Since being elected prime minister of Hungary in 2010, Viktor Orban and his regime have implemented stealth authoritarian tactics to protect and consolidate power. Although Hungary is considered to be a parliamentary, representative democratic republic, in this blog post I will discuss some of the ways in which the Fidesz Party has transformed the state into a hybrid regime, that is, a regime which falls somewhere between a democracy and an authoritarian state.
In his article “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Ozan Varol defines the practice as “a way to protect and entrench power when direct repression is not a viable option.” With the fall of many communist states in the latter half of the 20th century, traditional “authoritarian” measures became less and less practical for power-hungry leaders to implement. Instead, leaders like Orban have sought to maintain their control over their state with practices which “use the law to entrench the status quo, insulate the incumbents from meaningful democratic challenges, and pave the way for the creation of a dominant-party or one-party state.” In Hungary, the state rarely uses violence to impose its wishes on the people. Instead, a series of unambiguous political moves and legislation have slowly ensured that opposition to the Fidesz is minimized.
One striking example of Orban’s unorthodox repression is how the independent media has become almost entirely friendly to him. Hungary is home to numerous independent media outlets, usually an indicator of a free democracy. According to New York Times writer Patrick Kingsley, “by applying financial pressure on the owners of independent media outlets, Mr. Orban has gradually persuaded them to sell to his friends, or toe a softer line.” This is similar to the case of Russia, wherein not all media outlets are state owned, but many are owned by friends of President Vladimir Putin. Rather than simply outlawing publications that are not owned by the government in the style of old school authoritarians, these new leaders have found a way to keep parts of the press independent, while also assuring that they will report on the government in a favorable fashion.
Returning to Varol’s definition, Orban’s stealth authoritarian tactics in dealing with the media have helped insulate the leader from meaningful democratic challenges, which in turn has led to the creation of a dominant party state. State-owned media is a useful tool for propaganda. By not recognizing his opponents and their followers in state media, Orban, in the eyes of some lawmakers, is effectively stifling their opinions. In fact, “after state television channels failed to broadcast more than a few fleeting clips of recent anti-Orban demonstrations, a group of opposition lawmakers visited their headquarters last week to request some airtime. They were refused, and later ejected by force.” By controlling the state and independent media to some degree, Orban has been able to do what Varol describes as “increasingly allowing some space for the expression of discontent against them,” but at the same time, de-legitimizes opposition with their lack of air time. The managers hand-picked by Orban to run the state media outlets have been described by some as “propagandists.”
Of course, some of the most powerful tools for leaders looking to erode democratic institutions in their state is through judicial review and legislation. Orban’s regime is no stranger to these tactics and has used its parliamentary majority to pass more than 1,000 laws in its first five years in control. Furthermore, the regime has used its power to create a parallel Constitutional Court that has been stacked with judges who have all been appointed under the Fidesz party. The majority of those judges have usually voted for and ruled in favor of the ruling party. Filling courts with loyalist judges falls under Varol’s classical definition of authoritarianism. However, since they were technically voted in by way of the Fidesz voting to give themselves the power to choose its justices, Orban can still claim that the friendly courts are simply a result of the democratic institutions of the country. Furthermore, loyalists have the power to decide which prosecutions even make it before the Constitutional Court, and therefore any allegations against high-ranking Fidesz rarely see the light of day. Orban’s creation of this court has effectively helped silence discontent and subsequent plurality by making it nearly impossible to bring a case of wrongdoing against him and his ministers.
Through the manipulation of the country’s constitution and democratic institutions, the Fidesz regime under Viktor Orban has dragged Hungary further from the shoreline of a democracy and into the murky waters of a hybrid regime. While many of the changes the state has seen over the past eight years have come about through parliamentary legislation, their effects are distancing Hungary from a democracy. According to Freedom House, “Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by the Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010.” However drastic these changes, they have come about with very little political force or violence. As Varol notes on stealth authoritarianism, “the new generation of authoritarians learned to perpetuate their power through the same legal mechanisms that exist in democratic regimes.” In fact, Orban still claims that Hungary is a democracy and cites the country’s use of the same institutions as other democracies as a reason as to why it should not be labeled anything otherwise. By taking advantage of the systems set up to guarantee free and fair representation, the Fidesz regime has steadily consolidated its power, delegitimized political opposition, and turned Hungary into a hybrid regime that resembles a democracy only at a glance.
Photo: European People’s Party under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)