Hungary was seen as the success story of democratization among post-communist countries. When Orbán won the majority in 2010, democratic backsliding indicators came out of the box. Therefore, one of the most successful stories of democratization turned into a fear of de-democratization. Since then, democratic institutions have weakened gradually, media and individual freedoms are constrained, and the winner shapes the electoral system on his behalf. Orbán won four consecutive elections, but the last one was unexpected and frustrating for the opposition.
“We knew beforehand that this was going to be an imbalanced fight. Yes, they’ve cheated too. But we’ve also said that since there is no democracy in Hungary and they’ve changed the whole system, the districts,” says Márki-Zay, the head of the opposition.
Why the 2022 elections were so significant for Hungary, and why is the opposition that much frustrated?
Even though the Hungarian electoral system has been marked by disproportionality since the 1990s, the winner changed in each election. In the 2010 elections, Orbán won 68% of the seats with a 53% vote share. Disproportional electoral law eventually ended up with the concentration of power in one person. Since then, Orbán quickly made significant amendments in many areas, which deepened democratic erosion, and 2010 was marked by the last free and fair competition in Hungary.
Orbán changed the rule of the game by reshaping the electoral system on his behalf in 2012, and some significant changes seemed to prevent any opposition alliance in the future. Firstly, the two-round system was replaced by the one round, which prevented political parties from formally or informally supporting the winning candidate in the second round. Secondly, the threshold changed for different scenarios. 5% national threshold was not enough for the joint lists. If two parties come with a joint list, the threshold increases to 10%, and if three come with a joint list, it increases to 15%.
Moreover, legislative seats decreased from 386 to 199, decided behind closed doors. The latter issue is not only about the budget but the Gerrymandering strategies of Orbán. According to the new district magnitudes, even in the case of equal vote shares, Orbán would win the elections. All these legislative changes made the Orbán government more powerful, harmed representation, and weakened democratic institutions eventually. When the power is concentrated in the hands of the winner, all the rules serve their future winnings. In 2010, The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy already classified Hungary as “the prime example among the EU’s new member states in the region,” which follows a negative trend in terms of democracy. The only way of winning the elections was to form an elite alliance within the new electoral system.
What makes the 2022 election significant is the elite consensus of the opposition. This was not the first attempt; in 2014, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), Together 2014 (E14), Democratic Coalition (DK), Dialogue for Hungary (PM), and Hungarian Liberal Party (MLP) formed an alliance named “unity.” However, since not all opposition parties participated in the “Unity” alliance, opposition votes were split, ending the election with a second Orbán victory. The lesson for the opposition was simple but complicated: The only way to defeat Orbán was opposition unity, but with the maximum participation of political parties. In the last elections, Democratic Coalition, LMP, MSZP, Momentum Movement, Dialogue, and Jobbik formed a new coalition. This coalition was different from the former. The former coalition was formed by center-left parties, while the latter is ideologically diverse. Jobbik is a far-right-wing party, while others were liberal parties. All coalition parties agreed to field a joint list and one candidate.
Opinion polls were also hopeful, especially before the Russian-Ukraine war. The results were very close until election day. Elections are held on 3 April 2022, with nearly 70% participation. Orbán won the fourth consecutive election by having 52% of the votes. Hungary became the first “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy,” according to the members of the European Parliament. An autocratic leader with a legislative majority comes with the risk of undermining the check and balance mechanism of a democratic country and changing the rules of the game. Alongside many different factors, such as limited media and freedoms and populist discourses, this fourth victory of Orbán is also highly affected by the electoral system changes. Despite many of them being made before the 2022 elections, Orbán used different electoral manipulations in the 2022 elections. One of them was “voter tourism,” which allows voters to vote in other districts than they should. The situation is problematic in many aspects: First, voter tourism creates the risk of multiple votes in multiple districts by one voter, and secondly, it can easily affect the district’s vote shares on behalf of Orbán.
Hungary’s experience shows that democratic backsliding hurts elections and makes them neither free nor fair. Moreover, even if the opposition tries to win elections to defeat an autocratic leader and act strategically, the winner can break their game plan by changing the rules over and over. Democratic backsliding is widespread, and the question is the following: “How to prevent democratic backsliding and rebuild democratic institutions in illiberal democracies?”
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Csaky, Zselyke (2021, November 3). “Capturing Democratic Institutions: Lessons from Hungary and Poland” Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/article/capturing-democratic-institutions-lessons-hungary-and-poland (last access: 6.1.2023)
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 (last access: 6.1.2023).
Tait, Robert & Flora Garamvolgyi (2022, 3 April). “Viktor Orbán wins fourth consecutive term as Hungary’s prime minister” The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/apr/03/viktor-orban-expected-to-win-big-majority-in-hungarian-general-election (last access: 6.1.2023)
The Economist (2010). “Democracy index 2010: A report from the Economist Intelligence Unit” https://graphics.eiu.com/PDF/Democracy_Index_2010_web.pdf (last access: 6.1.2023)