Since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party took control of Hungary’s government in 2010, they have increasingly made strides towards limiting the prospects of democracy in the country. These moves, however, have gone relatively unchecked by their neighbors and allies, leading to continued consolidation of power. The government’s threat to democratic institutions can be considered key features of authoritarian regimes that promote the interest of those in power over the people they govern. In doing so, Hungary has created a dangerous path towards autocracy. Only policy reversals that increase the stability of democratic institutions to restore a balance of power can return Hungary onto the path of democracy, an unlikely pursuit for both Orbán and his party.
However, in a recent move, the European Union (EU) has effectively suspended Orbán Fidesz party from the organization’s dominant political coalition. The European People’s Party, the largest coalition in the EU’s European Parliament, voted to remove Fidesz, which ___ any nomination power for jobs within the coalition, as well as barring Fidesz members from attending party meetings. Also, Fidesz will be forced to undergo a review by a monitoring committee that will determine Hungary’s success at meeting several conditions, which includes ending Hungarian attacks on the education system. In referencing the removalof the Central European University in Budapest, which was founded after the fall of the Soviet Union to promote democratic ideals and access to education, the EU is sending a strong message that it disapproves of Orbán’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
The removal of Fidesz from the European Parliament serves as the EU’s first major rebuke of Orbán and his party for their anti-democratic tendencies. Since taking power in 2010, Orbán has eroded many democratic norms and institutions that ensure checks and balances among government branches that sustains legitimacy. By reducingthe power of the Constitutional Court, rewriting the Constitution, and reducing access to an independent media, Orbán has created a strong executive branch with little checks on his authority. These moves have gained widespread criticism among allies both in Europe and abroad, but have stopped short of reprimand for the government’s behavior. In suspending Fidesz from Parliament, the EU is taking a firm stance on the autocratic tendencies of its member states. This is sharp contrast to its previous inaction on members defying democratic norms, especially as the United Kingdom remains embroiled in controversy surrounding their withdrawal from the international organization. The EU has been focusedon maintaining its stability and legitimacy, which may explain its lack of intervention in domestic politics of its members – until now.
Hungary serves as a prime example of Scheppele’s “Frankenstate”, one that combines democratic institutions with authoritarian regimes. This hybrid regime, where elections maintain the legitimacy of those in power, allows the government to curb democratic norms supposedly supported by voters (Scheppele, 2013). In this case, Hungary has developed into an oppressive form of populism, which stems from democracy institutions without liberalism. When “the people” have direct control, any action can be seen as majoritarian in nature and therefore in line with democratic outcomes. Those outcomes, however, can pose dangerous risks when individual rights and freedoms are curbed in the process (Berman, 2017).
Illiberal democracies can have detrimental effects on legitimate institutions, especially when disinformation spread by an absence of independent media sources espouses false narratives that reinforce the need to curb institutional checks on power. As empirical evidence has shown, the spread of disinformation can change individuals’ opinions on policy conclusions. However, when disinformation is fact-checked, those individuals tend to maintain the same conclusions, regardless of reality (Barrera et. al, 2017). As the majority of media sources in Hungary are owned and operated by friends of Orbán’s government, access to authentic information is not the only obstacle citizens face. When presented with the correct information devoid of bias, citizens still maintain the policy conclusions made from disinformation. In this way, propaganda can be used as a manipulative tactic that persuades citizens to support Orbán, as well as making citizens less likely to withdraw their support. And, as the 2018 Hungarian parliamentary electionsshow, citizens have yet to be disillusioned with the Fidesz party.
The EU’s move to reprimand Hungary for its increasing authoritarian tendencies serves as a necessary check on the balance of power in the country, effectively holding Orbán and his government accountable to the democratic deficit seen today. Although the removal of Fidesz from the European Parliament’s largest coalition can be seen as a small step, the organization has made clear that Fidesz’s encroachment on democracy will not be tolerated, restricting the line that allows Hungary to cross as a member-state of the international organization. Hopefully, this move will serve as a constraint on Orbán’s goals of power consolidation. However, reversing the damage done to independent institutions will take more meaningful, concerted action on behalf of the international community, as well as Hungarian citizens, to deny Orbán the opportunity to further erode democratic norms in the country. If this can be done, Hungary may be able to shirk its “Frankenstate” nickname and develop stronger ties with its European allies, which has declined alongside the destruction of democratic accountability.
*Photo taken by myself