Since the founding of the European Union in 1993, the institution’s focus has centered around the principles of a full, representative democracy. Member states of the EU are required to maintain a democratic rule of law, human rights, and the respect and protection of minorities. Hungary was accepted into the EU in 2004 and, at the time, met these qualifications. Since then, the Hungarian government has undergone a transition from a full democracy to a hybrid democratic-autocratic regime, and has failed to uphold the necessary EU membership requirements. In mid-September, the EU officially declared that Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy, and is instead an electoral autocracy. The Hungarian government has backslid from a democracy to a democratic-autocracy because of the development of a corrupt, malapportioned electoral system.
The EU Parliament made this decision regarding Hungary’s government classification because although elections are still held in Hungary, representative democratic values have been completely undermined in these elections. A major concern of the EU parliament is the breakdown of the electoral system in Hungary, which has caused the gradual transformation of the Hungarian government from a democracy into a hybrid democratic-autocracy. The corruption of the electoral system can be pointed to as the root cause of this. In 2004, when Hungary was accepted into the EU, there was no reliable evidence of a corrupt electoral system. Hungary’s integration into the EU indicated a promising future and a promise to democracy. Hungary was even the second member state to ratify the EU Constitution Treaty, which guarantees a commitment to democracy. In 2002 the Free Democrats party allied with the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) to reinforce a strong pro-EU ideology because being a part of the EU would mean the guarantee of a stable democratic government. These parties then won a combined 198 out of 386 seats in the 2002 parliament elections. There was a strong pro-EU and pro-democracy sentiment among constituents after the impact left behind by communism on the Hungarian people. These factors all indicated a strong commitment to democratic values. After the 2010 elections the ruling party transitioned from the MSZP to the Fidesz party. Then, evidence of the deliberate corruption of the electoral system began, and so did Hungary’s transition from a democracy to a democratic-autocracy.
Hungary entered the European Union as a representative democratic state, but that has since changed drastically due to electoral clientelism and malapportionment. Viktor Orbán is the current prime minister of Hungary and has been since 2010. Orbán and the Fidesz party have since established workfare programs contingent on political support. Many Hungarian voters who live in suburban-rural areas rely on these programs as their source of income, but then they lose political autonomy to the local mayors who dictate the wages of the programs. This coercive strategy has allowed for the continuation of Orbán’s reign as prime minister in the 2014 and 2018 elections where his party, Fidesz, controls the local mayors that implement the program. This is blatant evidence of manipulative election tactics that stray from the democratic principle of a free, fair election.
After Orbán’s election in 2010, an electoral reform policy was implemented that set a new geographical framework and redrew the boundaries of constituencies for future elections. The new geographic boundaries were found to make “left-wing” areas larger than “right-wing” areas in the 2014 election. In the larger districts more votes were necessary to win the mandate and made each vote count less, this favored Orbán and the “right-wing” Fidesz party in the election. The members of the parliament were reduced from 386 to 199 through this electoral reform policy as well. The 2014 voting data shows that the urban-rural regions weight increased dramatically compared to previous elections. This correlates with the populations coerced into workfare programs in exchange for political support as previously mentioned. In the 2014 election the Fidesz-KDNP party decreased by 8.2% in voters, but only dropped by 1.3% in parliament seats. In order to ensure a weakened opposition in the 2018 election, there is evidence of the proliferation of “sham” political parties. These “sham” parties fracture and dilute the opposition of the ruling party making it difficult for any compromise and collective action against the Fidesz party possible. Political scientist, Nancy Bermeo’s, theories of modern democratic backsliding correlate with the gradual undermining of opposing parties and the empowerment of Orbán and the Fidesz party through malapportioned electoral systems. The gradual implementation of these coercive, corrupt election practices are the cause of Hungary’s democratic backsliding into an electoral-autocracy. The EU’s inaction over the past decade has only allowed this transition to progress, and at this point in time any further action the EU decides to take should be focused on protecting the Hungarian people’s civil liberties and human rights.