On July 30, 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban boldly declared that “the new state we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state.” Coming only three months after Orban’s Fidesz party won a supermajority of seats in Parliament with only 45% of the popular vote, the speech represented the consolidation of democratic breakdown in a state that only one decade prior had been seen as the success story of the former Eastern Bloc. How could a country that had experienced the strongest economic growth in the region in 1990-2007 and had developed sustainable political pluralism with strong center-left and center-right parties as late as 2006 have become the poster child for the rise of far-right populism in the West by 2014? In this post, I will address the ways in which Hungarian democracy has broken down since 2010, and then examine the underlying causes of this democratic breakdown, looking particularly at the oft-cited factors of economic anxiety and immigration.
As described by Nacny Bermeo in On Democratic Backsliding [Borneo 2016], democratic breakdown can generally occur in two major ways: overt, immediate collapse through a military coup or covert, gradual breakdown through executive takeover. Orban has used the latter method to subvert democracy, pushing through piecemeal reforms justified using pro-democracy rhetoric. Firstly, Orban pushed through a major political reform designed to ensure that Fidesz would maintain supermajorities in Parliament, even if voters punished him at the polls for this very democratic breakdown. He did this by transitioning the Hungarian electoral system from a mostly-proportional representation system to a mostly-first past the post system, ensuring that a weakening of his support in future elections would not translate to fewer seats in Parliament. As a result, even though support for Fidesz decreased from 52% of the popular vote in 2010 to 45% in 2014, the number of seats won actually increased from 68.1% in 2010 to 66.8% in 2014. Secondly, Orban heavily restricted the independence of the judiciary, reducing their ability to strike down anti-democratic laws from the bench. Under the new 2011 Constitution, the number of Constitutional Court justices was increased from eleven to fifteen, giving Orban the ability to immediately select a full 27% of the court [Lendvai 2017]. Furthermore, the selection mechanism for court appointments was moved from cross-party bureaucratic bodies to simple majority votes in Parliament, giving Fidesz the ability to quickly appoint new justices in a partisan manner.
Finally, the Orban regime significantly restricted the power of the press, both in the private sector and in the non-partisan state-run media. First, the Fidesz government changed the appointment mechanism for members of the public broadcasters, from a non-partisan bureaucratic process to one in which the Fidesz-dominated legislature could appoint all members. With public broadcasting under his control, Orban then set his sets on the private media, setting restrictions on the ability of foreign-funded broadcasters to operate and enacting limits on when the private media could cover political events. In this way, the private media was deprived of both their funding and access to important coverage. Importantly, Orban’s creation of an illiberal, undemocratic state through electoral, judicial, and media “reforms” was conducted in a piecemeal fashion and with its intentions hidden. The electoral reforms were justified as a way to make the parliamentary process more efficient by reducing the necessity for coalition governments, while the judiciary reforms were justified as a “modernization” of Hungary’s courts by allowing the elected legislature to select justices. Finally, the media reforms were enacted under the auspices of reducing foreign influence (i.e. through foreign media funding and NGOs) in Hungarian elections. This covert strategy allowed Orban to consolidate his grip on Hungary’s backsliding democracy while both domestic and foreign opponents missed the key signs.
In response to Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the success of Marine Le Pen, Western observers have often pointed towards two causal factors as responsible for this populist shift: immigration and economic anxiety. Interestingly, the Hungarian case seems to disprove both of these arguments. Firstly, Hungary accepted only 28,000 refugees in the 1989-2005 period, representing 0.2% of their population and placing them 16th out of 31 European countries [Mudde 2007]. Furthermore, Hungary is not experiencing a major cultural change in their population. Instead, as of 2017, 92% of the population is ethnically Hungarian, versus 74% of Americans who are Caucasian. Secondly, Hungary has not experienced a relative economic stagnation like much of the Western world. Instead, Hungary in 1990-2007 was the fastest growing of the former Eastern Bloc countries, with growth rates averaging 5% in that period. Furthermore, Hungary has recovered quickly from the 2007-08 financial crisis, with unemployment by 2014 at 7.5%, versus 11% in France and 22% in Spain. Instead of these “usual suspects”, Hungarian populism was caused by a complete collapse of the political center in the mid-2000s that, coupled with poor political design that heavily favored plurality winners, led to the attainment of absolute political power by Fidesz in the 2010 election.
In 2006, immediately after an electoral win by the center-left Socialist Party, sitting Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany gave a closed door speech to members of his explaining how the party had “lied, morning, night, and evening” to Hungarian voters during his time in office since 2004 and then during the electoral campaign, because “there aren’t many choices. We had [messed] it up. Not just a bit, but much” [Lendvai 2017]. A video of the speech was secretly recorded and ignited a massive political scandal that led to the destruction of the Socialist Party and the Hungarian left wing more broadly. The Socialist Party would win 15.3% of seats in 2010 compared to 49.2% in 2006, an unprecedented political collapse. In its place, Fidesz capitalized on massive anti-establishment sentiment among the population and presented a platform of opposing corruption and “politics as usual”, increasing their share of the seats from 42.5% to 68.1%. Furthermore, even before the enactment of the electoral law reform that increased Fidesz’s share of the seats relative to their vote share, the Hungarian system still heavily favored plurality winners. Fidesz was able to win 68% of the sets in 2010, a supermajority allowing them to pass whatever policy they wanted in the Parliament, with only 52% of the popular vote. As a result, poor political design heavily favoring the plurality winner, alongside a complete destruction of the political center, allowed Orban to gain the unopposed political power in 2010 that he needed to destroy Hungarian democracy.
Democratic erosion in Hungary has taken the form of a politicized electoral system, non-independent judiciary, and heavily restricted media, all enacted covertly under the guise of protecting Hungarian democracy. Furthermore, Orban was given the power to enact these reforms not because of fears of immigration or economic stagnation, but because of the collapse of the political center due to a massive political scandal involving his primary opponents. The rise of “illiberal democracy” in Hungary dispels many of the myths of democratic erosion that had existed beforehand, such as its reliance on overt anti-democratic actions and its causation by economic and cultural anxiety. The face of democratic collapse in the 21st century has been dramatically altered, and that means the response of the international community must change as well.
Bermeo, Nancy. On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy. 2016.
Lendvai, Paul. Orban: Europe’s New Strongman. London, UK: Hearst & Co. 2017. Pgs. 95-104.
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