Viktor Orbán and the State of Hungarian Democracy

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Distinguished Fellow for Democracy Studies

A few weeks before last Sunday’s elections in Hungary, the government there sent out a fact sheet meant to answer critics who have claimed that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative Fidesz party pushed through a series of constitutional changes with the aim of insulating themselves against electoral defeat.

The fact sheet listed various “myths” about Fidesz policies, followed by the government’s rejoinders. Item number one dealt directly with one of the principal charges:

MYTH: The governing Fidesz-KDNP party alliance unilaterally and hastily changed a well-functioning electoral system before the elections to ensure electoral victory in 2014.

In its response, the government argued that every major party had sought to reform the complicated electoral system since 1990, that the recent reforms were adopted after due deliberation, and that “to predict that the new system will favor Fidesz is a hypothesis that lacks real empirical evidence, since the new system has never been tested before.”

With the election results, some evidence is now in. Under the system adopted by a parliament with a Fidesz supermajority, the party gained 44 percent of the vote but a whopping 67 percent of the seats in parliament. That two-thirds figure is crucial, since it preserves Fidesz’s ability to enshrine new laws in the constitution, making them unassailable unless some other party or coalition attains the two-thirds threshold in the future.

Now fair is fair. Fidesz did not completely reinvent the Hungarian electoral system. The basic features were set in place by Orbán’s left-of-center predecessors. The reforms were meant to make Hungary more democratic, Fidesz asserted, not give advantage to any particular party. However, in Sunday’s elections, the changes initiated by Fidesz contributed to an outcome that was both less than fair and of benefit to Fidesz, as critics predicted. Indeed, Hungarian analysts suggest that without the electoral revisions, the party would have lost the supermajority it has enjoyed since 2010.

There were also accusations of media bias. To be sure, complaining about press coverage is almost automatic in polarized settings like Hungary. But in this case, the source of the complaint was an election monitoring team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The OSCE has an impressive track record of independent and nuanced reporting on elections in genuinely authoritarian environments like Ukraine and Belarus. The report on Hungary did not charge massive fraud or misconduct. It nevertheless makes for uncomfortable reading, describing a government strategy to dominate the press that echoes methods used in far less democratic countries.

Then there is Jobbik. Viktor Orbán has repeatedly taken credit for stemming the appeal of the ultranationalist party, which has a recent history of rank anti-Semitism and heavy-handed attacks on Hungary’s Romany population. Were it not for my softer brand of nationalism, Orbán has effectively claimed, Jobbik-style xenophobia would be much more of a threat to Hungarian democracy. The problem with this argument is that in the four years since the current Fidesz administration began, Jobbik has actually gathered momentum, at least as reflected in the election results. In 2010 it won 16.7 percent of the vote; on Sunday that figure rose to 20.5 percent, or nearly 1 million votes.

Again, fair is fair. Despite some real vulnerabilities, including an unimpressive economic record since 2010, Fidesz won a resounding victory under electoral conditions that, despite the flaws, generally met global standards. The opposition coalition did not offer the voters a strong, unified message. In this sense it resembled the mediocre showing of opposition parties in other societies with strong populist leaders, Turkey’s Erdoğan being a notable example. Denouncing Orbán’s imperious style of rule and sweeping constitutional changes did not constitute an alternative political program for voters who were concerned about a protracted economic downturn.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the Hungarian election coincided with one of the most serious foreign policy crises faced by Europe since the Cold War’s end: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. On this critical issue, Orbán has had surprisingly little to say. He and his foreign ministry have issued anodyne statements of mild criticism for Russia’s action, questioned the sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe, and made reassuring declarations about the safety of ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine’s Transcarpathia region.

Orbán is admittedly not the only European leader who has adopted a low profile on the Ukraine crisis. But he has consistently stressed his credentials as an anticommunist and critic of Russian imperialism. In the past, he campaigned on the need to purge Hungary of the lingering influence of the communist period, an influence which, he asserted, was retarding the full flowering of Hungarian freedoms. Moreover, in the past he was an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian course and pledged that under his leadership, Hungary would not fall victim to Russia’s bullying energy diplomacy. Then in January, he signed a deal that will allow Russia to provide a massive loan for the expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant. Beyond that agreement, Orbán has spoken about reorienting his country’s trade policies eastward, towards authoritarian countries like China, Azerbaijan, and Russia.

Although many countries exercise self-censorship in dealings with authoritarian trade partners, it is not unreasonable to expect a higher appreciation of democratic freedoms from those who lived under totalitarianism and foreign domination—indeed, especially from leaders like Orbán, who have made opposition to dictatorship central to their political identification. Critics may have gone overboard in picking apart each and every measure of domestic change introduced by Fidesz over the past four years. But its policies, both at home and abroad, are far from reassuring.

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