In 1989 the Soviet Union was reaching the end of its life; the Iron Curtain had corroded, and independence movements were sprouting up in both the Soviet Republics and its many satellite states. In, Hungary, one of the many satellite states, a massive crowd has formed in Budapest’s Heroes Square. That day a Hungarian Prime minister (Imre Nagy) who resisted Soviet occupation in the 1956 revolution is being reburied. Suddenly, a young man takes the stage he is a founding member of Hungary’s thus far only liberal party. Despite his political inexperience, this man delivers a powerful speech calling for free elections and a withdrawal of the Soviet army. His political career is made overnight, and he is elected to Parliament the following year. The name of this up-and-coming young liberal rallying against Soviet autocracy is Viktor Orban, and his party is Fidesz. Yet the only similarities between the Orban of today and the Orban of 1990 are that they both just won an election and enjoy massive support. Far from the liberal of yesterday, Orban has assumed the position of an autocrat, he has and will (especially after his recent victory) continue to erode Hungary’s democracy.
So, what has Orban done in the past to break down Hungary’s democracy? Bálint Magyar, the former Hungarian minister for education remarked that there were 5 obstacles to autocracy. His model of Hungarian constitutional erosion will be the one used here as he was an insider in the Hungarian Government and saw its breakdown firsthand. These obstacles were organizational restraint, rationality, institutionalized forced consensus, and judicial review by constitutional courts. Orban was able to overcome all five in his first government from 1998 to 2002 and through his second from 2010 to 2014.
The first obstacle Magyar lists was organizational restraint. This was in reference to the weak social connections that plagued Fidesz in the 90s and early 200s. The only ally that Fidesz had for a while was the catholic church who indeed proved useful in helping the party win elections. Then after the end of Orban’s first government, Fidesz shifted to less orthodox forms of social connections. While other parties enjoyed support from local organizations such as trade unions Fidesz went directly to people to collect signatures and support for petitions, plebiscites, and protests. While this was an act of direct democracy it was not how parties typically gathered support in the Hungarian liberal democracy. This allowed them to overcome organizational restraint. The second obstacle was self-restraint, which simply means adherence to unspoken rules of conduct which Magyar notes they completely disregard.
The third obstacle Orban and Fidesz faced was rationality. This refers to rationality in ideology that Fidesz abandoned in exchange for populist slogans and an argument centered around scapegoating. This is not to say that Orban’s arguments were entirely irrational, the rationality here refers to his ideological inconsistencies. Fidesz also made inconsistent ostracism a tool central to their party. In 2002, to the first appeal to right-leaning Hungarians, they attacked the governing party and leftists as enemies of the people. Later, to garner support from left-leaning Hungarians they attacked international finance institutions and Western elites in the EU as enemies of the nation. Orban has also made attacks on liberals (despite starting as a liberal himself) and on European political elites (despite being a European political elite) who he believes do not represent the desires of the people.
Magyar’s fourth obstacle is institutionalized forced consensus. This is a rule that there must be a two-thirds majority in the legislature for several decisions including civil service appointments. Fidesz had a strategy in which it would support a candidate in exchange for their loyalty to the party. Then in the legislature, other parties, after years of debate would eventually concede to Fidesz due to their relentlessness. Fidesz then has the loyalty of several officials who will actively assist party members. This is especially true in corruption trials.
Orban and Fidesz have corrupted nearly all parts of Hungary’s government, however, one of the most crucial was Orban’s corruption of Judicial Review by Constitutional courts. While this may sound similar to Orban’s surmounting of institutionalized forced consensus, it deserves to be labeled as a separate obstacle. This was a much more severe blow to democracy as judicial review is a process that exists to protect the liberal democracy. This was the fifth obstacle to autocracy identified by Magyar that Orban was able to surmount. Orban had hoped to implement policies that would ensure Fidesz would remain in power uncontested for years to come. The Hungarian Constitutional Court, however, was able to block many of these policy proposals. In his second government (2010-2014), Orban immediately began to target the courts. He passed a law that would allow the governing party, Fidesz, to make appointments to the court without having to consult the opposition party. Then in 2011 he increased the size of the court from 11 to 15 judges and packed it with party loyalists. Orban then took his corruption further and amended the constitution to override the court’s power and pass several previously ruled unconstitutional laws.
On April third, 2022, Victor Orban was elected once again as prime minister and Fidesz won a majority of seats in the Parliament. Orban’s project of making a self-proclaimed illiberal Christian democracy is bound to continue, but is this the end of Hungarian democracy, or is there a way to reverse the backsliding? Freedom house labels Hungary as a ‘Transitional or Hybrid Regime.’ While one can initially take this data as a sign of Hungary moving further and further away from liberal democracy. Furthermore, in the past, there have been hybrid regimes that have democratized. Mexico, Senegal, and Taiwan were all hybrid regimes that had transitioned into democracies in the ‘90s.
Another key factor that may suggest a possible future democratic reawakening in Hungary is that protest, and civil society still very much exist. An example that proves this is the widespread protests in October of 2014. They began as a protest against a proposed internet tax but later expanded into a protest against the Orban government. What is interesting to note is that the majority of protesters rejected the Orban government but did not reject the Hungarian political system altogether.
One might argue that even so, a protest is nothing special as it ultimately did not lead to the end of the Orban government and that it is only natural for the opposition to protest a Fidesz government. But this protest was not organized by an opposition party and when given an opportunity to, the organizers of this protest rejected cooperating with any political party. This was an independent event, and it shows that non-party aligned Hungarians still have problems with Orban. While the protests did not lead to a change in the government it does show hope for the future in that the demographic generally protesting was young and educated, and for most, it was their first-time protesting. Because it was their first time, this means that for future protests, there may be a higher level of organization, and by extension a higher level of success.
Democracy in Hungary is not entirely gone yet, clearly, there are signs of anti-Orban civil society, and other hybrid regimes were able to democratize in the past. However, with most obstacles to autocracy removed, and a fourth election won by Orban, democracy is suffering. All in all, Hungary is a state of democratic backsliding, and Fidesz grows only more powerful. But, just as Orban and his then-new Fidesz party successfully took a stand against autocracy in 1989. It is very possible for Hungarians to take a stand once more in the 21st century.
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Hi Matthew, thanks for sharing your post! I didn’t know a lot about Hungary’s political system before reading this, and I found it really enlightening. One point that really stood out to me was what you emphasized about protestors who “rejected the Orban government but did not reject the Hungarian political system altogether.” This seems like a really positive detail for the future of democracy in Hungary. In so many countries around the world, even countries we might classify as solid democracies, people have limited faith in their democratic institutions and declining faith in democracy itself. Without people viewing these institutions as legitimate and important, there really isn’t a foundation for democracy to grow upon. So, Hungarians having some faith in the Hungarian political system is promising, and it means that if there were a large enough protest to encourage Orban to step down, the institutions that still exist might be strong enough to support a new, more democratic leader to usher in a new era of increased democracy. I think something else that seems essential is the detail you include that it was the first time that many of the participants had protested – this also shows that there is a spreading inclination among the Hungarian people that political action is necessary, something that could really shake Orban’s government in the future if continued. What kind of protest do you think would be the most effective in Hungary?