Earlier in 2020, while the pandemic dominated news headlines across the world, the NGO freedom house pushed out a silent but stunning report. One deeply alarming takeaway – there are now less democracies in the balkans than at any point since the report was launched in 1995. Buried in the details was the downgrade of Hungary from a democracy to a “hybrid regime”. The truth is, freedom watchdogs have been sounding the alarm bells on Hungary’s slide towards autocracy for almost a decade – beginning with changes that started happening shortly after the 08 recession.
At a high level, Hungary’s descent from democracy began with the election of supposed “center right” leader, Viktor Orban. While winning only a little over 50% of the vote, vote splintering between other parties allowed Orban and his party to secure a ⅔ supermajority in parliament, giving him a commanding grip over future policies. Orban took little time to push his agenda, pushing far right policies that many pundits considered xenophobic, racist, and antisemitic.
Under the guise of implementing the policies Orban claimed the people wanted, Orban slowly removed checks on majority rule, granting more and more power to the supermajority he continued to maintain for most of the next decade. Orban changed the parliamentary constitution, following a meticulous set of steps to erode democracy that are well documented in academic literature. As Bermeo argues in On Democratic Backsliding, one popular method of “supposedly legal” democratic erosion is described as “executive aggrandizement” . Orban effectively employed this strategy, by weakening checks on executive power, especially with his policies of censorship and regulation of free press, which severely weakened the Media in Hungary. These policies, combined with Orban’s assault on the courts, have caused freedom House to degrade Hungary’s “democracy rating” for years until 2020 – when the entire country’s government was reclassified as a hybrid regime.
So how did all of this happen? There are many popular theories that attempt to draw parallels between democratic erosion in different countries. In the Balkans specifically, it’s my belief that a history of neoliberal policies, and rushed democratization after the fall of the Soviet Union that have contributed most to the trends we’re seeing today – the rapid shuttering of democracies across the entire region.
To understand what’s happening in the Balkans today, we need to dig father into history. Hungary became a democracy in 1990, a year before the Soviet Union fell. In 1989, Hungary was a communist satellite state of the Soviet Union. As the United States and the EU pushed to eradicate communism across the Balkans, they took on a strategy of rapid democratization – elections first, culture later. It’s this strategy that created democracy, but this same approach that sowed the seeds of democracy’s destruction, that have grown today into a full fledged slide towards autocracy.
Instead of building a grassroots culture of democratic appreciation, the US’s strategy consisted of setting up elections to build democratic institutions as quickly as possible. One year after the iron curtain fell in Hungary, elections were already open to the public, and people across the country were expected to go out and vote for new leaders. Democracy is both institutional and cultural. In America, democracy arose from the deeply patriotic cause of freedom from tyranny. In Hungary, no such passionate cause ever existed – and without a deep cultural appreciation for majority rule like what took root in the American colonies, democracy is merely a temporary solution to a deeper problem.
The rush to build institutions vis-a-vis “legitimate elections” created weak institutions that few trusted. But worse yet, it created institutions that were easily corruptible, and malleable by Viktor Orban, who began to erode their power merely 20 years after their creation. Because American policies placed the “structural” aspect of democracy first (government agencies, public elections), these institutions were fundamentally weak. When Orban sought to remove checks on majority rule, he did so rapidly. The same went for censorship on media, checks on executive power, and later, the power of the courts.
One of the most ironic aspects of Hungary’s backslide from democracy is that Orban was actively aided and abetted by the perceived strength of democratic institutions set up by the US and the EU. As Bermeo argues in On Democratic Backsliding, it becomes even riskier to challenge laws made by democratically elected executives and legislatures . Much of the laws passed through Orban’s supermajority were viewed as more legitimate, because his party had indeed won election. By the time his actions became too extreme, the public was already complicit.
It’s important to observe what’s happening in Hungary because it’s not just happening in Hungary. As Mujanovic notes in his work Crisis in the Balkans, Democracy continues to erode across many Balkan states , including Poland, which has begun working with Hungary to block the EU’s Article 7 proceedings against the state. It’s the context and history that allow us to understand Hungary’s current state of affairs best, and this same history that will unlock solutions for policymakers attempting to reverse Hungary’s descent from democracy.