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.
Hey Darcy! In reading your post, I found it interesting to see how quickly a democracy can change under a particular leader. Much of the democratic erosion in Hungary has been because of Viktor Orbán and his policies. However, what stood out to me the most was the fact that Orbán doesn’t try to hide the erosion that is happening in Hungary and openly classifies the country as an ‘illiberal democracy’. Perhaps his populism and the support that he receives from it is enough to mask the fear that may typically stem from it. However, his populist sentiments are so strong that they allow some members of society to become fine with the eroding democracy, which is dangerous. Similar to Russia, Orbán’s use of nationalism bolsters the support of the country and fosters support. Although he scapegoats immigrants, his emphasis on nationalism is enough to make this appear necessary, which is troublesome. Nationalism and populism can be dangerous when it is powerful enough to make certain unjust actions excusable. Since many of Orbán’s supporters take pride in his commitment to economic growth and his unification of the nation, he gains legitimacy although many of his actions are undemocratic. However, this legitimacy combined with the excuse of nationalism is a major threat. Another topic that you discuss which I found interesting is their 2011 electoral law, which allowed for gerrymandering to occur. Although you mark it as an indicator of their erosion, the United States, one of the leading democracies in the world, also allows for such a practice. This is startling because I initially found little similarities between the two countries. Yet, this reveals America’s downfall as well, as gerrymandering is a very apparent unjust practice. After reading this post, I found many similarities between Russia and Hungary, but never expected to make connections to the United States as well.
Darcy, this was a fascinating post to read. I really liked how you opened the blog with a brief, yet thorough, review of Hungary’s communist past. Moroever, I feel that your explanation of the socio-economic effects following Hungary’s democratic transition was extremely helpful in identifying how populism may appear attractive to disillusioned citizens. Considering that many Hungarian citizens lost their jobs in the wake of painful political and economic reforms in recent decades, it makes sense that they would be vulnerable to Orban’s scapegoating of the elite. In this way, you did a great job tying in Dr. Mudde’s definition of populism which he argues is characterized by a noticeable division between the people (who are framed as pure and good) against the elite (who are depicted as corrupt and bad).
Furthermore, I liked that you went into detail describing how Orban has gradually stripped Hungary’s democratic institutions of their horizontal accountability. By undermining both the legislature and the judiciary through new electoral laws and court-packing, Orban has effectively taken control of all three branches of Hungary’s government. You note that while he pulls the marionette strings of judges and MPs, Orban also has solidified an iron grip on the Hungarian media which he has transformed into a propaganda machine.
Hi Darcy! I like how you chose such a salient issue in European politics. I had no idea Hungary was the first country in the EU to be classified as partly free, so this is definitely an issue that should have more visibility. I also really like how you closed with positive points. Oftentimes in politics, we become entrenched with all the negative things we see and not how we can improve or sustain our positive achievements. That being said, I am slightly concerned that the 6-party agreement to support a single candidate may become very chaotic. While their desire to fight corruption certainly has helped unite them, I worry that in the end 6 entirely different political platforms may be hard to reconcile. If this candidate was elected president they would likely face many challenges to pass legislation, as their constituents are so split, and support may return to Fidesz on the grounds of efficiency concerns.
I was interested in the fact that Fidesz has strengthened the national economy, despite its democratic failings, and would have liked to hear more about their methods and economical practices. It is possible that if the minority parties could agree on economic approaches enough to maintain the strong economy Fidesz created, the leader could garner similar levels of national support as strength of the economy is one of the largest precursors to presidential approval.
I also found it really interesting that several of the points you mentioned signaling democratic erosion in Hungary also occur or have very recently occurred in America. For example, you discussed the practice of gerrymandering, which is clearly still prevalent in America to this day. You also discussed laws discriminating against LGBTQ+ relationships which was recently a very contentious point during Obama’s presidency. Finally, the alienation and manipulation of poor, rural Christian votes by populist leaders in Hungary seems to have aided in Trump’s securing of the presidency in 2017. Do you think these similarities to Hungary spell out similar degrees of erosion in America’s future? Have we taken sufficient steps to prevent this?