With the end of the Cold War and fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, the political systems of eastern Europe began to undergo massive change. As countries transitioned away from the communist regimes of the past, many nations opted to lay foundations for democracy. Hungary was one of those countries and embodied a young, stable democracy for three decades. However, in the time since 2010, Hungary’s democratic state has weakened substantially. A prime factor in the Hungarian democracy’s backsliding is the actions of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his right-wing party, Fidesz. Orbán and Fidesz represent autocratic leadership with stark nationalist attitudes, and a demonstrated dedication to anti-immigration policies. Alongside that, the two entities have dismantled core democratic institutions and have produced unfree and unfair elections. The tactics deployed by Orbán and Fidesz are exceedingly worrisome, not only for Hungarian freedom but for the dangerous example they set for the other young democracies of the world.
Orbán’s lack of political forbearance in the abuse of Hungary’s constitution has greatly contributed to Hungarian democracy’s decline. Forbearance is commonly recognized as self-restraint in the exercise of power. Orbán has rewritten several components of the constitution in recent years, allowing him to secure more power for himself and his party. Upon the widespread firing of civil servants, Orbán installed members of his own party to aid in blurring the lines between state government and Fidesz. Another corrosive action has been the expansion of Hungary’s constitutional courts, the body responsible for overseeing the fairness/constitutionality of parliamentary acts. Orbán packed the courts with Fidesz loyalists who then neglected to call out his authoritarian ways. He also gerrymandered parliamentary districts to break up the anti-Fidesz vote amongst the electorate. None of Orbán’s constitutional actions are illegal, but they all are extremely corrosive to democracy. A central component of a strong democracy is a respect for democracy itself. Forbearance is a respect for democracy, and Orbán’s lack of forbearance has proven detrimental to Hungary’s democratic future.
Another one of the major ways in which Orbán has eroded Hungarian democracy is his asault on the free media. A free media plays a pivotal role in any strong, healthy democracy, because it equips the electorate with the information needed to make an informed, fair-sided choice. Hungary’s free media has crumbled as Orbán has launched attacks on the institution. Opposition voices have been nearly silenced as Fidesz overwhelms Hungarian citizens with Fidesz’s own message and propaganda. Since 2017, Fidesz or Fidesz allies have owned over 90% of Hungarian media. When a democracy experiences a blurring of lines between one party and the state itself, it becomes increasingly hard to distinguish between the two entities and their respective power. Orbán and Fidesz have too strong a grip on the media for an informed electorate to be present. This situation erodes democracy as the opposition fails to expand its supporters through open, publicized information. Unfortunately, this same media situation has been exhibited in other countries that have fallen to authoritarian rule, such as Venezuela. Similar to Orbán, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela was democratically elected and subsequently infiltrated and attacked the free media, contributing to his authoritarian takeover of the South American country.
Orbán and Fidesz have also employed tactics to manipulate their opposition. In recent years, Fidesz has created several fake political parties that do not pursue electoral victory, but strive only to break-up the anti-Fidesz vote. This move by Fidesz to fragment the electorate depicts the party’s continued lack of political forbearance. However, the creation of up to fourteen fake political parties may not hold the same legality as Orbán’s other anti-democratic tactics. Fidesz is currently being investigated for electoral fraud, but the investigation is unlikely to yield any consequences for the autocrat due to his previous packing of the courts. This failure of the system is representative of the worsening democratic situation in Hungary, with once constitutional checks on power now useless in a time of critical need.
The passage of a “voter tourism” law that now allows Hungarians to register to vote in any parliamentary district of their choosing has furthered Orbán’s assault on democracy. This law significantly stiffles Orbán opposition as Fidesz supporters strategically shift their votes into electorally closer districts in an attempt to ensure a Fidesz loyalist victory. In a healthy democracy, one possessive of free and fair elections, no such policy would take shape. The rules of the game would not be altered to benefit the current holders of political power and an opposition as large as the one present in Hungary would not experience such a lack of parliamentary seats. Prior to Orbán’s rise to power, this law would appear unconscionable, but when an autocrat with no respect for democratic values or forbearance is in office, it comes as no surprise that the opposition faces an increasingly difficult battle for power.
Hungary just held elections in April of 2022 and Orbán and Fidesz unsurprisingly remained in power. As explained, Hungary’s democracy is currently in shambles and the democratic future does not appear bright. In the grand scheme of Hungary’s history, the almost complete erosion of democracy has materialized in an exceptionally short period of time. As the freedom of the Hungarian people continues to deteriorate, an even more alarming threat looms over the international community–the threat of Viktor Orbán and Fidesz’s playbook being exported and implemented in other democratic states. As the world watches the ongoing situation in Hungary, it is important to recognize his autocratic tactics as full-on assaults on democracy and work to prevent similar democratic backsliding from happening elsewhere.
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