operates with the tacit understanding that removing the ruling party from power is not possible through the ballot box. This is due to intimidation by the government, its security forces and by ZANU-PF operatives, as well as an overt pro-ZANU-PF bias from the state media and tampering with electoral lists. While Hungary may not have hundreds of thousands of invalid names (such as of dead people) on electoral rolls, the regime is hurrying to extend citizenship to one million Hungarians living abroad, in order to dramatically expand the ruling party’s voting base. As well, with the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) split into two factions, there is no united opposition to ZANU-PF. The best that the opposition can hope for is to be allocated seats in a coalition government or a unity government, and there is an example from 2009 to 2013. In Hungary too, removing Fidesz from power through the ballot box seems out of the question in 2018.

Thirdly, Mr. Mugabe has had a tradition of rewarding loyalty to his regime by distributing land, property and other goods to his most enthusiastic supporters. Our readers will undoubtedly recall the often violent expropriation of white-owned commercial farms to benefit party functionaries and sometimes “war veterans,” some of whom were too young to have been veterans of the bush wars of the seventies against white minority rule in Rhodesia. In Hungary, as our readers know, land and property has also passed into the hands of Fidesz stalwarts, while we call recall how tobacco concessions were first nationalized and then redistributed among loyalists.

David Coltart, a white Zimbabwean, a former government minister in charge of culture and sports and a former senator, noted that the boundary between the ruling ZANU-PF party and the apparatus of the state has vanished. Zimbabwe is effectively a one-party state. Hungary is fast moving in that direction and depending on who you ask, has arrived at that destination. For those who are interested in a first-hand account of authoritarian rule in Zimbabwe not only under Mr. Mugabe but also following Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence, I strongly recommend Mr. Coltart’s insightful book The Struggle Continues: 50 Years of Tyranny in Zimbabwe, published in 2016.

Doug Coltart is the former politician’s son and he is now a young human rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist in Zimbabwe. The young Mr. Coltart, who is said to speak English with an accent native to his hometown of Bulawayo, adamantly identifies as an African and as a Zimbabwean, with Zimbabwe being his one and only home. (He is also a supporter of greater pan-African cooperation). In an interview with Alice Malongte, Doug Coltart explained:

“I am very fortunate that so far I have been spared getting beaten, detained or tortured unlike many of my friends and comrades who have experienced the full wrath of the state, on several occasions. Some activists have even been abducted, never to be seen again. So we live with that concern that we could be next, and try to be very vigilant. I’ve been at the receiving end of a smear campaign in the state media—who have tried to discredit me.

I am very aware of my white privilege. And yet there are also some challenges that come from being a white activist in Africa. Government Ministers and the state media often try to portray me as a racist trying to bring back colonial rule, despite the fact that the vast majority of the comrades with whom I fight alongside are black; that we fight for the freedom of people all colours; and that it is actually we who are fighting against the neocolonial agenda that the Government protects.”

(Doug Coltart)

Mr. Coltart is a strong believer in non-violent struggle against autocracy, remarking:

“Though the threat of death does not deter me, I always take every precaution. In part, that is why I remain steadfastly committed to the use of nonviolent struggle—which greatly reduces the likelihood of mass atrocities. Thankfully, engaging in nonviolent struggle also greatly increases the chances of success—over the past century, nonviolent struggles were twice as successful as armed struggles…”

A deep problem in Zimbabwe is the lack of political engagement among the young, even though this demographic would be key to real democratic change.

“We are marginalized, disrespected and ignored and so many of us have stopped paying attention, don’t vote, and don’t participate. To change our continent, we as African youth need to rise above our circumstances, push past the marginalization by our leaders, and become leaders ourselves—mobilizing other youths to bring about peaceful, democratic change to our countries and to create opportunities for all,” noted Mr. Coltart.

Zimbabwe’s civil society, no matter how repressed it is, is quite fortunate to have brave and dedicated voices such as those of the young Doug Coltart and that of his father too.


  1. Thank You for that blink at my interview with Doug. He is such an engaged citizen in his country.

  2. I am not even sure what I can say in regards to this article! Sad! Very sad that it had to come to such exagerated distortions for the ones opposed to Hungary’s government to be able to make an argument against it. BTW, I noticed that I am being subjected to quite a bit of censorship on this site. Many of my comments, which are by no means out of bounds in terms of respecting basic principles of civilized discourse have not been published, simply because I happen to disagree with most of the material published on this site, and with some comments being made on the forum. This censorship is 100% ideological. It is ironic therefore that so many articles are being published on this site in regards to your perception in regards to freedom in Hungary, most of which BTW is way off! I think Hungary’s current government tolerates way more dissent than you do on your site.

  3. very authoritative, excellent writing ..

  4. “Gov Ministers and the state media often try to portray me as a racist trying to bring back colonial rule..”

    Just as the Orban regime is portraying all opposition figures as someone’s agents bent on harming Hungary.

    Nothing new here, all dictatorships exhibit similar features because they all use a time proven arsenal of tools of control and suppression. The mix and match and the harshness of their use vary, but the dynamics are similar. It’s all based on human nature varied by local specifics.

    The Orban regime is just another dictatorship in Hun, closest to the fascist version, due to the proximity in place and time.

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