The Good Fight

Hungary’s Election Was a Milestone in the Decline of Democracy

Viktor Orbán disproves everything we thought we knew about the resilience of democratic institutions.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán celebrates on a podium on the bank of the Danube River after winning the parliamentary election with members of his Fidesz party on Sunday in Budapest, Hungary.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán celebrates on a podium on the bank of the Danube River after winning the parliamentary election with members of his Fidesz party on Sunday in Budapest, Hungary.
ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

Until recently, many political scientists believed that there was a certain set of countries in which democracy was safe: Once a country had changed governments through free and fair elections a couple of times, and reached a GDP per capita of about $14,000 in today’s terms, its political system had supposedly “consolidated.” We could confidently predict that it would still be democratic 10 or 25 or 50 years from now.

The recent election in Hungary is the latest piece of evidence that this theory has always been dangerously naïve and now needs to join other well-worn illusions—like the inevitability of democratic transition in China or the supposed stability of divine-rights monarchy—on the ash heap of history.

Ten years ago, Hungary certainly looked like a “consolidated democracy”: It had a record of impressive economic growth. It had completed several democratic transitions since the fall of communism. In 2004, it capped its success by joining the EU.

On the face of it, Sunday’s election fits comfortably within this story: With an increased vote share of about 50 percent and a remarkably high rate of voter turnout at about 70 percent, Viktor Orbán won re-election as his country’s prime minister for the third consecutive term; because he won a two-thirds majority in the Hungarian Parliament, he now has the power to change the constitution. In the words of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—which, like a remarkable number of papers across Europe and the United States, has reported the election with a remarkable disinclination to look beneath the shining surface—Orbán has “vastly extended the basis for his legitimacy.”

The truth is rather more complicated than that. Orbán owes his immense power to the big changes to the electoral system he pushed through in a highly partisan manner. Indeed, it is only because the new laws he championed give huge advantages to the biggest political party that, even though only about one-third of eligible voters supported him, he now commands more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. And it is only because he enfranchised people of Hungarian origin who have always lived in neighboring countries like Romania, while disenfranchising many current Hungarian citizens who happen to reside abroad, that he got this large a share of the vote in the first place.

More importantly, it is a big mistake to take this weekend’s proceedings at face value. There have been widespread reports of irregularities ranging from state employees who were effectively forced to vote for Orbán to the misuse of government funds for campaign purposes. As a result, the electoral mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has been unusually critical of the election, bemoaning a litany of “serious issues” that undermine its legitimacy.

But the most important fix had, in any case, come in long before election day. Orbán turned Hungary’s state media into a pure propaganda outlet. He used his power to engineer the sale of critical opposition outlets into the hands of his loyalists. He used his control over the country’s electoral commission to impose arbitrary fines on opposition parties, effectively rendering them incapable of mounting a real campaign.

All in all, then, the Hungarian elections were mostly free but hardly fair. The best way to think about them is as falling somewhere along the long continuum between true democratic elections and the complete sham that is perpetrated at regular intervals in countries like Russia or Venezuela.

What’s even more important than the sobering reality of this election, though, is the sorry outlook for the next one. Orbán already controls the country’s judiciary, most of its media, and its electoral institutions. He has repeatedly made clear that he would consider a victory of the opposition an existential threat not just to him but to the very survival of the Hungarian nation. Now that he has even greater power to dismantle the rule of law, and to abolish checks and balances, it is difficult to imagine that he would prove willing to leave office of his own free will.

Most likely, Orbán will once again be able to use his political power to ensure that he is “re-elected” in 2022. But even if, by some miracle, the opposition should manage to overcome all of the obstacles he has already put in their way, and carve out a narrow majority four years from now, Orbán is likely to stay on. In short, his country has now completed a process that I predict in my book The People vs. Democracy, but that has mostly remained theoretical until now: It was once a liberal democracy. As Orbán undermined the rule of law, dismantled the separation of powers, and massively violated the rights of ethnic minorities, it turned into an illiberal democracy. Now, it is effectively a dictatorship with a thin electoral veneer.

Far from being a routine election in a small European country, then, the events in Hungary have what devotees of Hegel or Marx would call “world-historical significance”: They show us that a widely held theory about the future of democracy is wrong and raise the specter of dictatorship’s return to the heart of Europe.

You would think, then, that this event is being recognized as a major development in both Europe and North America. But you would be wrong.

The European political class has so far reacted to Orbán’s re-election with some mix of indifference and resignation. Even though their own civil servants have participated in the OSCE mission to Hungary, senior political leaders have duly congratulated Orbán on his success. Horst Seehofer, the German interior minister, has even expressed his “joy” and scolded other countries for “condescension” to Orbán.

Though Hungary would never, at present, meet the criteria for a country to join the European Union, there seems to be no serious attempt to suspend its membership or to limit the generous payments Brussels directs to Budapest every year. Most shamefully of all, Orbán’s party, Fidesz, remains allied with mainstream center-right parties like Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union in the European Parliament.

The price that European democracies will have to pay for standing by as a country in the heart of the continent slides toward dictatorship is immense. Orbán’s rampant anti-Semitism is already finding eager imitators in Western Europe. Parties from Italy’s The League to Austria’s Freedom Party are keen to take a page out of his authoritarian playbook. Perhaps most importantly, though, the EU’s inaction toward Hungary risks changing its very nature: Long hailed as a club of democratic values that might serve as a model for other regions around the world, Hungary’s continued membership is effectively transforming the EU into a sclerotic trade block that can claim to stand for no higher ideal than ensuring the harmonization of emissions standards across the continent.

What has in some ways been even more appalling, however, is the degree to which many “conservatives” in the United States and the United Kingdom have celebrated Orbán’s victory.

To them, Orbán is a hero because he is strongly opposed to Merkel’s decision to open her country’s door to more than 1 million refugees from Syria. And so any criticism of Orbán is, in their minds, part of a vast liberal conspiracy to impose leftist policies under the banner of defending democratic norms. This is true of some of Trump’s core supporters, of course: Breitbart, for example, rejoiced that “Anti-globalist, anti-Soros Orbán wins third term in Hungary.” It is also true of parts of the British media, whose anti-Brexit wing has increasingly come to echo Viktor Orbán’s anti-Semitic attacks on George Soros. And it is even true of many commentators who would probably prefer to call themselves anti-anti-Trumpists: As one viral tweet would have it, the claim that Orbán “is at war with democracy” is merely code for the fact that liberals dislike his immigration policies and that he “keeps winning elections by getting more votes than his opponents.”

It’s difficult to tell whether this stance is a product of proud ignorance or whether it reveals a depth of cynicism toward democracy that should be seen as a frightening preview of what is to come closer to home. So let me be clear: The primary problem with Orbán is not his decision to close his country’s doors to refugees. It is the fact that he has abolished the independence of the judiciary, destroyed the freedom of the press, and perverted the country’s electoral system.

Commentators who are willing to justify all of these infractions because they happen to agree with Orbán’s stance on immigration are effectively declaring that it is perfectly legitimate to abolish free and fair elections in order to pass your favorite policies. That demonstrates rather effectively what we should make of their simultaneous insistence that worries about the Trumpist turn in American politics are overblown.

So yes: Defenders of liberal democracy need to be very careful to distinguish between democratically legitimate policies they deeply dislike and attacks on democratic norms and institutions that threaten to destroy the whole system. But by the same token, anti-anti-populists need to be very careful not to become complicit in the destruction of democracy just because they happen to agree with some of the policies pursued by the supposed champions of the people.