The issue of democratic backsliding in certain EU countries has been the topic of discussion and increasing concern worldwide. Hungary tops this list due to the rapid introduction and implementation of seemingly autocratic practices in a country where democracy emerged only recently.
Democratic backsliding involves radical changes across a broad range of institutions that collectively, act as democracy’s pillars. It can lead to democratic erosion or even breakdown, allowing unambiguously authoritarian regimes to come into place. In this essay, I aim to divulge and dissect the recent political changes in Hungary that are indicative of indisputable democratic backsliding. Democratic procedures should embody three core principles: uncertainty of political outcomes for office holders, impermanence such that governments have limited duration, and constraint through constitutional limits which are imposed on a government’s actions. This essay will demonstrate how these principles are currently violated in Hungarian politics along with the basic identification of backsliding such as the state of electoral competition, strength and independence of judicial and legislative branches, and the liberties of citizens.
Hungary’s parliamentary system allowed the center-right party, FIDESZ, to gain two thirds of the seats in the Parliament after winning 52.7% of the votes in 2010. The leader, Viktor Orban, made national identity the focal point of his political campaign, and monopolized public opinion by retaining an “us vs them” rhetoric. Almost instantly upon coming to power, Orban’s government made changes to the voting process, which included elimination of the second round of voting and reallocation of losing parties’ votes to the majority party. Given Hungary’s party-system, FIDESZ was most likely to be the majority party and with these changes, was guaranteed an even greater number of seats within Parliament in the 2014 elections, thus clearly demonstrating a weak state of electoral competition which demolishes the uncertainty for office holders of future elections. Moreover, these changes further consolidate the antiestablishment and populist behavior which is indicated by efforts of Orban to reduce power-sharing amongst different parties. Not only does he want his party to be in power, but he also wants to restrict any bargaining power offered through seat-sharing in the Parliament. This falls perfectly in line with the logic of populism explained by Muller where a populist leader aims to create an “all or nothing” division of power.
Furthermore, Orban introduced other controversial changes to the constitution that were frowned upon by the EU’s governing bodies. The fourth amendment removed the constitution court’s power to block the passing of any constitution law that was endorsed by two-thirds majority in parliament. Essentially, this move consolidated Orban’s power and provided him unmatched autonomy over the country’s constitution, and thus violating the essence of democratic values of constraint on governments.
Moreover, Orban proceeded to introduce stringent restrictions upon the media in Hungary in 2010. All media regulation power was given to a single entity, the National Media and Info Communications Authority. This entity’s members were selected by Parliament, and since Orban’s government held majority seats, they were in direct control of the media authority and hence all media outlets in the country. This means that in order for opposition parties to conduct political discourse, they needed approval from the current government and thus tailor their discussions to the government’s demands. Moreover, amendments to Hungary’s Freedom of Information Act in July of 2015 allowed this public body to charge large fees for just responding to information requests, restricting non-government parties and groups from seeking out public forums. In September of 2015, the Hungarian police reportedly attacked a group of seven international journalists covering the refugee crisis. Similarly, Orban’s government aims to alienate Hungarian society through cultural and social isolation using media restrictions such as laws governing that radio broadcasters must devote over one-third of their airtime to Hungarian music. These changes illustrate the loss of liberty for individuals and the media in social and political realms and are clear signs of democratic backsliding.
Orban’s alienating rhetoric echoes across all social realms. Recently, the Hungarian Parliament voted in favor of legislation that places tough restrictions on foreign universities. Specifically, the Central European University (CEU), was targeted for “undermining the lawfully elected leadership”. The university is a symbol of the liberalism that Orban has been trying to eradicate from Hungarian society for the last seven years, and marks yet another example of constitutional changes granted by Orban and his party unilaterally, that impact all Hungarians. This, combined with the lack of freedom for media and opposition, are clear tell-tale signs of the executive aggrandizement underway in Hungary, as Orban aims to loosen checks on executive power through the same legal channels which allowed him to be elected in the first place.
Besides analyzing Hungary’s changing political landscape for evidence of democratic sliding, it is interesting to note the empirical economic evidence that is considered indicative of democratic backsliding. According to Przeworski and Limongi 1997, regime transitions are strongly correlated with per capita income levels within a country and countries with lower per capita incomes, are more vulnerable to the emergence of authoritarian regimes. With an OECD ranking of 1.5 out of 10, income levels in Hungary average at USD 16821 a year, compared to the OECD average of USD 30563. These statistics, while not enough to act as evidence of the democratic backsliding in Hungary, solidify the likelihood of Orban’s political practices being part of a regime transition undergoing in Hungary.
In conclusion, the political conditions emerging in Hungary over the last seven years under Orban’s government fit no true definition of democracy. Under the EU’s own laws, the Court of Justice in the European Union considers fundamental rights an integral part of the legal framework. Orban’s movements towards an “illiberal” democracy are a clear violation of the EU’s principles and without assertive responses, the degradation of democracy in Hungary may continue to reach levels as high as seen during the Cold War Era.