Roar writer Andrea Tonon on how Prime Minister Viktor Orban is consolidating power in Hungary and why the EU may not be able to stop him
Within the European Union, a bastion of liberal democracy and human rights, there is a country that is slowly but steadily sliding into dictatorship. In this country, there is no political pluralism, the media is controlled and managed by the state and the judicial branch stuffed with government loyalists who will not uphold the rule of law.
This country is Hungary, specifically Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary. If calling Hungary a dictatorship and, thereby, equating it to some of the world’s most brutal regimes like North Korea and Iran, is too extreme, we could at least call it a flawed, authoritarian democracy. We can define Hungary with this term because it has democratic institutions that most EU nations have, including regular elections, parliamentary sovereignty and courts. However, these institutions have been continuously eroded by Orban’s reforms.
As the world has seen firsthand in recent years, even the strongest democracies can be extremely fragile. Throughout history and today, scholars have found that liberal democracies are particularly vulnerable to populist movements, which obtain power through legitimate means (such as elections) but then use said power to entrench themselves in government. Populism is not a clearly defined ideology; populist parties have existed on the communist left and fascist right. However, they tend to utilise ethnic, class or religious divisions to their advantage, creating an “us versus them” mentality. The Nazis’ persecution of the Jewish people in Germany during World War II or French revolutionaries organising mass killings of political opponents during the Reign of Terror are historical examples of this. In the case of Orban, the social conflict is between the people of Hungary and the EU.
Additionally, populism does appear out of thin air. Its rise is the result of many systemic problems in liberal democracies: economic inequality and lack of representation from established political parties. This has given rise to Euroscepticism in Hungary as disaffected voters look for someone to blame.
Populist movements are a threat to liberal democracies because they are fundamentally illiberal. They reject checks and balances and despise independent institutions such as the courts and bureaucracy. They also have a monolithic conception of “the people”; namely a majority with well-defined characteristics, such as belonging to a specific class, gender or nationality. However, no society on Earth is truly homogenous and tensions between different groups within society will inevitably arise. Populists, particularly right-wing populists, seek to appeal to the more numerate, or dominant, group within a society and use their support as a tool to stay in power. In Hungary, this explains Orban’s desire to demonise refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and the country’s Jewish population. Since these minority groups are mostly politically-powerless, this tactic has no negative consequences for Orban electorally.
Hungary has undergone ten years of illiberal reforms ranging from constant propaganda creating a scare around migrants and minorities to the demolition of the freedom of the press and education. Last year’s decision to proclaim an unlimited state of emergency due to the Covid 19 pandemic allowed the executive branch to override parliament and to govern by decree put Hungary’s democratic institutions are on their last legs.
When EU leaders gathered to discuss the budgetary issues last summer, the majority of the member states wanted to establish a system of respect toward the rule of law in order to preserve the liberal democratic values. The main idea was that economic aid would be conditional on a country upholding certain liberal norms.
Despite the country’s deep animosity towards Brussels, Hungary is a major recipient of EU funds. The plan put forth by several EU leaders would put that aid at risk. Orban threatened to oppose the rule change, which would require unanimous consent among the member states. In the end, the funds were approved but without any conditions on the rule of law or democracy. So, using the EU’s rules against it, Orban singlehandedly forced Europe to give up its defining quality: liberalism.
In the past three terms in office, Orban has built a system that is no longer democratic but based on the overwhelming power of the majority. He has effectively announced the formation of a new far-right, Christian regime that will trample on the rights of minorities and only cater to the ethnic majority. Thus far, the EU has been utterly powerless to stop him. It remains to be seen when European leaders will stop playing nice and hold the anti-democratic, tyrannical Orban regime to account.