Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but only six years later, Viktor Orbán came into power, and Hungary’s democratic institutions began to unravel. Hungary has not enjoyed as long a history of democracy as some of the other developed nations in the European Union. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Hungary started to change its ideological and political makeup. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left Hungary in a dire economic situation. Nevertheless, the new government was able to establish free and fair elections among other democratic institutions. These institutions created an environment wherein 2004, Hungary was able to meet the European Union’s criteria for membership. Most notably, a country seeking to enter the EU must have a functioning marketplace and a democracy that protects minority rights. In 2010, Viktor Orbán became the Prime Minister of Hungary, beginning his steady consolidation of power and erasure of democratic norms and institutions.
Hungary operates under a parliamentary system, where the people elect representatives who then elect the prime minister. Hungary also has a multi-party system, where multiple political parties must form a coalition if one party does not already have a majority. Orbán was elected by a supermajority (the Fidesz party). This is noteworthy because a supermajority allows for constitutional amendments. By amending the constitution through democratic processes, Orbán has been able to undermine the very democracy that gave him the power to do so. When Orbán and his coalition first amended the constitution, they instated sweeping changes to Hungary’s courts. First, they placed a retirement age on the federal justices, forcing those who had been appointed by Orbán’s predecessors to retire. Orbán was able to remove political opponents from the Courts, in order to stack them in his favor. When the European Union disapproved of this political move, Orbán reinstated the judges to lower courts, so that their effect on judicial proceedings could be significantly lessened (Varol 2015). This effectively weakened the check that the judiciary branch had on Orbán because his future legislative actions were less likely to be overturned in Court. Controlling the judiciary is identifiably a function of stealth authoritarianism (Varol 2015). Stealth authoritarianism is the “use of legal mechanisms in democracies for anti-democratic ends” (Varol 2015, 1065). By using a democratically obtained majority to amend the constitution in his favor, Orbán partook in stealth authoritarianism. Other countries like Turkey, have also fallen prey to the mechanisms of stealth authoritarianism (Varol 2015). Recep Tayyip Erdogan has consolidated the executive branch and limited civil liberties since coming into the presidency in 2014. For example, following an attempted military coup in 2016, Erdogan issued a state of emergency. During this time Erdogan weaponized executive privileges only available to him during a state of emergency to detain and arrest a multitude of his political opponents. Both authoritarians utilized the vulnerability of a crisis in order to strengthen their power and exploit their opposition.
Another notable portion of the constitutional amendments passed by the Fidesz party limited civil liberties. LGBTQ identifying individuals have had fewer freedoms under his control. Trans people are not recognized under the new constitution, and same-sex couples do not have any adoption rights even if they can partake in a civil union. Orbán has also taken several measures to limit his opposition in the media as well. New outlets that were either independent or critical of Orbán have been dissolved. Violating these protections runs in staunch opposition to the success of democracy. The EU outlined the importance of protecting civil liberties in order to enter the bloc, but there have not been repercussions to these violations since their inclusion in the EU.
In the past year alone, Orbán has made less than stealthy attempts to strengthen his governmental overreach. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Orbán has enacted changes under the guise of combatting the negative effects of the pandemic during a state of emergency. First, Orbán is now able to rule by decree, bypassing the need for congressional support. By strengthening the power of the executive and himself outright, he is aggressively pushing Hungary away from democracy and towards authoritarianism. He also expanded the surveillance state and limited the media during the pandemic. Unprecedented times have allowed Orbán to take unprecedented measures in expanding his power. Like Erdogan in Turkey, Orbán utilized the vulnerability of a crisis in order to strengthen his power and exploit his opposition.
These authoritarian tactics have been able to avoid considerable scrutiny because of Hungary’s status as a member state of the European Union. Hungary also has a model constitution that on paper, appears to bolster a healthy democracy (Varol 2015). This creates a dichotomy between the actions of Orbán within the framework of the constitution and the constitution itself. Effectively, Fidesz is operating under the guise of a de jure democracy when in practice, they have devolved Hungary into a de facto autocracy.