University of California, Los Angeles

Why Hungary is democracy’s biggest threat

The greatest threat to Western democracy is the veiled autocratic regime of Hungary.  It has survived a decade of diminishing citizen and judiciary rights, and has still been able to gain international acknowledgement as a strong democracy, despit its wavering democratic government.

It seems the loss of major democratic values like free press, free elections, and decentralization of power has been replaced in Hungary by one man- Viktor Orban.  Hungary had been in rehabilitation from the Cold War era of communism until the financial crisis of 2008, steadily fostering democratic values and principles. They became apart of NATO in 1999 and a member of the EU since 2004, slowly implementing  liberal policies that would place them on a trajectory to become a great democratic country. Then began a “democracy in decline”.

2008 began a world-wide financial crisis and political gridlocks.  The storm of chaos that followed the initial financial decline caused imposible gridlocks between political parties, causing populations of citizens restless and ready to replace governments that failed to protect them.  The Fidesc Party used the political stalemate as an opportunity to seize ultimate control and beginning building a regime around the party. The 2010 elections in Hungary demonstrated the struggling result to maintain control of government with the complexities of gridlock the recession caused.  The right-wing Fidesc party of Orban shakily grasped the reigns of Parliament by the slightest of majorities, and the future of the government was in their control.

The Fedesc Party became desperate to maintain control, funding money from the EU and federal government to loyal party allies.  The illegal funding then transformed into an obsession to control media output. Later that year, Hungary passed legislation that heavily fines news outlets for producing coverage that the government deemed “unbalanced”.  Hungary even created a new branch to monitor and enforce this law, the National Media and Communications Authority. The EU and several heads of state- such as Angela Merkel, spoke out against Hungary’s first legislative step away from democracy.  Still, nothing was done to control to power hungry Fidesc Party, a major failure to democratic principles and the liberties of everyone.

The steamrolling autocracy of Hungary maintained its control in 2012 by concentrating more authority in the executive, giving certain members 9 to 12 year terms.  Additionally, the judiciary became less independent as the executive appointed virtually all justices, centralizing powers further to an increasingly powerful Orban.  The parliament even decreased the retirement age of justices by eight years with little debate to more quickly push out opposition voices in the judiciary, promoting the single political party culture in Hungary.  

Sometimes even more worrisome than the policy implementations is the promissory rhetoric of a greater autocraticacy to come from Viktor Orban.  Once a critic of Russia and Putin’s reign, he regularly compares Hungarian government to China and the oppressive Russia in a positive light. He has regularly critiqued western democracies and their dispute between acceptable democratic legislation as Hungary continues to push the boundaries of the EU.  Victor Orban has displayed xenophobic rhetoric, and legislation has been introduced to hold immigrants in camps for months at a time. Even further, he has stated the desire to “build an illiberal state based on national foundation”, encouraging nationalistic views and ideals of autocratic superiority. Donald Trump shares many political qualities with Orban, including this xenophobia, yet Americans are much more prone and able to criticize the U.S. government.  Perhaps the Hungarian government has shifted too close to autocracy to still retain that freedom.

The democratic initiative in Hungary is the lowest ranking in central Europe, ranking 3.54 by Freedom House, now leaning more towards autocratic than democratic on their scale of 7.  So why hasn’t any other country or global super-power attempted to save Hungary on its rapid path of democratic erosion? The EU has had several committees discussing Hungary’s restricting legislation, and several world leaders including President Obama and Hillary Clinton have warned the Western world of Hungary’s autocratic power.  But a country cannot be saved if the consensus of its people is the acting government is valid and in best interest of its constituents, or if citizens are now to oppressed to matter.

 

“Hungary.” Hungary | Freedom House, 4 Apr. 2017, freedomhouse.org/report/nations-transit/2017/hungary.
Karasz, Palko, and Melissa Eddy. “Hungary Pressed to Ease Judiciary and News Media Laws.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Mar. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/22/world/europe/hungary-is-pressed-to-change-its-laws-further.html.
Karasz, Palko, and Melissa Eddy. “Hungary Pressed to Ease Judiciary and News Media Laws.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Mar. 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/03/22/world/europe/hungary-is-pressed-to-change-its-laws-further.html.
Kingsley, Patrick. “As West Fears the Rise of Autocrats, Hungary Shows What’s Possible.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 10 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/10/world/europe/hungary-orban-democracy-far-right.html.
Kulish, Nicholas. “Foes of Hungary’s Government Fear ‘Demolition of Democracy’.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2011, www.nytimes.com/2011/12/22/world/europe/foes-of-hungarys-government-fear-demolition-of-democracy.html.
Rohac, Dalibor. “Hungary and Poland Aren’t Democratic. They’re Authoritarian.” Foreign Policy, Foreign Policy, 5 Feb. 2018, foreignpolicy.com/2018/02/05/hungary-and-poland-arent-democratic-theyre-authoritarian/.

3 Comments

  1. PRAGATHI GURUPRASAD

    March 30, 2018 at 11:26 pm

    It is fascinating to see the similarities between Poland and Hungary’s democracies side by side as they were once seen as success stories for democracy in the late 1980s. Both Hungary and Poland have nationalist parties that hold the parliamentary majority at the moment and the two parties are rather similar. In both countries, the government has gradually made changes in the law and centralized power into their own hands. The media has also been restructured and the the right to freedom of speech has been taken away from citizens. After writing my post on Poland’s failing democracy, it is interesting to see another European country that was once a successful democracy facing nearly the exact same issues with a similar governing party.

  2. Matthew Graff

    April 1, 2018 at 11:20 am

    There are indeed a number of striking similarities between the democratic backsliding of Poland and Hungary. Both were seen as shining examples of consolidated democracies in the former Soviet Bloc. However, both nations elected explicitly illiberal parties, Fidesz in Hungary, PiS in Poland, that have taken remarkably similar steps to centralize, and eliminate checks on, power. They have both taken similar efforts to undermine all three of Huq and Ginsberg’s basic predicates of democracy: free and fair elections, speech and association rights, and the rule of law. However, the causes of democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland significantly differ in one important way: economic prosperity. Since achieving democracy, Poland has had incredible growth, and has never experienced a year of negative growth, even in the depths of the 2008 financial crisis. Hungary, however, suffered significantly from the financial crisis. This makes it easy to comprehend how a desperate electorate would be willing to forgo democracy if economic prosperity were on the line. Poland, however, has not suffered economically, and thus the explanations for democratic decline must be different.

  3. John Stayton

    April 27, 2018 at 8:34 pm

    I think that the democratic backsliding in Hungary is very dangerous for its citizens and their rights. However I do not agree with your assertion that Hungary is the biggest threat to western democracy. I am curious as to why you believe this to be the case. While I do believe this is not good for democracy, saying it is the biggest single threat to western democracy is a bold statement.
    It appears that Victor Orban has displayed classic behavior of an authoritarian who wants to consolidate power. While his regime sounds like it is oppressive and xenophobic, what makes them a threat to western democracy? I understand that it is not a good situation for the people of Hungary but would you not agree that a war or nuclear threat would be a bigger threat to western democracy? I found your blog post to be very interesting and I am curious to here why you think Hungary is the biggest threat to western democracy.

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