Democratic backsliding is the process of democratic countries moving away from the fundamental ideas of democracy, like free and fair elections, strong rule of law and freedom of speech. This reversal of democracy is a phenomenon that many thought would not take place once countries successfully transitioned from being an autocracy to being a democracy. Democratic erosion has been seen all over the world in countries like Venezuela, Spain, Poland and the Czech Republic, where leaders are spreading more populist ideologies. In the case of Hungary, the country’s democracy has been taking a U-turn since 2010 when Viktor Orban of the Fidesz government was elected to power as the Prime Minister. He hopes to maintain his rule following the upcoming elections in April. Some may argue that Hungary is still a democracy but I argue that because the democratic institutions are being used by a leader with populist ideologies to consolidate his own power, Hungary is on the road to returning to an autocracy.
There are several other indicators to suggest that Hungary’s democracy is eroding due to the changes in the way the government is run. One indicator is that Orban is a populist-authoritarian leader who supports radical discriminatory measures. Orban supports ethnic homogeneity and is openly anti-Semitic and has pushed toward Hungary closing off its borders to Syrian refugees. Linz, in her study, identified four possible behavioral warning signs of a dictator (litmus test), which include rejecting democracy, denying the legitimacy of opponents, tolerating or encouraging violence or showing the willingness to block opponents from civil liberties. During his eight years of rule, Orban has made sweeping reforms and constitutional changes in Hungary’s electoral, legislature and judiciary branches by passing over one-thousand laws. Some of the laws he has changed deny the mobility of opposition parties by controlling the media to project propaganda and spread populist ideologies among the population. Not only does this reduce competition for Orban, it also leads to a decline in civil justice for the people of Hungary. Due to the erosion of checks and balances in the system, he is able to maintain his power without any counterbalancing forces. This shows how he easily passes the litmus test for democratic erosion and should be a cause for concern.
Orban is also clearly a proponent of cronyism, which is a feature of democratic erosion, given that he has put his advisors, close friends, family and businessmen in positions of power and granted government contracts unfairly to his son-in-law. According to Vox, this has given him more control over “supervisory bodies such as the Electoral Commission, Budget Commission, Media Board, and Ombudsman offices,” all which have helped him to retain his power and stay in office. Further, his administration has campaigned against NGOs that promote human rights and transparency in the political processes. Freedom House and Transparency International reports show that Hungary’s level of democracy is on a downward trend due to its falling civil liberties and an upward trend in corruption. Clearly, international bodies are identifying Hungary’s backsliding and attempts by outsiders to change the situation have not been successful.
Orban also targets individuals who go against his policies, a clear example of suppressing freedom of speech. One of his targets is George Soros, a Hungarian-American investor who funds the NGO, Open Society Foundation. The Central European University is a branch of this foundation, which has gained a lot of attention since 2017 when Orban attempted to close it. This prestigious institution is one of the few in the region to see students graduating and moving on to work for large corporations or the government. This personal attack on Soros is due to his values as a liberal philanthropist not aligning with Orban’s, and his institution’s promotion of the rule of law. This is a clear-cut move made by an authoritarian leader and threatens the foundations of democracy.
Despite some saying that elections are a feature of democracy because it enables the population to vote in to power politicians they feel will carry out their promised policies, Orban is only using elections as a façade to disguise his authoritarian, populist rule. Hungary has been identified as a Frankenstate by many scholars because it appears to run as a normal democracy but is backed by an authoritarian leader. It has a single party in power that continues to hold elections, knowing that they will win and remain in power. His party has two-thirds of the seats in the government and is able to shift policy and decision-making in favor of the party. Why he does this is so he can avoid as much controversy from international bodies as he paves the way to consolidate his power.
Also, being a part of the EU is generally deemed to be an indicator of democracy because the country is a part of a trading bloc that believes in the fundamental features of democracy. Hungary became a part of the European Union (EU) in 2004 but has been a troubled member since Orban’s arrival into office. With authoritarian policies that do not align with the member countries of the EU, Orban is often cast as the unruly member of the Union who voices very populist opinions. His government is Eurosceptic, which means they disagree with the growing power of the EU, especially with the more powerful economies like Germany. This attitude contrasts with that of most Hungarian people, who agree with being a part of the European Union. His failure to represent the views of his people shows how freedom of speech is suppressed within the country and the Prime Minister is on a journey of consolidating his power for himself and not for the people.
Even though member countries of the Union have identified Hungary as a growing threat, they cannot directly intervene and change the status quo drastically because no rules are in place regarding democratic backsliding. This is because democratic backsliding was not expected to happen within the EU once World War II came to an end and most countries transitioned to democracy. Using Article 7 would involve sanctioning and removing voting rights of both Hungary and Poland, which are both on the road to autocracy. Members of the EU are hesitant to impose this on the two countries because it is seen as a nuclear option – if used it runs too much of a risk of triggering reversals in political alliances in such close geographical proximity. In his famous speech, Orban preached the idea of “illiberal democracy,” which means Hungary lacks an open society as civil liberties are cut off from the people. There are many indicators of democratic backsliding in the case of Hungary, but it seems nothing can be done to change the trajectory of Hungary transitioning back to an autocracy.