On the 15th of September 2022, the European Parliament declared that Hungary is no longer a fully functional democracy, marking the country as a “hybrid regime of electoral autocracy” in a non-binding, yet very symbolic report. This puts Hungary’s democracy roughly in the same category as Russia’s democracy. How can a country, which was praised by academics for its peaceful and successful transition into democracy last century, fall from grace so easily? To understand this, we will look at how Hungary transitioned into democracy and what has led to Hungary’s recent democratic backslide.
Like many Eastern European countries, the fall of Communism gave way to the installation of a democracy in the country. When it comes to Hungary, there were three main factors which made its transition into democracy both bloodless and successful.
Firstly, the weakening of the USSR had meant that many people within Hungary, including members within Hungary’s own Communist party were starting to doubt the future of Communism. However, due to political chaos in the top layer of the Communist party, confusion and uncertainty spread throughout the ranks. Reformers, such as Imre Poszgay who stunned his superiors by calling the 1956 Hungarian revolution a “popular uprising” instead of a counterrevolution, wanted to see reform in the country’s outdated political system. Economic and political reform, while also “restructuring the Communist party so that it resembles more of a west European democratic socialist party on the left”. Pozsgay also became a member of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF), a group consisting of democratisers and democratic communists. The forming of the MDF gave way to the creation of more political parties. Among many, the Federation of Young Democrats (FIDESZ) was founded in 1988. With this amount of political uncertainty caused by aforementioned chaos in the Communist Party and the amount of new movements coming to life, it would only be a matter of time till other countries would take advantage of this.
Secondly, the influence of foreign countries had widened the gap between Hungary and the Soviet Union, while closing the gap between Hungary and the West. With the Soviet Union growing weaker by the day, the United States had decided to use this opportunity to create a new program: the Support for Eastern European Democracy Program (SEED). In a nutshell, this meant that for any Eastern European country which was going to hold free and fair elections, the United States would support their requests for loans at the World Bank, while also sending financial aid. Hungary was also labelled as a “most favored nation” when it comes to trade, along with other means of financial aid. As such, Hungary received $240 million in direct aid.
Lastly, financial aid was not the only international influence that had led Hungary to transition into a democracy. In fact, Hungary was able to negotiate itself into a democracy according to the Polish example, which itself had transitioned into a democracy shortly before Hungary did. Poland saw itself reform into a democracy, through talks between the established Communist party and the democratic opposition, without much violence. While many Hungarians were anxious of a Soviet intervention, the Polish had proven that a transition to democracy could be peaceful as well. Along with this, Hungary’s communist elite felt it was necessary to transition to democracy “on their terms” with the possibility of maintaining some sort of power and authority, as they did not want to let their own authority wither away and eventually succumb to a violent revolution.
In April 1990, Hungary’s first free and fair election took place. In this election, FIDESZ won 22 out of 386 seats in Hungary’s new parliament. One of FIDESZ’s new MPs was a young Viktor Orbán. FIDESZ took a left-wing stance against the centre-right parties in government, including the aforementioned MDF. When in 1995 economic calamity had hit Hungary and its new left-wing Prime Minister Gyula Horn imposed harsh privatisation and austerity, FIDESZ started to outflank the MDF. Orbán who was now the chairman of FIDESZ thus declared that FIDESZ “must seek cooperation with forces politically right of centre”. He also renamed FIDESZ to: Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Party. With Hungary in 2004 officially joining the European Union, it seemed as if its democracy was there to stay.
While Orbán rose through the ranks of the party, he started alienating the more liberal-minded members of his party. This allowed him to shift the party further and further to the right of the political spectrum. Along with this, he assigned his allies to important positions within the party.
Fidesz, now a centre-right party became the largest party in the 1998 elections. Orbán formed a government with the Independent Smallholders Party and the remnants of the MDF. On the one hand, Orbán’s government had ensured Hungary’s accession into NATO, the start of accession talks with the EU, while also creating economic growth. On the other hand, Orbán was criticised for his autocratic way of governing. He expanded the powers of the parliamentary majority, and also laid the groundwork for his future nationalistic rhetoric by strengthening cultural bonds with Hungarians abroad, by giving them the right of education, healthcare and the right to work in Hungary. Most dramatically, he vouched for increased autonomy of Hungarians in Serbia’s Vojvodina province.
As a result of corruption scandals in the Independent Smallholders Party coming to light, the party was decimated in the 2002 elections. While Orbán’s coalition still held a plurality, it had lost a majority and thus the left-leaning parties gathered to form a government. As a result of this, Orbán criticised newspapers for spreading “left-wing slander” while also accusing the opposition of electoral fraud.
During his years as opposition leader, Fidesz slid further to the right. Going as far as to delegitimize the Treaty of Trianon, the treaty which carved up Hungary’s territory as a result of the First World War. As a result of corruption scandals surrounding left-wing Prime Minister Gyurcsány, who admitted to lying in a leaked speech on a party conference about campaign promises regarding economic recovery, along with the excessive use of inappropriate wording, Fidesz held peaceful protests in Budapest. The government responded with police forces, which led to the protests soon turning violent. Trust in the country’s politicians has hit rock bottom.Thanks to this, Fidesz went on to win a two-thirds majority in the 2010 elections, which allowed him to rework the country’s constitution freely.
As a measure to ensure his continued success, Orbán passed an electoral reform that would skew the results even more in his favour. Voters in Hungary cast two votes: one for the representative of the constituency and one for a national party list. It used to be the case that only the votes cast on losing local candidates would be added to the party’s national tally. With the reform however, the winning candidates’ vote count also gets added to the national tally. This makes sure that the winning party in an election is more likely to win supermajorities.
As a result of this, Orbán has gone on to appoint friends of the early-FIDESZ movement to prominent positions in the media, in the courts, and in parliament. Whereas parliamentary sub-committees used to equally represent every party, Orbán was able to make it proportionally representative to ensure that every sub-committee would be overwhelmingly Fidesz. One of these sub-committees is designated for the task of appointing Constitutional Court justices. One member of the Constitutional Court is elected by a two-thirds majority in the sub-committee, thus making it easier for Orbán to appoint loyalists to the Constitutional Court.
In order to ensure continued success, Orbán used the migrant crisis of 2015 to use both migrants and the European Union as scapegoats for his own political gain. This allowed him to stir up support for his party at every cycle. Even during his first term in office, he ramped up nationalism to get people behind him. This became even more true for the more recent years where he riled up support against the Treaty of Trianon. He was not extensively criticized by the media or the judges he appointed, thus allowing him to fully put out his message. Such a strong grip on power was something nobody from the opposition was yet able to do. His opposition was often divided. Even as recently as April 22, when the opposition was in fact united, he won over a majority of the vote.
To conclude, Hungary’s path to democracy was mainly due to positive outside influences which had caused politics internally to start reflecting upon new realities. This went well for a while, however, repeated scandals by mainstream politicians had led to Orbáns populist rhetoric to resonate more with voters which had given him the keys to change Hungary’s politics for years to come. The scapegoating of his enemies, being in the EU, migrants and the “liberal elite” have helped him to provide a narrative which many could grasp and thus believe in. When he got the aforementioned keys, he was able to forever skew the system into his favour. Nowadays, Viktor Orbán is more popular than ever even though Hungary’s democracy is withering more every day. This is how democracy dies, with thunderous applause from its own participants.