Hungary has become a threat to democracy in Europe. Under the rule of Viktor Orbán, Hungary slid from a somewhat stable democracy to what can now be considered a full-blown authoritarian regime. Utilizing a complex plan to manipulate the political institutions of the Hungarian government along with the advantage of a supermajority in the parliament, Orbán managed to wrest near-absolute power for himself: an entirely new constitution and hundreds of new laws consolidated his and his Fidesz party supporters’ power after his victory in the 2010 election. Kim Scheppele, a Princeton professor of sociology and international affairs, called Orbán’s re-election “the collapse of politics in Hungary.” Since then, Orbán has continued to strengthen the influence of his party and disenfranchise the Hungarian people, building what he calls an “illiberal state” by dismantling checks and balances and neutering the media and opposing political bodies.
Orbán’s technically legal maneuvering has created what Scheppele, who has become a public commentator on on Hungary’s grim transformation, dubbed a ‘Frankenstate’ in a 2013 American Political Science Association report. On paper, Orbán’s political moves have been legitimate; but in practice, his actions have resulted in a state which claims to be democratic but in actuality functions as an authoritarian oligarchy. The power is firmly within the hands of Fidesz party members and Viktor himself, with opposing politicians having no chance to challenge him.
Viktor Orbán and his followers established an undemocratic administration without a violent uprisal, with the stroke of a pen rather than with bloodshed. In this fashion, using such subversive legal methods in contrast to the heavy-handed cruelty of historical authoritarians, Orbán exemplifies what scholar Ozan Varol described as “stealth authoritarianism.” In short, Orbán has successfully created a potent example of 21st authoritarian government — a dictatorship wearing the mask of democracy.
What does this mean for Hungary and those affected by its policies? As the Fidesz party continues to undermine democracy, Hungarian citizens are affected negatively, with no way to stand up against Orbán’s changes through political activism. Orbán’s exploitation of the Hungarian constitution and other political institutions has firmly entrenched him in power, with majority power in Parliament and the Constitutional Court maintaining this dominance.
This has allowed the Fidesz party to run wild, making countless legislative changes to steal power from the hands of the people and to increase their reliance on Orbán’s corrupt authoritarian state. According to the testimony of Freedom House Director for Nations in Transit Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska in 2013, such changes include but are not limited to: regulation of Hungarian media under Fidesz party-controlled agencies like the National Media and Infocommunications Authority and the Hungarian National News Agency — allowing the government to reign over the public’s sources of information, doctoring news to fit their agenda and fining those who broadcast media which criticizes Orbán — as well as a new law on religion, stripping over 300 once-approved religious groups and institutions of their legal status and requiring them to apply for recognition by parliament, who of course must approve with a two-thirds majority; meaning the power to approve or repress certain religious groups lies in Orbán’s hands.
In addition to these subtler means of oppression, Orbán’s regime has also taken actions which blatantly prove their self-serving motivations. An ever-growing caste of wealthy elite has come to surround Orbán, creating what Andras Lanczi, an ‘unofficial ideologist’ for Fidesz, called “Hungarian oligarchs.” These oligarchs are able to inflate their wealth with the help of surreptitious Fidesz state contracts, as well as other benefits. Many a public project in Hungary have been decided behind closed doors and in favor of these new elite. Take for example the Pancho Arena; in 2014, the Hungarian village of Felcsút became the home of a new development: a football stadium with a capacity of 3,800 seats — more than twice the number of people who live in the town!
The reason for this seemingly senseless accommodation is simple; the stadium exists for the new Hungarian rich and powerful, not for the poor locals whose homes and buildings are dwarfed by the arena. Men such as Sándor Csányi, a wealthy banker and owner of the football association; Lőrinc Mészáros, childhood friend of Orbán and now the mayor of Felcsút; and of course, Orbán himself, all have reserved parking spaces. Of course, Viktor doesn’t always use this spot, as his house is only located a short walk away. The audacity of this oligarchical soccer stadium is truly astounding.
According to Gyula Mucsi of anti-corruption organization Transparency International, the Fidesz elites congregate at the Pancho Arena football matches and make government decisions involving infrastructure and development. These “plans which require a lot of money” are made in a stadium skybox, ruling the helpless Hungarian citizens from on high. True democracy does not make its decisions in VIP rooms; Orbán has turned Hungary into an oligarchy, one which rules authoritatively and garners support through nationalism and populism while denying his opponents a political voice.
Although The Economist has categorized Hungary as a flawed democracy, a decision which is certainly reasonable, I believe it is sometimes important to call a spade a spade. Viktor Orbán’s regime has strayed too far from democratic practices to even be considered one which is flawed; his manipulation of political institutions, such as the constitution, have made it quite difficult for opposing parties to gain power and nigh impossible for them to do anything with it even if they could get into office. He has created a new class of Hungarian citizens, the oligarchy of the rich elite who, in George Orwell’s words, are more equal than others. He has taken countless other actions to erode democracy in Hungary and enforce his nationalistic, authoritarian vision. There is no longer democracy for Hungarians, only Fidesz.
For many years, Viktor Orbán’s brand of covert authoritarianism has proceeded successfully. He has crafted his perfect “illiberal democracy,” in which he and his group of wealthy loyalist oligarchs can sustain indefinite control of Hungarian politics and economics without true public contestation. This “crony capitalism” resembles the political model of Putin’s Russia, according to economic critics at the Financial Times. The EU has ignored the obvious problem for some time, with Orbán’s menacing anti-democratic work being partly financed with EU funding, including a largely-unused railway which specifically connects Orbán’s two childhood villages, as well as up to 60% of state contracts which have contributed to the Fidesz elites’ business success. It is clear that the European Union should reconsider their unintended funding of Orbán’s exploits.
Undoubtedly, Orbán’s nationalist authoritarian tendencies violate the EU’s aim to uphold human rights and democracy in Europe. His regime illustrates the growth of nationalism and neoliberalism that exists in former Eastern Bloc countries, according to the Deutsche Welle. Nations such as Poland and Hungary, despite official status as democracies and membership in the EU, are rejecting Western values of democracy and forming alliances of their own. As reported by Reuters author Francois Murphy, Viktor Orbán has forged a partnership with far right-wing Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose rhetoric centers on anti-immigration sentiment. Indeed, Orbán also promotes anti-immigration policy — on Saturday, February 3rd, Hungary reduced access for Serbian refugee asylum seekers to only two per day, while denying that any such rule exists. Viktor’s anti-immigrant laws have garnered attention from EU officials, yet little has been done.
The European Union must take action to help restore democracy to Hungary. The Economist has urged the EU to levy economic sanctions on Hungary, as the nearly 6 billion Euros that Hungary receives per year continues to fund Orbán’s corrupt government. The democratic backsliding which Orbán has orchestrated must not be ignored. If the momentum of democratization continues to slow, it could spell disaster for liberal democracy in Central and Eastern Europe. Not only does this problem concern democratic societies in Western Europe; it is also a critical issue for the United States, as well. Is it not our duty to preserve democracy, particularly in these cases where it is threatened by authoritarian leadership?
*Photo by Vladimir Simicek/Agence France-Presse, Creative Commons Zero license.
MONA NIKKI FARZAN
I like that you suggest calling “a spade a spade” when it comes to Orbán, because that’s what we need to do in order to prevent backsliding in countries like Hungary even more than what it already has. What’s interesting is that Orbán won in a free and fair election, but the electoral rules in Hungary turned 40% approval into a 53% party list vote, and this disproportionately gave his party 68% of the seats. Somehow he was still extremely sneaky and some people don’t consider him an an autocrat because he didn’t eliminate or weaken government offices, he just replaced them with people from his own party. Obviously, he had a well thought-out plan, because even if an opposition party wins in the next election, Orbán will still have loyalists from his party in every office. Even though Hungary is across the world from the United States, any government that is not a democracy can still hinder its democratic ideals in many ways. At what point does it become the responsibility of strong democracies like the the U.S. to intervene or pressure authoritarian regimes to halt backsliding?
UMA MUKUL VAINGANKAR
It is an interesting point to make that the European Union should place sanctions on Hungary in order to push forward the restoration of democracy and prevent backsliding. If the European Union has not yet placed sanctions on Hungary, it would be worth exploring what resources Hungary provides to the rest of the countries. Perhaps the countries of Western Europe should seek these resources from another democratic country in a deliberate and coordinated effort in order to stop economically supporting Hungary. It will be interesting to see how Viktor Orban attempts to wield more power without the economic backing he is thriving off of currently. Democratic countries certainly need to make more of an effort to botch Orban’s power grabs and foil his alliances with other authoritarian leaders in order to attempt to restore democratic order in Hungary.
I highly appreciate your effort to describe the situation in Hungary, and especially how far democratic erosion has progressed since Scheppele wrote her seminal article. I agree that it may now be euphemistic to even call Hungary even an illiberal democracy, now that recent elections have revealed what is actually a competitive authoritarian setup.
However, I am highly skeptical that echoing The Economist’s proposal to levy economic sanctions on Hungary would have the desired effect of containing democratic erosion in Hungary and preventing its contagion to the rest of Europe.
Firstly, I think sanctions would reinforce Orban’s narrative that decadent Western democrats are out to get his self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy,” and thus even buoy his popularity. Cases from recent history also provide a cautionary tale against sanctions. Though not entirely similar countries, economic sanctions against Putin’s Russia have not decisively weakened the regime; in fact, in providing Russian citizens with cause for grievance against the West, it may even be propping up Putin’s regime. A similar logic informed the decision to stop economic sanctions on Iran and conclude the (in)famous nuclear deal. Second is that part of the European Union’s economic strength comes from the Single Market, and that undermining the Single Market through sanctions might cripple the European economy and fuel democratic erosion even in EU countries that have weathered it well, such as France and Germany. Third is that sanctions would also force Orban to seek even closer ties with authoritarian leaders such as Putin, like the ties we’ve seen spring up between Hugo Chavez and other Latin American populists in the past.
So while I am hard-pressed to think of measures that established democracies can take to actually stop democratic erosion from happening, I think the alternative presented by sanctions – at least currently – is much worse. I think the EU should remain sensitive to local political developments in the country, remain engaged with the liberal democrats in that country, and perhaps wait for a time when Hungary is more likely to respond to sanctions.