Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is no friend to open democracy as exemplified by his interference with the judicial branch, meddling in elections, and his latest authoritarian actions in response to Covid-19. He has not tried to conceal his efforts to consolidate power and even mentioned that he was creating an “illiberal democracy”.
Orbán was first elected Prime Minister in 1998 and held office for 5 years, but he regained the office of the Prime Minister in 2010 and has maintained this position through the 2014 and 2018 elections. He has also been the leader of the Fidesz political party, a right of center group focused on a platform with encompassing anti-immigration and conservative social views. He started public service as a liberal proponent of democracy but through his time rising through the ranks and serving as Prime Minister, he has leaned heavily towards authoritarianism. He has gotten more bold recently in his claim to power, but originally his tactics were examples similar to those outlined in Varol’s Stealth Authoritarianism: control of the legislature, constitutional changes, appointments to the judiciary, and interference in electoral proceedings.
As head of the Fidesz party, which for much of his time as Prime Minister has had a super majority in parliament, he has had extensive reach into the actions of the legislature. Orbán has exploited this control by creating constitutional changes that remove many checks and balances on his party and his power.
More concerning than Orbán and Fidesz’s control of parliament is their extending influence on the Judiciary. The county’s high court, the Constitutional Court, has 15 seats that have all seen appointments that post-date Fidesz’s rise to power, containing judges nearly all loyal to the party. The administration also created a parallel court called the Administrative Court that has specific authority over the issues of electoral proceedings, corruption, and the right to protest, all essential aspects to the maintenance of democracy. With this separate court under the control of Orbán and his party, it opens the door to unfair elections and the continuation of place in power. Another consequential change that Orbán installed was placing his friend Tunde Hando, a loyalist to the Fidesz party, as the president of the national judicial office (NJO). Some of her powers include selecting judges, appointing senior office holders, and recently, deciding which courts rule on which cases. As a check to this power there is the National Judiciary Council, whose members are elected by peer judges, which has the power to remove the president of the NJO from office. However, this council has been left near empty as opposition members resign amid rumors of pressure from the Fidesz party, leaving no check on Hando’s power.
Shifting rules and transparency regarding the elections in Hungary add to the claims of authoritarianism on the rise under Orbán and the Fidesz party. Freedom House characterizes these elections as “free but not fair” due to the use of state resources for Fidesz’s campaigns and rulings of the courts that allow for state institutions to give up neutrality in the elections. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) also found that election monitoring and observation was not allowed by citizens resulting in polling locations with no opposition or non-partisan presence at the poll locations. Additionally, there were funding changes to political parties prior to the 2014 parliamentary election that encouraged the registration of new political parties, which in effect split the opposition parties further dividing them into smaller groups less likely to win enough votes for representation. Elections, while not in themselves contain fraud, were surrounded with much controversy and shady actions to further the electability and preservation of Orbán and the Fidesz party.
Recently, Prime Minister Orbán has taken even more extreme actions, aggregating his own power as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. New legislation allowed for Orbán to rule by decree and neglect the role of parliament indefinitely. This emergency precaution was ended a few months later by a vote in parliament, but new laws left the potential for it to be reinstated at any time. During that period while it was in effect, more than one hundred decrees were instated related to issues such as taxes rather than healthcare. Additionally, those deemed to be spreading misinformation can be jailed up to five years, effectively allowing the Fidesz party to eliminate their opposition. These far reaching grabs for power have taken advantage of the pandemic to expand Orbán’s powers while doing little to actually address the pandemic.
The EU has had enough of this behavior and has condemned Hungary’s new path towards authoritarianism; however this has had little effect. Previously thought to have the strength to keep its member states in line, the EU is struggling to punish the undemocratic ways of Orbán’s leadership. In September of 2019 the European Anti-Fraud Office claimed that Hungary was the worst performing member state especially with regards to misuse of EU funds and corruption, and yet no real punishment has come about. There have been demands to return funds but these have little to no follow through. In September 2018, Article 7, which calls for investigation into a member states actions that may violate the values of the EU, was triggered however little has been done due to lack of pressure from the other EU states, allowing Orbán to continue unhindered.
Orbán, over the course of his time as Prime Minister of Hungary, has whittled away at the liberal democracy that once was. Today, under his and the Fidesz party’s power, the country looks more and more authoritarian. Before the pandemic changes to the judicial system and electoral process showed signs that the country was becoming less open and that more government institutions were falling under Orbán’s purview. After the pandemic hit and the national emergency declaration was instituted, Orbán’s intentions were made clear. He wants and is well on his way to full and overarching control of a country that not long ago had a thriving independent democratic government.
Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 100(4), 2015, 1673-1742.