American University

Hungary’s Embrace of Illiberal Democracy by Nicole Wells @ American University

Just before the Hungarian national election in 2014, Prime Minister Victor Orban declared his intention to build an illiberal state in Hungary. Orban said the “Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.”[1] During the 1989 revolution Orban had protested for free and fair elections, yet under his leadership, Hungary has begun rolling back years of democratic progress and embracing an authoritarian management of governance. In his own words, “a trending topic in thinking is understanding systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies, and yet making nations successful. Today, the stars of international analyses are Singapore, China, Turkey, Russia” [2] Illiberal democracies are a distinct type of government characterized by a leader that continues to hold competitive elections, while simultaneously violating the rule of law by threatening to suspend the constitution, stripping citizens of civil liberties, and using state resources to prevent the opposition from challenging them.

During democratization in the 1990’s, Hungary was a model example of a post-authoritarian regime turned democratic. Hungary democratized quickly and was fast tracked for EU and NATO memberships. Since Orban’s election in 2014, Hungarian politics have moved away from democratic institutions. In 2016 the Fidesz party began work to toughen anti-terror laws that would suspend the constitution for 60 days or more and rejected the European Union’s migrant resettlement plan. In addition, Fidesz increased their control of the media to spread xenophobic and anti-immigrant propaganda as justification for their policies. Orban gerrymandered regions that favored Fidsz and granted voting rights to ethnic Hungarians outside of the country that would support his party.

Hungary was hit hard by the financial crises in 2008 and economic growth continues to be stagnant. Hungarian GDP per capita before 2008 was $15,669 but by 2016 it fell to $12, 664.[3] Orban claims, “Liberal democracy did not protect public wealth.”[4] However, Hungary received over 10 billion euros from the EU and is on track to be the top recipient for infrastructure development in 2020[5]. Orban argues the shift from liberal to an illiberal democracy is necessary to reverse slow economic growth that is afflicting the country. Hungarians are still waiting for the riches promised when they adopted free market policies and committed to democracy. Many see Orban’s turn to illiberal democracy as a new approach to encourage growth based on examples such as Russia, Singapore or Turkey where high economic growth has been achieved without ensuring civil liberties.

Hungary’s affront to democracy, and policies of economic plundering is an assault on European Union values. In 2014 Orban said he imagined it possible for an illiberal democracy to exist within the EU and that membership rules would not preclude an illiberal member from joining.[6] The EU is in a difficult position of protecting its core values while respecting state sovereignty. EU MEP’s referred Hungary to the highest court for refusing to take in refugees and for passing laws that targeted civil rights, it’s apparent it hasn’t been enough. Hungary continues to refuse cooperation with the EU mandate even backing Poland in similar defiance. Orban stated that he would block any sanctions taken against Poland, pitting the East against the West.

Some fear that Orban may try to turn Hungarians away from the EU if punished. If the EU wants to embrace Hungary it must demand that Hungary in turn embrace the liberal democratic tradition. In 2017 Brussels stepped up legal action against Hungary for not addressing the violations of EU laws, but it wasn’t sufficient to curb Orban’s policies. Due to Hungary’s economic situation leaving is not an option. They are one of the top recipients of structural funds in the EU. Reversing Hungary’s antidemocratic direction requires that civil society groups and the EU demand that Western investors separate from illiberal democracies. Foreign investor disapproval would deprive illiberal state-builders of an important source of legitimacy, and it would affirm that defending liberal democracy within the EU is essential.[7] The EU must apply pressure to Hungary by withholding the 6 billion[8] a year in investment funds they are slated to receive. Adhering to the values and laws of the EU must be the condition of receiving investment. If Orban wants to reap the financial benefits of EU membership then Hungary must maintain their responsibility to the core democratic values to which they agreed when they signed the Lisbon Treaty.

[1] World Bank. “GDP per capita, PPP (current international $).” GDP per capita, PPP (current international $)

[2] Tóth, Csaba.”Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) 26 July 2014.” Budapest Beacon, July 29, 2014

[3] Opinion FT View, ed. “Hungary’s illiberal leader must be shown the limits.” Hungary’s illiberal leader must be shown the limits, April 26, 2017

[4] Tóth, Csaba.”Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) 26 July 2014.” Budapest Beacon, July 29, 2014

[5] Benner, Thorsten, and Wolfgang H. Reinicke. “Investing in illiberalism. Why European businesses should end their embrace of Hungary and           Poland.” July 31, 2017

[6] “What to do when Viktor Orban erodes democracy.” The Economist, June 22, 2017

[7] Tóth, Csaba.”Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) 26 July 2014.” Budapest Beacon, July 29, 2014

[8] Tóth, Csaba. “Viktor Orbán’s speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) 26 July 2014.” Budapest Beacon, July 29, 2014

“*Photo by Europa Pont, “Europa nap 15_04”, Creative Commons Zero license.”

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