“Many observers both here and abroad fear Hungary will become the first EU member state to abandon liberal democracy, and nobody really knows what to do about it.” This quote from a Politico article summarizes the apprehension many feel in the face of Hungary’s rapid shift towards an authoritarian regime over the last 8 years. Hungary’s erosion from a liberal to an illiberal democracy is occurring through legal democratic means, with the apparent support of a majority of citizens, yet entails concerning consequences.
This shift began when a populist party in Hungry, the Alliance of Young Democrats, or Fidesz, won a surprising amount of political power in the 2010 election. The party had promised to make a variety of right-wing changes in the structure and policies of the Hungarian Government. While some members of the party wanted slow and incremental adjustments, the party’s leader Viktor Orban insisted on making drastic and immediate changes. The Fidesz party was able to hold a 2/3 majority with its coalition members, and used this political power to rewrite the country’s constitution and pass hundreds of new laws, in its first 18 months in power. While many criticized Orban’s hasty and extensive reformation of the government, Orban justified his actions, arguing “the voting result… had given him the right to carry out radical overhaul of the country’s Constitution” (Kingsley, 2018). An article from Vox, discussing the process of democratic erosion, states that “the contemporary path away from democracy under the rule of law typically relies on actions within the law.” Although Orban’s actions seem dictatorial in nature, he is operating within the legal power allotted to him through the democratic electoral system of Hungary. Yet Orban and his party’s newfound power seems uncheckable. When certain policies and practices were protested against for being unconstitutional, Fidesz’s coalition simply added them to the constitution. This illustrates that there are no substantial limitations on the party’s legislative and executive power.
Orban’s restructuring of the government and its policies are aimed at transforming Hungary into an illiberal state. An illiberal democracy is a form of partial democracy, where elections take place, but there are serious restrictions on civil liberties, allowing those in power to become authoritarian in nature. There are several steps that lead towards the erosion of liberal democracy. Global Risk Insights explains that it begins with attacks on democratic institutions. Orban has been frequently criticized by other nations and the UN for his alterations of the electoral system, that now biasedly benefits the party in power. The next step towards authoritarian regime is the severe restrictions of news and media, preventing the public from having full access to what is happening in their own country. Global Risk Insights summarizes the goals of Fidesz illiberal democracy movement, stating that they seek establishing order and press control, while promoting the values of family, religion, and the cult of the homeland. Yet while illiberal democracies may at the surface appear unappealing, recent polls in 2018 show that Fidesz is still supported by about 50% of decided voters. This indicates that the changes Orban has been instituting are actually fairly popular with the people of Hungry.
There are a few reasons why this right-wing populist party has gained and maintained its support over the last decade or so. The rise of this party’s popularity occurred after the 2008 global financial crisis. Financial troubles are often windows of opportunity for populist parties, as they can campaign and rally support on the platform of radical reforms meant to benefit the common people. Support for a right-wing populist party may also be cultural backlash against the Soviet Union’s communist regime. Orban often emphasizes that illiberal democracy is best aligned with the values and cultural preferences of the Hungarian people. Additionally, the recent refugee crises that has swept across Europe may have pushed citizens to support the party’s populist anti-immigration policies. Fear of Muslim immigrants after terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels gave rise to anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe. Orban is easily able to harness this fear and promote the popularity of his party through hostile policies on immigration and refugees.
While Fidesz may sustain popular support among Hungarian voters, Hungary’s transition towards an illiberal democracy entails some negative consequences. First off, Hungary has become far less competitive on the world market, and the country has experienced a notable economic slowdown since Orban’s regime. The control and interference the government exerts on Hungary’s enterprises impedes their growth, and fierce hostility towards migrant workers is only harmful to the state’s economy. Second, Orban’s alteration of the constitution seriously undermines the administration of justice, as the Constitutional Court has severe limitations on its ability to review laws and complaints. The weakening of this branch forebodes abuse of power, as there are few to no checks on the other branches. If Orban begins to act in opposition to his constituents wishes, or beyond his legal scope of power, there is little that can be done to prevent or reverse his decisions. The limitations on news and media also set a dangerous precedent, as the citizens will have no ability to know what their leaders are doing in office. Without free and extensive information on Orban and his party’s actions, constituents will have no way of knowing whether those they are voting into office are actually promoting their values and policy preferences. This is another example of how the illiberal governmental reforms lead to little or no accountability for political officials, resulting in opportunities for abuse of power. Overall, observers are right to be worried about the clear democratic erosion in Hungry as it transitions to an illiberal democracy. Yet as Orban and the Fidesz party have gained power through legal and democratic means, and still retain significant support from the Hungarian people, there is little that can be done by outsiders to slow or stop this erosion. For now, observers will have to wait and see how Hungary continues to transform under Orban and the Fidesz movement.
*photo by The Budapest Beacon