Case Study on Hungary: From a Post-Communist Success Story to a Frankenstate by Jack Galardi @ Skidmore College
Hungary has been a European Union member state for the past 14 years. It has been ranked as a “free” democracy by Freedom House during that entire span. Sadly, neither of these pieces of information address the political reality in Hungary: its democracy has been eroded by Prime Minister Viktor Orban as he and Fidesz, his right-wing, nationalist party, have worked to consolidated power in the country since 2010. Despite Hungary’s ability to just barely pass various measures of a liberal democracy, its democratic institutions have been hollowed out by Orban and the ruling-Fidesz. In her piece entitled “Not Your Father’s Authortarianism,” Kim Scheppele describes a “Frankenstate” as “an abusive form of rule, created by combining the bits and pieces of perfectly reasonable democratic institutions in monstrous ways, [and] provide hopeless odds for anyone to challenge the existing distribution of power effectively.” As evidenced by Fidesz and Viktor Orban’s third straight victory in Hungary’s April 8th elections, Hungary certainly has become a “Frankenstate” as the powers that be continue to consolidate their incontestable monopoly of power.
Hungary is considered by many to be a post-communist success story. Starting in 1990, Hungary successfully established a democratic, multi-party political system. For many years, it was marked by legitimate elections, frequent transfers of power, and civic openness. In 2002, a liberal coalition emerged to lead the country. Ferenc Gyurcsany, a Socialist, was elected as Prime Minister. The Global Financial Crisis hit the country hard in 2007, as Hungary ran up the second-highest deficit in all of the European Union. The Gyurcsany government tried to hide this from the Hungarian public, but of course, the news got out. Anti-government demonstrations swept the country, as many described it as the largest political upheaval since their communist transition in 1989. In 2010, a conservative coalition came to power as voters came out in droves to remove the Socialists from power. Fidesz won a supermajority in parliament, and Viktor Orban was elected as Prime Minister, a position he had already held in 1998. Since he helped create Hungary’s constitutional order, he was familiar enough with it to quickly undermine it. Between 2010 and 2013, Orban and Fidesz passed a new constitution and 400 new laws. They weakened the Constitutional Court by expanding it and packing it with loyalists, and “reorganized” other state institutions like the state audit office, election commission, and the budget council. Finally, the Orban administration has cracked down on the press environment. Fidesz has passed sweeping media legislation as it attempts to pressure and silence its critics in the media. In fact, Népszabadság, Hungary’s largest and most popular opposition newspaper, was forced to shut down in 2016 due to economic woes caused by government pressure. Equipped with significant knowledge of Hungary’s political system, Viktor Orban is a savvy political leader who has managed to erode his country’s democratic institutions while still passing enough measures of democracy to remain in the European Union and avoid international condemnation or intervention.
His success can be explained by a couple of factors. First, since the late 1990s, most of Hungary’s six political parties have gradually declined in size and success. As a result, the system has essentially boiled down to a rivalry between the Socialists and the Conservatives. After the liberal coalition ran the country into the ground financially, the 2010 election didn’t offer many alternatives to Fidesz. It was the only party that offered a candidate with any real political experience in Viktor Orban. Thus, Fidesz was able to easily win a supermajority in parliament, setting Orban up to accomplish whatever he could imagine. Next, the European Refugee Crisis, which has been ongoing since 2015, has been instrumental in their consolidation of power. Hungary is along the Western Balkan route, which saw 161,000 refugees seeking asylum in the country by August 2015. Of these refugees, about two thirds were from Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. Even though most of these people had no intention of staying in Hungary, Orban and Fidesz have used the crisis to scare the electorate and achieve political gains. They paint the refugees as “economic immigrants” to delegitimize their claims for asylum, and blame them for stealing Hungarian jobs and spreading disease. This nativist rhetoric has been very effective for Orban as it has certainly bolstered his support from the public as the 2018 Hungarian election has demonstrated.
To make matters worse, resistance to democratic erosion within the country has been weak. As it has been mentioned, oppositional parties in the country are divided or lack legitimacy. The greatest threat to Fidesz is no longer a liberal opposition; it is a further-right, anti-semitic party called Jobbik, which has garnered the second-highest vote percentage in Hungary’s past two elections. Voter apathy is also a problem in the country, as a 2016 poll showed that 84% of voters who oppose Fidesz would not bother to vote to see it happen. According to various measures of democracy, Hungary should still be considered a “free democracy,” but even Freedom House has recognized a decisively downward trend, especially since 2007. Checks and balances have been eroded, and the government has a stranglehold over the media landscape. Hungary may pass certain measures of democracy, but the country’s democratic erosion is clear to anyone who bothers to look passed the surface. As Kim Scheppele asserts, Hungary is certainly a “Frankenstate,” and as Viktor Orban begins his third straight term in power, I do not have much hope for the country’s democracy in the future.