Hungary, a country which transitioned to democracy fairly peacefully after years of Soviet pressure and communist rule, now struggles with authoritarianism and its effects. Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz challenges democratic norms and institutions increasingly more. It seems like elections are becoming less like democratic processes. Arguably, they are a way for Orbán to legitimize his authority and give the message that the people are supporting his rule.
In fully fledged democracies, elections matter. They allow the opposition to challenge the incumbent. In these regimes, incumbents are not above the laws and their actions may have consequences. Thus, opposition parties could use the free media to criticize the incumbent, challenge them by using the right to protest, and unseat them by running a decisive campaign. That is why holding free and fair elections is the minimum requirement for democracy. Democracy cannot stand without free and fair elections (Dahl, 2005). However, in authoritarian regimes, political actors undermine this notion, and they degrade elections to frequently held procedures just to weigh public opinion and satisfaction. In these authoritarian regimes, winners of the elections are usually the incumbents and unseating them is a real challenge. Moreover, media, bureaucracy, judiciary and in some examples the military are at the hands of the incumbent, making opposition a high-risk task. This results in democratic erosion.
In Hungary, this democratic erosion process gained momentum with the election victory of Fidesz in 2010. Viktor Orbán’s party received nearly 53% of the vote and Orbán became prime minister. Although he served as prime minister for a four-year tenure starting in 1998, his election in 2010 was a real game changer. According to Mueller, Fidesz’s election victory that handed them two-thirds of the parliament was the major ability that Fidesz used to completely change the institutional system of Hungary (Mueller, 2014). Since they controlled the parliament without a coalition partner, the opposition stood no chance of opposing or rejecting Fidesz’s agenda in the parliament. This outright control over the parliament allowed Orbán to amend the constitution several times. These constitutional amendments are important because we observe this trend in many popular authoritarian regimes. Autocrats seem to have a connection to legality. Since their radical actions are not compatible with the constitution most of the times, they amend the constitution in order to implement their radical actions legally. Arguably, these autocrats adhere to laws somewhat. However, these laws are not necessarily democratic or humanist. And arguably, Orbán’s constitutional amendments made his radical political agenda somewhat “lawful”. It can also be argued that the reason figures like Orbán trying to implement their agenda through lawful actions is because they view laws as stable, solid pieces of rules that regulate everyone. Laws don’t leave space for instability if they are properly designed. And figures like Orbán fear instability since mass dissent among the public can shake their seat.
Hungarian democracy was definitely damaged by these actions. Fidesz’s authoritarian agenda pushed Hungary away from becoming a consolidated democracy and Hungary is now a hybrid regime. In a regime like this, elections are a high-risk task for opposition. That’s why, Hungarian pro-democracy movement couldn’t mobilize enough to unseat Orbán. And if we look from the perspective of voters, we can see the effects of negative partisanship. This concept states that voters determine their ideological position according to their least favourable option or their “enemy”. So, arguably, Hungarian voters are voting for Fidesz since 2010 because they see the opposition to Fidesz and Orbán as a threat to their country. Even though we cannot say that every Fidesz voter supports their party to the utmost, they still choose Fidesz as their last option to vote because of the formation and agenda of the opposing bloc. This also leads to severe polarization. Hungary nowadays is a significantly polarized nation. In a political environment like this, elections evolve into zero-sum games. That’s why forming an effective opposition alliance is so hard in Hungary because of the fact that no single party wants to undertake the responsibility of losing the election.
Hungarian elections evolved into a point where the winner is almost determined before the election. That’s because Fidesz shapes the political arena with its control over bureaucracy, judiciary, and the parliament. In this situation, elections turn into a method of authority legitimization. Hungarian elections don’t necessarily change the political structure of the country, but it shows the ruling party how good they are ruling. It’s a sort of opinion poll for the incumbent. If the vote share of Fidesz is high enough, that means Orbán’s legitimacy is also high enough.
We cannot say that Hungarian elections are free and fair. Democratic norms and necessities are becoming less apparent. And it is still unlikely that an opposition party or coalition could unseat the incumbent Fidesz in elections. However, the fact that Hungary still holds elections leaves an open door for the opposition because we have seen examples of transition from an authoritarian regime to a democratic one through elections. The most recent one was Brazil. Bolsonaro was ousted from power through elections. So, authoritarian regimes can collapse, and that’s why we cannot be pessimistic about the future of democracy.
Dahl, R. A. (2005). What Political Institutions Does Large-Scale Democracy Require?. Political Science Quarterly, 120(2), 187-197. https://www.jstor.org/stable/20202514.
Mueller, J. W. (2014). Eastern Europe Goes South: Disappearing Democracy in the EU’s Newest Members. Foreign Affairs, 93(2), 14-19. https://www.jstor.org/stable/24483579.