Early April saw populist leader Viktor Orban claim victory in the Hungarian election, with his right-wing party Fidesz winning a two-thirds majority in parliament. The defeat of the United for Hungary opposition party, led by Peter Marki-Zay, marks Orban’s fourth consecutive term as prime minister. This victory plays out against the stark backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine War, as well as a general trend of rising nationalism in Europe. Orban engaged with these issues in his victory speech, where he villainized Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has criticized Orban for his unwillingness to help Ukraine protect itself against Russia. He also took shots at international bureaucrats and media outlets. Despite the onslaught of nationalist fervor in Europe, these events did not emerge spontaneously. The victory of Orban and Fidesz represents the culmination of anti-democratic election and media practices in Hungary and predicts a bleak future for European democracy.
In order to understand the current state of Hungarian politics, one must look towards the origins of Fidesz and the rise of Orban. Though this is his fourth consecutive term, this victory actually marks his fifth time as prime minister. During his first term, in 1998, he governed a nation healing from authoritarianism with fairly conventional conservative goals and practices. This work ended in 2002, when Fidesz lost to a rival Socialist party. This loss angered party leaders and spurred dramatic change in the party’s platform and attitude. Another loss in 2006 only furthered this anger. Finally, in 2010, Fidesz and Orban were able to secure power with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which granted them the power to alter the constitution as desired.
This power allowed them to make a series of rapid changes that altered the fabric of Hungarian politics. First, they cut down the size of Parliament from its original 386 members to 199, though this was not considered controversial at the time. Most thought the larger Parliament led to slower, more ineffective decision-making, which was unhelpful to a burgeoning democracy. Then, they began to redistrict, which allowed Fidesz to break up districts that opposition parties carried and blend them into right-wing strongholds. In order to expand their voting base, Fidesz introduced dual Hungarian citizenship, meaning that ethnic Hungarians, overwhelmingly Fidesz supporters, were allowed to vote in their elections. Finally, they altered the electoral system itself to favor Fidesz and its policies. From 1990 to 2010, Hungary operated on a two-round run-off system, where candidates had to achieve 50% or more of the vote in order to win outright. If that did not occur, they were sent into a second round, which allowed a winner to emerge. This type of system fostered coalition building, as each party needed one another to succeed in the second round. However, Fidesz changed this to a first-past-the-post system that benefited their own party, since they no longer had to incorporate other parties to win.
Apart from the previous changes to the electoral system that benefitted Fidesz, Orban’s strong grip on the media throughout the months prior to the 2022 elections allowed him further reach than the opposition party. Broadcasted on the state television channel M1, Orban delivered a thirty-minute speech that was presented nine times over the course of twenty-four hours. His opposition, Marki-Zay of the United for Hungary party, only received five minutes of airtime.
Much like the slow erosion of the electoral system, Hungary’s media has also seen intense, illiberal changes since Fidesz came into power in 2010. The government has taken over media regulators, resulting in state-controlled media outlets crowding out their independent counterparts. Freedom House reported that many of these pro-government media outlets have targeted individual opposition candidates in smear campaigns. This has long been ignored by the European Union (EU), who took ten years to speak up about the lack of media freedoms in Hungary and across the EU.
In the 2022 election, many of these state-controlled media outlets have parroted the beliefs of Orban, especially when it comes to the Russia-Ukraine war. They follow Orban’s lead in criticizing Ukrainian president Zelenskiy, thus offering him a second platform to access voters. This intertwining of government and campaign communications offers Orban and Fidesz a significant advantage over his opponent.
The Fidesz party has been able to knock Hungary democracy down several pegs, despite hosting legitimate, democratic elections. This process has been ongoing since 2010, demonstrating how easily countries can slip back towards authoritarianism, despite significant democratic achievements. The process of democratically elected governments eroding democracy constitutes one of the most prevalent forms of democratic erosion, as described by Milan Svolik in his 2019 study.
Citizens of these countries are often faced with the decision between a candidate that they align with and a candidate that aligns with democracy. In this case, Hungarians voted in droves to support Fidesz and Orban, who, in turn, have used that election to maintain their grasp on power. Because of gerrymandering and intentional control of the media, they have been able to further a cycle of broad support for themselves and create little opportunity for competition.
This grip can only get stronger, and it comes at a time when Europe finds itself in crisis. The backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war and the subsequent refusal of Orban to get involved represents the intertwining of illiberalism that will take deliberate, sustainable actions to roll back. The steps taken in Hungary will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover from and could further damage European democracy.