Since Viktor Orban became Prime Minister of Hungary in 2010, democracy in Hungary has clearly been eroding. In the sense that is discussed in “Democracy’s Gatekeepers” by Levitsky and Ziblatt, Viktor Orban displays multiple characteristics are used to define authoritarian candidates. These characteristics include weak commitment to democratic institutions and readiness to curtail civil liberties of opponents.
A weak commitment to democratic institutions was clearly demonstrated from the outset due to the fact that Orban had very loyal coalition partners and thus maintained a 2/3 majority in parliament. With a 2/3 majority, Orban is practically in control of the entire government because he is aware that he can get approval for almost any policy he hopes to implement. Therefore, the parliament has practically just become a formality or a guise for democracy if he is practically guaranteed to get any legislation passed. This means that the parliament is not really serving its intended purpose of provided a check on the power of the executive, which shows that Orban has a weak commitment to this classic democratic institution.
There was one democratic feature that seemed to provide a check on Orban: the constitution. When some of the laws that Orban attempted to implement were deemed unconstitutional, Orban was able to use his 2/3 majority in Parliament to just rewrite the entire constitution. Within his first year and a half of power, Orban had passed hundreds of new laws and rewritten the constitution. Some of these laws include laws criminalizing homelessness, curtailing political advertising, and foreclosing the possibility of gay marriage. These are the types of laws that were once found unconstitutional, which is what led Orban to just rewrite the constitution.
Another example of Orban’s lack of respect for democratic institutions is his disregard for an independent judiciary. He has eroded the independence of the judiciary by packing the court with political loyalists. If a leader can change the constitution and the composition of the court, then the odds of any objections to his policies are extremely slim. If these sacred pillars of democracy can be so easily eroded or completely changed, then those democratic features are not functioning for their intended purpose. Instead, they are used in an attempt to show Europe and the rest of the world that Hungary still has those features.
Orban’s readiness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents is clearly demonstrated by both his approach to election rules and his approach to the media. He created new election rules which give an advantage to the governing coalition. A change in electoral rules by a right-wing populist leader is a clear sign that this democratic feature may not actually be held up. Whether there is clear election fraud is not the only sign of difficulties within the electoral system of a country. All the rules and regulations surrounding elections have huge impacts on the outcome. One such regulation is the rules regarding media. News organizations in Hungary can be given massive fines for any content that is deemed “not politically balanced.” Whether or not their content is deemed politically balanced is determined by a government-appointed panel. So, effectively any media outlet can be prosecuted because the government-appointed panel can shut down anything that is harsh on the governing coalition. However, media outlets and business elite who support Orban are certainly encouraged by the Hungarian government. In 2012, Transparency International reported that the Hungarian state had been effectively captured by powerful interest groups due to the erosion of checks and balances, as well as the “symbiotic relationship between the political and business elite,” (www.politico.com).
Media is a powerful marker of democratic erosion because freedom of the press is arguably one of the most important democratic institutions. Without a free press, the government can have extremely high levels of control on public opinion. In addition to the new laws about media during elections, there have also been attempts at centralization. State television, radio, and the national news agency are being centralized. Therefore, programming and news output is being directed by government allies. This results in a weakening pluralism and gives people less options to form opinions about their government. The squandering of difference in public opinion is a major threat to democracy and certainly serves as evidence of the erosion of democracy coupled with the move towards an authoritarian state. This crackdown on the media also effects the civil liberties of the people in general. If civil liberties are not present, a state tends to be classified as a dictatorship rather than a democracy. With Orban’s policies moving towards a lower level of civil liberty, it seems clear that the democracy itself is eroding.
Overall, the Hungarian state under the leadership of Viktor Orban seems to be showing clear signs of democratic erosion. Orban’s clear disregard for respecting democratic institutions is very apparent in his actions that have resulted from his parliamentary supermajority. From hundreds of news laws and a new constitution to packing the court so that the judiciary is no longer completely independent, Orban has practically done away with all the legitimacy that these democratic institutions rest upon. Freedom of the press is also under attack with Orban’s leadership which is a major red flag when it comes to ensuring civil liberties and allowing for public discourse. When looked at in sum, these events are a big cause for concern in terms of the erosion of democracy in Hungary.
LASINI THARINDI PIYADIGAMA
I agree that Hungary is truly on the road to a reversal in democracy because Orban has been able to consolidate his power by changing so many constitutional laws and having a supermajority of the parliament on this side. Like you said, the government in place right now is only a formality or guise that is used to pass legislation – certainly almost all of the members of Parliament pass his laws regardless of whether they are deemed to be democratic or not. You spoke about media being a powerful marker and this is true because the use of government propaganda skews the public opinion into supporting a more populist-authoritarian leader. I think it’s also important to look at how the EU is dealing with this because even though Hungary is a member, no one seems to be able to stop Orban and how much he has done to change the democratic institutions in the country. It is clear that Hungary cannot change its trajectory from within, but if international bodies and the EU cannot either, Hungary truly is in danger of backsliding to an autocracy.