In 2019, Hungary became the first country in the EU to lose its rating as a full-fledged democracy at the Freedom House. Ubiquitous corruption has diminished all sectors of society.
Three specific features of populist governance that can be seen in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s regime is the attempt to hijack the state apparatus, corruption and “mass clientalism” and efforts to systematically suppress the civil society (Muller 2016). Orban can always be seen playing to the “national” people of Hungary and has utilized many tactics to make this tactic more effective.
Viktor Orban is the front man of Hungary’s ruling national populist party Fidesz. His recent election victory would make this ongoing term his fourth consecutive as Prime Minister. Along with the executive vote, Fidesz had increased its parliamentary majority to 135 out of the 199-member parliament even against the six-party opposition block, United for Hungary, that formed with the ultimate objective of unseating Orban. Orban and the ruling political party, Fidesz, worries the keepers of democracy on the world-stage. He has formed alliances and friendships with the world’s authoritarian leaders, most notably, Russia and China. Orban’s charismatic appeal to populism combined with democratic corruption of his party and Hungarian inclination towards conservatism has caused an avalanche-like backslide of democratic institutions in Hungary.
A common question raised is how exactly is it possible for Viktor Orban and his party to win consecutive elections whilst every other Central European country rotates leadership posts. The political party of Fidesz has a hold on Hungarians who hold a pronounced worldview that strikes a balance between revisionism and realpolitik. The ideals of the European Union and international collaboration are not valued in the culture and minds of Hungarians. Orban is a strong and charismatic speaker who speaks with a tone that treasures a mythological past greatness, which promises future happiness just by virtue of being Hungarian.
Orban’s nationalist ideology is a uniquely paternalistic agenda that professes to look out for the interests of Hungarians. This contrasts with liberals, greens, Christian democrats, and socialists, who, according to Orban, ultimately answer to the EU, international financial institutions, and other foreign influences. Upon his recent election victory he stated, “This victory is one to remember, maybe even for the rest of our lives, because we had the biggest [range of opponents to] overpower. The left at home, the international left, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the money of the Soros empire, the international media and even the Ukrainian president in the end.” This message conveys a strong stance against the democratic principles of the EU and other international institutions. Orban’s disgust is related to how these institutions interfere with Hungary’s sovereignty.
Orban has intruded on several key institutions essential to democracy, steering the direction of culture and education by appointing allies to oversee the actions of universities. Furthermore, he has used the media to hammer home messages of his own party and drown out the voices of his opposition. He is infamous for railing against perceived enemies which include minority groups, immigrants, foreign corporate interests, and the European Union. Regarding the war in Ukraine, he has refused to allow the supply of weapons or permit military aid to pass through Hungarian territory. This has angered NATO allies and sent the message that Viktor Orban is Putin’s sole European supporter. (Zakaria 2022).
Viktor Orban’s utilization of government and playstyle of politics has been labeled as undemocratic. He has overhauled formerly independent institutions by appointing loyalists. These of which include the courts, authority in the media, and the chief prosecutor’s office. Specifically, in the media, the government regurgitates the Fidesz party line while bashing the opposition at every chance. Fidesz portrays Viktor Orban as a peacekeeper and a lifeline for security. Oppositional speakers are given a comparatively significant reduced amount of airtime. Marki-Zay, a Hungarian economist, was only granted five minutes on public TV to set forth a claim. Orban maintains strong ties with business personnel, those of which rely on state contracts for their wealth accumulation. With this development, advertising money is channeled to pro-government outlets.
During the past dozen years, Fidesz had retained a supermajority in its legislature, allowing the populist party to reshape Hungarian politics and social policy. The supermajority consistency has opened the lanes for the party to rewrite the constitution and pass a raft of other laws. His reshaping of election law to favor Fidesz against its opposition can be seen in how a supermajority of seats went towards Fidesz despite winning only about half the votes. Fidesz has been accused of executing methods of gerrymandering, affecting the country’s electoral map, and strengthening the hold of the party in the legislature.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism (Links to an external site.)? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Zakaria, Fareed. “Right Wing Populists are Thriving (Links to an external site.).” Washington Post