Once described as the champion of the third wave of democratization in Europe, Hungary has become a pioneer of democratic backsliding. The concept of democratic backsliding refers to the incremental weakening of democratic institutions, procedures, and norms by the ruling party or government. In Hungary, democratic backsliding has been a prominent issue since the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban was elected in 2010. Hungarian experience is marked as one of the cases where the level of democratic backsliding is far unseen in the European Union (EU). As a response, European Parliament (EP) triggered Article 7(1) proceedings of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) which stress the Hungarian government’s responsibility as a member state to restoration of compliance with EU law and values. During COVID-19, Orban government passed a law that infringes fundamental rights and freedoms under the measure taken to prevent misinformation. According to Human Rights Watch, government misused the data collected during the pandemic to spread Fidesz’s campaign messages. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observers also concluded that the absence of an equal playground marred elections held in April 2022. European Parliament concluded that democratic conditions in Hungary have deteriorated to such a level that Hungary has become a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy.”
Democratic backsliding is a gradual process that occurs over a period of years or decades or as a result of immediate policies. According to Bermeo’s (2016) typology, promissory coups, executive aggrandizement, and strategic electoral manipulation are the contemporary challenges threatening modern democracies. The promissory coups are based on the ouster of democratically elected governments as a defense of democratic legality and to hold elections and restore democracy promptly (Bermeo, 2016, p. 8). Executive aggrandizement is gradually weakening checks on executive power through eroding democratic institutions that hinder opposition forces from challenging the executive (Ibid, p. 10). Lastly, strategic electoral manipulation constitutes the third form of backsliding that refers to a number of actions pursued to tilt the playing field in favor of the incumbent (Ibid. p, 13).
In Hungary, democratic backsliding has been a prominent concern since the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his party, Fidesz, came into power in 2010. Orban undermined democracy in Hungary through executive aggrandizement, weakening checks on executive power and hampering opposition forces to challenge the government through legitimate means and strategic electoral manipulation, which involves various actions favoring the electoral fortunes of the incumbent, through controlling media apparatus, decreasing competitiveness of the elections and politicization of the judiciary. Furthermore, there have been concerns about the government’s mistreatment of ethnic and religious minority groups and the erosion of academic freedom. Thus, Hungary’s democracy has seriously eroded, and country’s commitment to democratic norms and values has been questioned.
Under the leadership of Viktor Orban, the Hungarian experience of democratic backsliding is marked as a case far unseen in the EU. The EP responded to the democratic erosion of a member state, which is against fundamental values of the EU, by triggering Article 7 proceedings of the Treaty of the European Union (TEU) in September 2018 (Holesch and Kyriazi, 2022). Nevertheless, Orban government continued to undermine Hungarian democracy. In March 2020, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law that includes jail terms of up to five years for spreading false information about COVID-19 or government measures and granted Prime Minister Orban powers to rule by decree (Várnagy, 2022). According to the report prepared by Human Rights Watch (2022), Orban government misused personal data obtained during the pandemic to spread Fidesz’s campaign messages during national elections. Constituting an example of strategic electoral manipulation, the lines between government and ruling party blurred under the leadership of Orbán. OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) observers also concluded that the absence of an equal playground marred the 2022 Hungarian national elections campaign. Against the existence of a clear risk of a severe breach by the Hungarian government of the values on which the EU is founded, EP adopted a resolution that describes Hungary as a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” where regular elections occur but respect for democratic norms and values is absent (European Parliament, 2022). According to MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, Hungary experienced a “constitutional coup” under the leadership of Orban (Klingert, 2022).
Hungary’s national elections depicted what an “illiberal EU country looks like” (Mose, 2022). Despite Prime Minister Orban’s dismissal of the EP resolution as “a boring joke,” the existence of an undemocratic regime threatens the values on which the EU is built (Euronews, 2022). The EU has taken several steps to address the democratic backsliding in Hungary since 2013 through launching a monitoring process, holding dialogues with the Hungarian government, and a number of infringement proceedings for violating EU law against Orban government’s undermining of the independence of the judiciary, freedom of expression, and the rights of minorities and migrants. Despite these efforts, democratic erosion in Hungary remains a crucial source of concern for the EU and carries the risk of spilling out democratic backsliding to other member states.
Apelblat, Mose (2022, July 31). Final report on Hungary: This is how elections in an illiberal EU country look like. The Brussels Times. https://www.brusselstimes.com/eu-affairs/264762/final-report-this-is-how-elections-in-an-illiberal-eu-country-look-like (Access Date 2 January 2022).
Bermeo, N. (2016). On Democratic Backsliding. Journal of Democracy, 27(1), 5-19.
European Parliament (2022, September 15). MEPs: Hungary can no longer be considered a full democracy. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20220909IPR40137/meps-hungary-can-no-longer-be-considered-a-full-democracy (Access Date 2 January 2022).
Holesch, A., & Kyriazi, A. (2022). Democratic Backsliding in the European Union: The Role of the Hungarian-Polish Coalition. East European Politics, 38(1), 1-20.
Huber, D., & Pisciotta, B. (2022). From Democracy to Hybrid Regime. Democratic Backsliding and Populism in Hungary and Tunisia. Contemporary Politics, 1-22.
Human Rights Watch (2022, December 1). Hungary: Data Misused for Political Campaigns. https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/12/01/hungary-data-misused-political-campaigns (Access Date 2 January 2022).
Klingert, Liv (2022, September 15). MEPs to vote on defining Hungary ‘an electoral autocracy’. The Brussels Times. https://www.brusselstimes.com/289631/mep-to-vote-on-defining-hungary-an-electoral-autocracy (Access Date 2 January 2022).
Marsteintredet, L., & Malamud, A. (2020). Coup with adjectives: Conceptual stretching or innovation in comparative research?. Political Studies, 68(4), 1014-1035.
Várnagy, R. (2022). Hungary: Political Developments and Data in 2021. European Journal of Political Research Political Data Yearbook, 61(1), 206-213.
Hungary has always been a fascinating country to me. It is a country with not only a rich and complicated history but an even more complicated political history. In my opinion, you touched on this perfectly in two ways. The first being the obvious, when looking at Hungary’s history we can chronologically mark every point that a significant event happened that aided in where the country is now, however, I adore that you included the why those moments are significant. Your explanation of the EU’s involvement and how it and its resources have been used helped me understand on a deeper level the drivers at play here. The second way that I think you have perfectly showed the complexity of the country and its politics was in one sentence in particular, “The EU has taken several steps to address the democratic backsliding in Hungary since 2013 through launching a monitoring process, holding dialogues with the Hungarian government, and a number of infringement proceedings for violating EU law…” the key phrase being “to address”. The EU has addressed these concerns through reactive measures, showing how delicate this entire situation is. I am curious to know your thoughts on if you think the EU could taken steps (whether currently, or in the past) to more actively prevent the backsliding in Hungary? Or do you think the approach that is being taken is the best way to “prevent/restore” that democratic institution the EU wants?
S. Sena Turkdogan
Regarding the EU’s approach towards Hungary, it is crucial to recognize that the EU has limited powers when it comes to interfering with the domestic affairs of its member states. The effectiveness of the measures taken by the EU in response to the democratic backsliding in Hungary is debatable. Some argue that the measures taken have not been sufficient to prevent democratic backsliding in Hungary. Others argue that the steps taken against the democratic backsliding in Hungary are the only available tools for the EU to utilize. In my opinion, the EU’s approach to preventing democratic backsliding in Hungary depends on the political will of its member states and the tools which are currently effective. To take more proactive steps, the EU would need to change its institutional framework, which would be difficult to achieve given the EU’s complex decision-making process and the diverse interests of its member states.