Almost two months ago, Hungary made news all around the world after the country’s National Assembly voted to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree for an unspecified amount of time. He can now bypass the legislative body if deemed necessary, to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The parliament can repeal this at any time, but the current two-third majority Orban’s party, the Fidesz, holds on the National Assembly makes such a repeal without the government’s approval unlikely. As it was probably predicted, this sedation of Hungary’s democratic institutions resulted in widespread condemnation from all over the western world, but the authoritarian tendencies of Orban’s government have been making headlines for decades.
Hungary is a fairly new democracy, having only had its first free election after a smooth transition from a socialist soviet bloc country into a western-style democracy 30 years ago. Prior to this, the country has an extensive history of authoritarian domination. After breaking away from the Austrian-Hungary Empire at the end of WWI, Hungary became a totalitarian state and lost two-thirds of its territory as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. The humiliation of having lost a majority of its country and having more than three million Hungarians living in neighboring countries lead the government to eventual join sides with the Axis powers in WWII. The war was devastating for Hungary and after the Nazis surrender, the country was turned into a one-party socialist republic under the influence of the Soviet Union for the next 50 years. The lack of a long history of democratic institutions in Hungary could explain the insouciant feeling of the electorate towards Orban’s style of governing, but democracy is also fairly new in the Baltic States, and we do not see this sort of attacks on democracy in those three countries. The success of Orban seems to lie on his talent to appease to the nationalistic and conservative electorate that still dream of unifying the Hungarian people under one great country.
Road to Power
Viktor Orban was born in 1963 in a rural zone near Budapest. He studied Law after his compulsory military service. His time in the military is said to have molded his opposition to the communist regime in Hungary, and soon he became very outspoken, with his master thesis being about Poland’s Solidarity Movement, which opposed communism in Soviet-controlled Poland. In 1988 he co-founded Fidesz (an acronym for “Federation of Young Democrats”) with other young opponents of the regime and demanded free elections and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. In these early years, Orban was seen as a young liberal icon behind the Iron Curtain. In the late 1980s, Viktor Orban’s career was symbolic of the democratic and western leaning transformations of Eastern Europe. On the first free elections in 1990, Orban was elected as an MP for the National Assembly for the first time, transforming Fidesz from a youth political movement into an important party in the new democratic Hungary. Orban took over control of the party three years later, and under his direction, Fidesz moved away from the liberalism ideas that originally defined it to a more right-wing ideology. First, he rebranded it as a center-right Christian democratic party, and then later in 2002, as the nationalist and authoritarian party it is today. Orban thought that assuming an empty space on the political spectrum was the best way to have success against the left and liberal parties. Gradually, it became the dominant right-wing party in Hungarian politics. Fidesz’s changes are best understood as responses to Orban’s pursuit of power than as driven by ideological evolution. In 1998, Orban was elected prime minister, the youngest ever in the country’s history. His first term was a regular center-right government. Under his leadership, the foundations for Hungary’s membership of the EU and NATO were laid, and his performance was mostly praised. In 2002, Fidesz lost power to the Socialist Party, and Orban lead the opposition until 2010, when he was once again elected as prime-minister by using the Hungarian’s discontent with the Great Recession and widespread corruption charges against the socialist government to win in a landslide.
The second term of the new Orban government would start the demolition of democratic institutions in Hungary. After the win in 2010, Orban’s party had a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly, and it used it to approve – and then later amend to his benefit – a new constitution that reduced the power of the courts and severely diminished the freedom of the press. Under the new constitution, the number of MPs in the National Assembly was reduced by almost half. The now reduced number of MPs would be elected in redrawn constituencies that are believed to favor Orban’s party, the Fidesz. The new constitution also ended the requirement that judges for the Constitutional Court needed the support of the majority of the parties’ in the National Assembly to be elected, which means judges can now reach the court with a two-thirds majority despite objections from opposition parties, allowing Fidesz to pack the court with allies of the government. As for local courts, the government reduced the retirement age of judges, which forced hundredths to retirement and allowed the government to pack all levels of the judiciary system with Orban sympathizers. With government control of the media, the vanished power of the courts, and a political ally as President, Viktor Orban has created a fortress of power that allowed him to win once again a two-third majority in the National Assembly in 2014 and 2018. With this new coronavirus emergency bill granting Orban the power to rule by decree and to suppress what little remains of the free media in Hungary, the elections of 2022 will likely not be any different.
Can Europe do anything?
The European Union’s reaction to Orban’s recent power grab has so far been diplomatic and deemed “modest”. Although Orban has been suspended from the European People’s Party on his conduct, he has openly characterized the outcome as being “mutually agreed”, instead of a punishment. However, former EU chief Donald Tusk is urging the largest party in the European Parliament to expel Orban’s party, the Fidesz. A statement by thirteen EU countries reminded the risks to fundamental rights and the rule of law but did not directly name Hungary. President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen urged governments to take strictly proportionate measures, without specifically targeting Budapest, although then mentioned it would analyze the newly passed law and monitor its application. The Council of Europe, the European Commission, Reporters without Borders and the European Parliament all have expressed that the law would pose a threat to democracy in Hungary.
The options the EU has to tackle a case like Hungary are limited. The sanctions process in Article 7 can end up in a member state losing its EU voting rights, but another member can block it – in this case, Hungary could most likely count on Poland’s vote. A proposal to include the rule of law into EU budget negotiations has not been conclusive. The most effective move the European Commission could make might be taking Hungary to the European Court of Justice, as non-compliance with the latter’s rule may lead the country’s first step to exiting the Union. Nonetheless, this process takes time, and for the time being, we have a de facto dictator in the European Union.
Sources: Euronews, Politico, New York Times, Institute Montaigne, The Atlantic, Kim Lane Scheppele on Hungary’s new constitution – the full lecture at CEU
Teams: Global Politics, European Affairs