Throughout the past decade, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party has dominated the political scene in Hungary and does not show any signs of stopping. Orbán openly classifies Hungary as an ‘illiberal democracy,’ and the country has recently become the first country in the European Union to be classified as “partly free” on the Freedom House Index. The populist rhetoric of Orbán and his party has been instrumental in putting them in a position to continue down the path of democratic erosion in Hungary.
After World War I, Hungary was controlled by the Soviet Union and operated as a socialist satellite state until its peaceful transition to democracy in 1989. Though the decision to transition was simple, the harsh effects of the regime change were felt amongst vast amounts of citizens. The rapid privatization of the market led to a strong rise in unemployment, a decline in GDP, and an immense increase in the size of the lower-class population. Angry, low-class citizens who feel disconnected from the public are perfect targets for populist parties such as Fidesz. The party has used an ethno-nationalist rhetoric, scapegoating immigrants and the elite for Hungary’s economic issues. Orbán felt so strongly about labeling Hungary as a Christian nation, that he amended the Constitution to give Hungary a Christian identity. Another controversial amendment to the Constitution involved giving preference to traditional heterosexual relationships over LGBTQ+ ones. Despite its openly fascist practices, for the past several years Fidesz has been able to consistently receive a plurality of votes in territories around the country, due to its populist manipulation of these types of rural, poor, Christian citizens. It is also important to note that Fidesz has bolstered incredible economic success since their rise to power in 2010. Throughout the past decade under Viktor Orbán’s rule, tremendous economic growth has been displayed for Hungary, with the unemployment rate steadily decreasing and the real GDP of the country steadily increasing. Positive economic shocks such as this one can have strong positive effects on the political trust of a voter, and subsequently the security of the party in power.
With this populist rhetoric being incredibly successful in securing power for Fidesz, they have used this power to erode Hungary’s democratic institutions in the name of nationalism. A large way in which the country has begun to fail democratically is its lack of horizontal accountability in the central government. The originally independent judiciary has now been packed with biased judges by Orbán. The media has also lost many freedoms as the government has begun to censor and consolidate Hungarian media. The legislature is another institution that has come under serious fire throughout the rule of Fidesz. While Hungary’s government was intially modeled after Germany, harmful changes have begun to come in the form of new electoral laws. Once Fidesz had obtained a two-thirds majority in Parliament in 2011, they were able to pass a new electoral law that significantly decreased the number of parliament members, and completely redrew electoral districts in Hungary, allowing for partisan gerrymandering to occur. The new boundaries were drawn by the party in power and not an independent body and led to a large increase in the disparity between the power of urban and rural voters. This biased drawing significantly puts Fidesz at a political advantage, as many of their supporters are rural, and with only a plurality needed for a party to secure a seat, they continue to dominate the political scene of Hungary.
Not only has Orban participated in court packing and government consolidation of the media, but also has begun to make direct attacks at the rights of citizens. Orbán claims to have taken inspiration from Russian policy in 2012, implementing a restriction on any organization receiving foreign funding, essentially painting them as a danger and enemy to the state. Following along with the nationalist trend, the Fidesz-dominated government proceeded to pass another law in 2018 imposing an extra 25% tax on financial support for “immigration supporting” organizations. An even more serious law was passed in 2018 that restricted NGOs who used government disfavored speech. Although the punishments are not currently severe, the threat of legal charges and imprisonment are becoming greater. Civil society will struggle to thrive in such a restrictive environment unless action is taken to prevent further measures from occurring.
Although the future for Hungary’s democracy may appear to be very dark, there is still a slight hope that the country may return to a more liberal democratic system in the near future. Six different minority parties have formally agreed to support a single candidate to serve as a united opposition against Fidesz and Orbán in the upcoming 2022 parliamentary elections. Though these parties are very ideologically different, they are all dedicated to removing corruption from Hungarian government, restoring the media to freedom, and fixing the Constiution and electoral laws that have been recently changed. Another recent sign of resistance to Fidesz is the victory of the opposition’s Gergely Karacsony in the race for the mayor of Budapest. Karacsony has openly spoken out against Orbán, and claims he is ready to take his supporters to a national level.