Democratic backsliding refers to the decline or reversal of democratic principles and practices within a political system. This can be caused by the weakening of democratic institutions and the emergence of authoritarian practices. In recent years, democratic backsliding has been a major topic of debate in political science, particularly in discussions on the growing trend of autocratization around the world. One notable example of democratic backsliding is the case of Hungary. After the collapse of communism, Hungary established closer ties with the West, becoming a member of the European Union and NATO. in recent years, however, there has been growing concern about the erosion of democratic principles and practices in Hungary, as the government has taken steps to consolidate power and undermine democratic institutions. Despite its membership in the EU and NATO, Hungary’s democratic trajectory has been called into question by these developments. Even if they were not a consolidated liberal democracy the erosion of democratic principles within an EU member is a concerning issue.
It appears that the current situation in Hungary is cause for concern regarding the state of democracy in the country. According to the V-Dem Institute’s Democracy Report 2022, Hungary has been classified as an electoral autocracy, a significant decline compared to its level in 2011. Additionally, Freedom House has classified Hungary as partly free, the first EU member to receive such a classification. This is not a new development, but rather part of a long-term trend of democratic erosion in Hungary under the leadership of Viktor Orban, turning it into an autocratic regime. Orban has been widely criticized for his advocacy of illiberal democracy —which he advocated as an Eastern alternative to Western model democracy —and his efforts to concentrate power in the hands of the government while undermining the independence of the media, opposition parties, and judiciary. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Orban was granted emergency powers, which have had lasting effects on the country’s regulatory environment. In light of these developments, Orban has consistently maintained a strong hold on power in Hungary, as evidenced by his overwhelming victory in the 2022 elections. These events suggest that Orban has successfully consolidated his power and is likely to continue ruling without proper oversight from the opposition and judiciary.
Viktor Orban has a long history in Hungarian politics, having served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002 and as the main opposition leader until his election in 2010. Since then, Hungary has become a prime example of democratic backsliding in Europe, with Orban and his party, Fidesz, implementing a range of measures that undermine democratic principles and violate EU law. These measures have not only affected politics, but have also targeted liberal democratic values in the judiciary, media, academia, and society as a whole. Orban has positioned himself as a defender of traditional Christian values, which he and his supporters believe are being threatened by the Western liberal democratic system, including the EU. As a result, the EU has launched infringement proceedings against Hungary and threatened budget cuts if the country continues on its authoritarian path. However, these efforts have had limited success, and Hungary has continued to pursue anti-democratic measures.
The media is an important aspect of any democratic system, as a free and independent press is essential for providing citizens with access to accurate and diverse information, as well as serving as a check on government. However, under the Orban government, Hungary has seen a significant decline in media freedom and independence. The Hungarian government has passed laws that gave it greater control over the media and has limited the ability of journalists to speak freely and criticize the government. This has made it harder for citizens to access accurate information, particularly information that is critical of the government. Additionally, the Orban government has built a network of business relationships with media owners and they even directly control several media outlets, which they used to spread misinformation about Orban’s political opponents and silence opposition candidates through media blackouts. During election campaigns, Orban has received disproportionate coverage in the media compared to his opponents, which has contributed to the consolidation of his power. These efforts to control and influence the media have also led to self-censorship among journalists, who may be afraid of facing repercussions for their work even when they are not directly attacked by the government.
Orban has also taken steps to tighten its political grip on the judiciary, particularly the constitutional court. It has appointed judges who are favourable to its conservative and anti-democratic policies and has passed laws that enable it to stack the court with new judges to change the balance of power in its favour. This is similar to the actions taken by the Trump administration in the United States, which also sought to change the political balance of the court and it shows a worrying trend in countries experiencing democratic backsliding. These efforts to control the judiciary have reduced the oversight that the judiciary has over the government and have enabled the government to pass laws that may be regarded as unconstitutional. They are also part of a wider trend of restricting the liberties and freedoms of civil society in Hungary. By controlling the media and the judiciary, the government can shape public discourse and limit the ability of people to participate in discussions or to be exposed to diverse viewpoints. When the judiciary is not able to stop these reforms it further undermines the principles of democracy and the rule of law.
The changes to the media and judiciary have been significant in shaping the current political landscape in Hungary and are part of a broader trend of democratic erosion in the country. Orban and his party, Fidesz, have been working to establish an illiberal democracy in Hungary, implementing a range of measures that undermine democratic principles and practices for many years. These measures include changes to electoral laws to give the ruling party an even stronger hold on the parliament even when they do not have enough votes, restrictions on political media to decrease criticism of the government, restrictions on political activities by NGOs, and the subordination of the judiciary to pass anti-democratic laws. These developments have raised serious concerns about the state of democracy in Hungary. In 2022, the European Parliament voted to declare Hungary no longer a democracy and described the country as a hybrid regime of electoral autocracy. While Hungary’s membership in the EU and its access to EU funding may prevent Orban from becoming a fully authoritarian leader, the current political climate in the country is highly concerning and raises serious questions about the future of democracy in Hungary.