When Russia launched its barbaric invasion on Ukraine, many expected a silver lining to emerge in which the Russian aggressor would become a catalyst for European states to reevaluate their democratic standing and commitment to EU values. They hoped it would expose and delegitimize the illiberal, populist forces that have been surging for years and end right-wing nationalism once and for all. Such wishful thinking heavily contrasts with the bleak realization that right-wing populism in Europe has infected more political structures than expected and admittedly, continues to thrive in any backsliding countries. The Moscow-friendly Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been called out by the Ukrainian president for his lack of support in regard to his neighbor. However, what many state and non-state actors fail to admit is that Hungary has been distancing itself from democratic ideals for quite some time. Orbán’s charismatic appeal to populism and the democratic corruption of his party combined with EU inaction has exacerbated the backslide so that Hungary is now an “electoral democracy”. How did it get so far and what were the signs of the way?
“The entire world can see that our brand of Christian democratic, conservative, patriotic politics has won,” – Orbán’s words when he won his fourth consecutive term as prime minister. With two-thirds supermajority, Fidesz, the ruling party, has reformed Hungarian politics and state structure during its 12 years of reign. 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. The polls indicate nothing other than the bitter reality of ubiquitous corruption that contaminates and debilitates just about every sector of life. The opposition bloc led by Péter Márki-Zay concedes defeat while complaining about Hungaria’s lack of fair elections and media corruption. In fact, Orbán’s party has been tightening its claims to power through biased media ownership in which he enjoyed 10x as many advertising billboards compared to opposition parties. Márki-Zay, a 49-year-old economist, mentioned with distaste that he was given only five minutes of airtime on public TV to state his case. The media outlets act to the advantage of Fidesz and its leaders by coaxing average Hungarians into outlandish and absurd propaganda such as justifying that arms should not be sent to Ukraine to avoid them falling into the arms of french terrorists. Despite such statements that offend any educated voter, about half of Hungarians will vote for Fidesz again. Why? Because Fidesz has benefited from using its political power to manipulate Hungary’s legal and media landscapes. The squashing of independent media and unfair, corrupt electoral practices are the kind of notions that have led the Freedom House to rate Hungary as the only “partly free” European Union member country. More importantly, the free press encourages political dialogue, facilitates plurality (by serving as an extension to public space and civil society), and allows for the accountability of politicians. Conversely, the lack thereof can be used as a state instrument to silence the opposition and catalyze dictatorial rule.
Years of inadequate retaliatory measures from the EU have allowed these antidemocratic forces to flourish. Facta non-Verba, years of democratic backsliding in eastern European countries have created crevices between the fronts, severing trust and synergy to and from the EU. Since the EU’s rupture with the U.K., the EU recognized that its biggest contestants are arguably inside the bloc. In 2020, the EU adopted a new “rule-of-law” policy that threatened to cut funding to member states should if the EU’s financial interests were jeopardized. As a result, the EU has delayed 7.2 billion euros in Covid-19 aid funds and may withhold another 32 billion more if the rule-of-law disputes persist. Unfortunately, years of EU inaction have significantly reduced responsiveness as it has given Orbán the necessary time to convince a lot of people that only Fidesz protects the Hungarian people and “will do what it takes to shield them from external evils in a turbulent world”. Fidesz’s persistent and identity-driven rhetoric has over the years appealed to a nationalistic worldview in which a great Hungary beyond its current border is deeply manifested in voters’ minds. Within this rhetoric, the EU has been framed as an external threat, aiming to interfere in Hungar’s national affairs. Alongside powerful anti-immigration rhetorics, Orbán is showing reluctance to implement EU sanction packages. In Orbán’s predictions, sanction packages will become too costly over time, accumulating a growing resistance that will advocate for coexistence with Russia – in which he plans to be first in line.
Further, Orbán has gradually manipulated the electorate as well as the executive government to shift toward an entirely male polity. According to the world economic forum, there has not been a female head of state in Hungary nor have women not held a percentage of parliamentary seats appropriate to their population size. The UN Women’s Council reports on an undeniable correlation between democratic backsliding and infringements on gender equality, effectively promoting a lasting image of heteronormative and patriarchal family models. As outlined by Lipset and Martin in Some Social Requisites of Democracy, parties of representation are essential in sustaining democracy alongside the structural characteristics of legitimacy and effectiveness that define it. More specifically systematic segregation of different strata of the population exasperated Weltanschauung effects, namely political views that do not include the concept of tolerance. Without room for consensus, democracy in Hungary is expected to erode further at unprecedented depths.
You set forth a clear and detailed explanation of the muti-faceted attack by Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the Fidesz party on Hungary’s democracy. As you note, Orban’s populistic and nationalistic leadership coupled with the inaction of the EU has led to significant erosion of fundamental democratic institutions. Fidesz has used its monopoly on the media to sow harmful government propaganda and suppress any political plurality, the very essence of democracy. Orban has indeed fostered an environment of intolerance, from his harsh immigration rhetoric to stifling any form of opposition. You raise an important point, the exclusion of women from holding any high position of power along with their underrepresentation in parliament under Fidesz. One should note that while women are being excluded from the political arena, Orban and his “Family Protection Action Plan” is using women as a means to promote his extreme anti-democratic and nationalistic agenda. This plan includes increasingly significant financial incentives for women with each child they have. I would argue that this is highly undemocratic and even authoritarian, as both xenophobia and racism served as Orban’s motivation, with his goal being to create more ethnically “pure” Hungarians to counter the effects of immigration. It is true that the future for Hungary is quite uncertain, as Orban’s assault on democracy is relentless.