With a reference to the transition paradigm, most democratic transitions have been analyzed within the context of a movement towards democratic transition. It is argued that liberal democracy has won hegemony in the international context. Similarly, Fukuyama argued that it is the end of history. His assumption was that a pattern towards a maximalist definition of democracy will be globally observed. However, what we have experienced in recent years is quite different from these expectations. Accession to the EU was not the end of history for the Hungarian case. As we all know, Hungarian democracy under Orbán has experienced a backsliding. Moreover, Hungary is an interesting case because the de-democratization process has started from liberal democracy. Hence, we see a complete return from liberal democracy to electoral autocracy (v-Dem has recently classified Hungary as electoral autocracy). In this blog post, I will specifically evaluate the importance of tactics utilized by Orban and the contexts in which they take place, and interpretwhether the primary authoritarian tactics have been shifted or continued in the COVID-19 period.
In 2010, the electoral supremacy of the Fidesz party revealed the importance of an agent capitalizing over an existing crisis, mobilization of voters on the basis of this, and polarization over a thin populist ideology combined with nationalism. Most political scientists have treated the constitutional changes in 2012 as a constitutional coup d’état on Hungarian democracy. These constitutional changes and the new constitution enabled extensive usage of executive power by Orbán and resulted in the indirect suffocation of Hungarian opposition parties.
Agency based explanations on democratic backsliding in Hungary underline the role attributed to Orbán. This supply side of the story cannot be interpreted independently from a demand side of the equation, which is a reference to existing grievances in the Hungarian society. In other words, his populist rhetoric referred back to existing divisions within the society and addressed the polarized discourse for his electorate. In this sense, the emergence of a populist leader was not a surprise because appealing to an existing crisis empowered Orbán’s populist discourse, as his populist party received the 2/3 of the Hungarian parliament.
With the democratic backsliding under populist leaders, differentiated roles have been attributed to opposition parties. Oppositional actors may first prefer to accumulate on undemocratic means to overcome the electoral strength of the incumbent party. In Turkey and Venezuela, the early phases of the populist parties reveal a period for mainstream opposition parties which used tactics that are classified as undemocratic measures on limiting the incumbent party. For instance, the early AKP period in Turkey was challenged with a court case to shut down the party in 2008. However, the context of the mainstream opposition parties in Hungary is not necessarily associated with these examples. In other words, they did not provide undemocratic obstacles to the incumbent party. However, Orbán and the Fidesz party have been quite successful in legitimizing their populist rule even though the legitimization process of Orbán’s populist rule has not been on the basis of dealing with undemocratic measures. In short, it is essential to note that backsliding processes can also be started without any provocation by opposition parties.
Polarization has been strategically used as a back-up legitimization tool and has been an essential strategy for increasing vote shares of populist parties in several countries. Venezuela under Chávez experienced a socio-economic polarization, and there was no cultural element to it. Polarization in Turkey under Erdoğan and in the US under Trump has followed a different path, as it has been over identities. In the Hungarian case, the former incumbent party -the Hungarian Socialist Party- is a reformed version of the Communist Party. In this sense, Hungarian politics can also be analyzed as a case of polarization over identities, and the populist leader strategically reinforced the existing crisis. Hence, mobilization over accumulated crisis has been easily achieved. In this context, even though opposition parties in the early Orbán rule did not contribute to the legitimization of populist actions, their ideological stands were strategically used to initiate and reinforce polarized socio-economic groups.
The pre-2010 status of Orbán and his political party also underlines the importance of knowing oppositional tactics for achieving electoral turnover. The populist rule under Orbán with the political expertise in opposition provides an essential menu of tactics as an inside information to deal with the opposition. In other words, expertise in opposition gives a quick set of primary responses for tackling the opposition. One of the mechanisms that provides a space to opposition parties is the presence of free media, and Orbán has strategically restricted the appearance of opposition parties in the media channels. The primary reason for this is the role of controlled media as an essential operator for spreading its populist discourse.
An unexpected shock: COVID-19
In Hungary, the first case of COVID-19 was announced on March 4. Do we see de-jure undemocratic practices during the pandemic as well? The continuation of primary tactics has been observed during the pandemic, as Figure 1 illustrates. With the opportunities provided by COVID-19, tactics on populist rule under Orbán have been concentrated on systematic restrictions on media freedom. Secondly, in the pre-COVID-19 period, the regime exercised extensive usage of executive power and provided a limited sphere of actions to the Hungarian parliament. During the COVID-19 global crisis, limitations on legislation are the second major undemocratic practices in Hungary.
As an exogenous shock hit, authoritarian leaders have reviewed their decisions on which tactics to extensively use during the COVID-19 shock. This decision in the Hungarian case has been quite in line with the accumulated tactics since 2010. Politics under COVID-19 has revealed itself within a short period of time. Until now, the impact of COVID-19 on Hungarian democracy has underlined a continuation of authoritarian measures or tactics, especially on media. In the short run, the tactics on the suffocation of opposition parties are expected to be informed by existing practices, as stated above. However, there might be a shift in the long run as the incumbent party and opposition parties learn both to use and deal with these tactics. Also, future of these populist parties (as in the case of Hungary) also depends on how they deal with COVID-19.
Even though the current situation of Hungarian democracy under Orbán is not promising for democratization, dynamics on opposition coordination might be critical for achieving a possible electoral turnover in Hungary. In August, opposition parties with different ideological stances (such as the Jobbik, the Democratic Coalition Party (DK), the Hungarian Socialists Party (MSZP), the Momentum Party, the Dialogue, and the Politics Can Be Different (LMP)) promised a nomination of common candidates for the parliamentary elections in 2022. If opposition parties are able to achieve opposition coordination on electoral processes as they promised, the probability of observing an electoral turnover of Orbán’s regime is expected to be high. On the other hand, the incumbent government is already experienced at dealing with authoritarian politics to limit the operating area of the opposition parties, as indicated above. Orbán’s regime has an enlarged period of time in which cooptation with opposition parties can be deepened during the upcoming two years. Lastly, as the COVID-19 crisis provides a legitimization of these practices with an emphasis on “going through extra-ordinary times”, several undemocratic practices which have been initiated during the COVID-19 period in Hungary propose possible restrictions on the coordination of opposition parties to be taken in these next two years.
 Fukuyama, Francis. “The End of History?.” The National Interest 16 (1989): 3-18.
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