Viktor Orban and Hungary’s Backsliding Democracy

by Sam Adams

by Sam Adams

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Viktor Orban presented himself to the Hungarian people as the harbinger of a new time, railing against any vestiges of Communism in the former Soviet state. Clinging to the reactionary rhetoric of anti-communism and championing liberalism Fidesz underperformed in its first initial showings in the 1990 and 1994 Parliamentary elections, leading Orban and its leadership to take a more conservative turn ideologically. The solution as Orban saw it was to move from a liberal centrist party to a center-right party, while forming alliances with parties almost solely on the Hungarian right. The announcement came at the 1993 Party Conference, in consequence many of Fidesz leaders split from Orban and the proposed rightward shift, leaving Viktor Orban as the party’s unrivaled front man.

The subsequent elections following the re-orientation of Fidesz in 1998 saw surprising success as the Party received slightly less votes than the Socialist Party although Fidesz received the most seats in Parliament due to the allocation of seats at both a regional and national level. Fidesz joined in a governing coalition with two other center-right and right wing parties, due to the mandate being an extremely small margin, the government could not implement any sweeping changes.

Lacking any real legislative power to effect changes with their fragile 1998 majority Fidesz would fail to return to a majority in 2002 and would be relegated to the opposition until 2010. Due to a change in Party politics, Orban was forced to step down as the leader of Fidesz while Prime Minister in 2000; returning to Party leadership following the 2002 loss of the Premiership to the Socialist Party and its liberal governing coalition. Following subsequent failures to capture the reins of government in 2006 Parliamentary elections, Orban faced pressure to step down as the face of Fidesz. Reprieve from calls for his resignation came only when it was revealed in a closed Party meeting that the governing Socialist party had lied to the nation specifically with respect to the state of the economy and more broadly the Hungarian nation’s interests in order to retain votes. The infamous speech known as the Oszöd Speech would upend Hungarian politics and led to massive street protests and marked a nationwide, if not continent wide tarnishing of the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP); the speech hamstrung Fidesz and Orban’s greatest political adversary paving the way for a return to power for the latter.

The elections that precipitated the Oszöd Speech would have far reaching ramifications, with Hungary’s political landscape completely remade following the scandal as well and the 2008 financial crisis. Seizing on the Socialist Party’s growing unpopularity and corruption and while weaponizing high unemployment following the 2008 economic crisis Orban and Fidesz positioned themselves at the forefront of the polls, while the far-right Jobbik Party saw a bump in popularity as well. The results in the 2010 Parliamentary elections saw a stunning capture of a super majority by Fidesz, passing an important interval that would allow the party to freely make constitutional changes. The results were particularly shocking considering the shares of seats lost by the Socialists, diving down from 192 seats in 2006 to a meager and legislatively powerless 59 seats in 2010. This underscored a truly full-fledged collapse of the Socialist Party in Hungary, forcing the former political hegemon to scramble to form any meaningful opposition to Orban while attempting the process of repairing the party and organizing for future elections.

Upon his ascension back to the top of Hungarian politics Orban began to ensure and insulate his power, undermining the nation’s long fragile democratic institutions. One of the first actions Orban took was to rewrite the 1989-90 Constitution that was authored following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The changes enacted by the re-authoring of the Constitution sparked outrage among civil liberty groups, NGO’s, the EU, as well as the United States; some of the most controversial changes include restrictions on the media during election campaigns, limits the power of the Constitutional Court, lowers retirement age of judges, as well as dictating the state show “preference” to “traditional” family relationships. Some of the most impactful when it comes to the state of democracy in the country came with the changes to the Constitutional Court, as well as the limitations imposed on the media during campaign season. Those restrictions on media stated that only state-run media may campaign for politicians, an insular policy for Fidesz to monitor the media while only allowing pro-Fidesz literature and advertising in attempt to ensure the ruling party maintained its grip on power. With reference to the Constitutional Court, Orban modeled his takeover after that of Turkish autocrat Recip Tayyip Erdogan. Both men in seeking control of the highest judicial institution in their respective countries expanded the number of court members, packing new seats with members explicitly loyal to the executive rather than the democratic process in the two nations. Confusing critics and possibly in a move to dissuade international criticism both men also expanded the criteria for cases making it to the Constitutional Court, were the budding autocrats supporting the Court by adding new members coinciding with a greater caseload, or was the court-packing solely to undermine the Court’s ability to check the Executive?

Outside of the rewriting of the Constitution and augmenting it’s specialized Court, Orban and Fidesz launched a concerted attack on the nation’s democratic institutions such as the judiciary, the press, the election commission, as well as the tax service. Part of Orban and Fidesz’s attack was to load the judiciary, tax authority, and election commission with party/Orban loyalists in attempt to subvert the institutions obligation to democracy, re-orientating it to rather protect Orban and the Fidesz Government. Furthermore, Orban initiated a system of control over local government modeled after a Putin policy in Russia known as a “vertical of power”, Orban’s variation included the centralizing of some local government functions via the newly written Constitution as well as Orban handpicking allies and party Loyalists as local governors.

Lastly an element of the decaying of democracy and rule based law comes the demonization, discrimination, and harm done to minorities in Hungary. Two groups in particular have been targeted by Orban and Fidesz in order to rile up support among their center to far right base, those being migrants fleeing conflict in the Middle East and North Africa as well as the LGBTQIA+ community. During the refugee crisis that the greater-EU faced during the mid-late 2010s Orban and his Party took an extremely hard line against migrant quotas proscribed by the EU to it’s member states, all the while demonizing refugees and migrants as terrorists, as well as describing those fleeing violence as individuals trying to overturn the predominance of Christianity in the EU and greater Hungary. Orban went so far as to erect 4-meter high fences along his nation’s border with Croatia and Serbia in order to stem the flow of migrants seeking the EU all the while describing the refugees as “poison” and asserting his nation didn’t want or need “a single migrant”.

More recently Orban has drawn the specter of the EU and drawn international condemnation for his Party’s recent passage of a set of laws that rights groups and the West have described as discriminatory towards the LGBTQIA+ community. The law mimics a set of discriminatory laws put forth by Russia, and can be considered the “banning of gay people from featuring in school educational materials or TV shows for under-18s”. The newly passed laws have already spurned concern within the already oft targeted community, casting a dark shadow over a recent drag competition, in which a contestant said, “We are afraid to get on the tram. When we do so, we put our hands in our pockets to hide our painted nails. We have always done this, though”. The outrage was such that at this year’s delayed 2020 European Football Championship the mayor of Munich, the location of a Germany v Hungary match, asked UEFA, the competition’s governing body, for permission to light the stadium up in rainbow colors. The request was denied by UEFA who claimed to be staying “politically neutral” on the matter, missing the point that neutrality on this issue is siding with discrimination. The mayor of Munich plans to instead light the entire city up with rainbow colors and flags in protest of the Hungarian law as well as UEFA’s compliance.

While the politics of a football match are leagues away from democratic backsliding, the collective outrage from the international community, corporations operating in Hungary, the EU, and rights groups is positive, and the pressure must be continued. Orban and Fidesz have laid bare the fragility of democracy and demonstrate that if an EU and NATO member can participate in democratic backsliding and the undermining of institutions then it can happen anywhere. Democracy is a constant work, taking it for granted is a privilege, and ignoring warning signs of institutional decay and backsliding can and will have wide reaching ramifications for the future.

Sam Adams
Sam Adams

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