On April 3rd, 2022, Hungary held elections for the National Assembly and for the prime minister. The nation’s incumbent leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, declared victory1. Widely seen as a populist leader, Orban has made significant changes to the country’s democracy and his latest win is a worrisome indicator of the country’s democratic decline.
Over the years, Orban has made small but dangerous changes to democracy in Hungary. Hungary’s status for fair elections is more similar now to what it was during the time of the Soviet Union. Winning his fifth term in office, Orban has slowly cracked at Hungary’s democratic norms over the years. Firstly, a major reason for concern is his iron-fisted control over the media. Hungary owns about 90% of the media outlets in the country3. As explained by Levitsky and Ziblatt, in democracy, the media plays a key role in holding leaders accountable for their actions7. By controlling the media, he controls what information is disseminated and has prevented information that makes him look negative from being printed out.
Orban is a prime example of a dangerous demagogue. In “Dangerous Demagogues”, Mercieca explains how dangerous demagogues use weaponized communication tactics to gain power and further their own interests5. Part of this can be seen in Orban’s refusal to allow his political opponents airtime on television and his personal approval being needed before stories and television guests can be aired and shown. Additionally, Orban has distorted reality by controlling what information is released to the public. Focusing on his self-interests, he has prevented any stories about his connection to Russia’s Vladimir Putin from being printed1. With neighboring Ukraine fighting against Russia, he has worked to build a narrative that supports him, claiming that it is actually the opposition that is a danger to the wellbeing of the country. He has claimed that they are warmongers and described the choice between choosing between his party and the opposition as the difference between peace and potentially being pulled into the war. By doing so, Orban describes them as a threat to national security, denying the legitimacy of his opponents, a key indicator of democratic erosion, as stated by Levitsky and Ziblatt7.
Apuzzo and Novak examine how the media’s loss of objectivity and coercion into a propaganda machine for Orban has created an echochamber for people that prevents them from using critical thinking to observe and understand how their democracy is being destroyed1. Additionally, Orban has proven himself to be one step ahead of the game, and often creates reforms that are just barely legally acceptable, and in some cases, such as with the newly passed voting tourism laws, has claimed legality in a situation where there appears to be none.
Orban has shown himself to be a populist leader through his desire for an illiberal democracy. Mueller, in “What is Populism?” states that populist leaders erode democracy by weakening the rule of law and changing the electoral process6. Although Orban’s actions are illegal, he justifies them by claiming that he was elected through “free and fair” elections. Moreover, Orban has appealed to the emotions of the people to further his agenda. In the example given in Apuzzo and Novak’s article, Jozsefne Sanko was convinced to lie that 135 Ukrainians lived in her home, so that she could receive public assistance. For her, more important than following the law and protecting democracy was her ability to put food on the table. Orban’s party has recognized this detachment that the people feel towards the government and has capitalized on this to gain support. He has also advocated against LGBT ideology2, and has claimed himself to be a defender of Christianity4. As mentioned by Mueller, this is another example of an attempt by a populist leader at creating an “us vs. them” narrative.
Democracy relies on the objectivity and independence of the media and of the critical thinking and understanding of the people to recognize when it is being endangered. Prime Minister Orban, through his complete domination of the Hungarian media and through his constant propaganda efforts, has effectively dismantled the country’s democratic processes. As Apuzzo and Novak state, the election has been remade to his liking1. However, now not only the election, but the entire democratic structure has been changed to suit Orban’s preferences and ensure his complete, unchecked power. Without any accountability from the media and without any ability to protest or examine the actions of their leader Hungary runs the risk of losing its status as a democratic state.
References: Apuzzo, M., & Novak, B. (2022, March 31). In Hungary, Viktor Orban Remakes an Election to His Liking. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/31/world/europe/hungary-viktor-orban-election.html?searchResultPosition=1  Egan, L. (2022, April 3). Hungary’s hard-line leader declares victory in election as war rages in neighboring Ukraine. NBC News. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/war-ukraine-russia-hungary-viktor-orban-election-putin-rcna22721  Kakissis, J. (2019, May 8). Outlets Strive For Independence In Hungary, Where Most Media Back The Government. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2019/05/08/720015059/outlets-strive-for-independence-in-hungary-where-most-media-back-the-government  Martin, G., & Gallaher, C. (2020, October 27). Viktor Orbán’s use and misuse of religion serves as a warning to Western democracies. The Conversation. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://theconversation.com/viktor-orbans-use-and-misuse-of-religion-serves-as-a-warning-to-western-democracies-146277  Mercieca, J. R. (2019). Dangerous Demagogues and Weaponized Communication. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 264–279. Retrieved April 4, 2022, from https://doi.org/10.1080/02773945.2019.1610640.  Mueller, J.-W. (2016). What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.  Levitsky, S., & Ziblatt, D. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown Publishing.