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Hungary – On the Brink of Democracy

Democracy in Recess

Considering the political developments in Hungary over the past years, one may argue, as a recent report by Freedom House, a leading US-based NGO for the promotion of freedom and democracy, did, that Hungary can no longer be called a democracy.

According to the Freedom House “Nations in Transit” 2020 report, Hungary reached a democracy percentage of 49/100, compared to last year’s 51/100, the lowest democracy score amongst other EU members, making it a “transitional or hybrid regime”. Moreover, with a global freedom score of 70/100, it is the only EU country not classified as free.
After the country recently implemented emergency measures due to the global coronavirus outbreak, which allowed Viktor Orbán to rule autonomously by decree, it becomes even harder to call it a liberal democracy.

But the decline of liberal democracy and establishment of an, how prime minister Orbán calls it, ‘illiberal state’, already started years ago. Right after the renewed take-over of power by Fidesz under Orbán in 2010, the party gradually established a surveillance state. By now, they control the media, the judiciary and placed Fidesz sympathizers on top of several other state institutions and companies. This brief analysis will elaborate on the changes made since Fidesz’s electoral victory in 2010.

The making of an “illiberal democracy”

As one of the first significant reforms of the new government, the constitution, which originated shortly after the fall of communism, was fundamentally changed. The prime minister justified the move by claiming it was necessary and served to eradicate Hungary’s communist legacy. With the new constitution, the parliament passed several acts regarding education, healthcare, and the pensions system.

Perhaps the most critical step to further tighten and consolidate Fidesz’s party grip on power, the government passed a new electoral law that would significantly impact future elections. A process called gerrymandering moved and changed electoral districts in shape and size. This ensured that Fidesz remained the leading party in these districts in future elections. Furthermore, the five-member election commission responsible for the legal supervision of elections, which should consist of politically diverse election commissioners, saw its members replaced before the end of the term by new commissioners. Needless to say, these new commissioners are part of the Fidesz party.

Besides that, the judiciary faced changes, such as lowering the retirement age from 70 to 62. This “reform” resulted in the retirement of several judges and court presidents within a few months. In addition, the president of the Supreme Court now also has to have five years of experience in Hungary. With 17 years of experience in the European Court of Human Rights, the former president did not fit this new criterion and was therefore replaced.

The reform of the constitution also affected the Constitutional Court: First, the number of judges was increased, and government-loyal judges were placed in those newly created positions. Then, also the jurisdiction of the court was restricted, denying it the right to review new legislation on budget and austerity.

In addition, the government exercised further control by implementing new media laws. As a result, at the top of virtually all major media outlets are now people close to the Fidesz government. Moreover, Fidesz created a media board completely staffed with Fidesz sympathizers. The board is responsible for overseeing media coverage and ensuring compliance with the standard of “political balance”. In case the media board finds a media outlet to be in breach of its questionable standards, they may face unbearable fines. As a result, most news outlets refuse to report critically of the government for fear of fines or a shutdown.

In 2016, one of Hungary’s largest newspapers, “Népszabadság”, centre-left oriented and thus critical of the Fidesz government, was shut down from one day to the next. Népszabadság’s journalists widely considered the move a “coup”. Some only got to know about the closure when they tried to enter the newsroom and could not do so. Mediaworks, which is close to the Fidesz government, took control of the newspaper after buying off the opposition’s shares. They justified the move, claiming that the paper only made losses in the past, presenting it as an economic decision. This is just another step Fidesz took to consolidate its power and systematically restrict democratic principles, such as press freedom.

After making all these reforms in its first four years in government that were beneficial only for Fidesz itself, the party, in 2014, managed once again to secure the majority of votes and therefore govern the country with Orbán as prime minister for a second consecutive term. His second term lasted from 2014 until 2018 and coincided with the so-called European-wide “refugee crisis”. During this time, Orbán increasingly focused on anti-immigration rhetoric and demonized refugees coming to Europe after fleeing from war. Moreover, he criticized the EU’s handling of the crisis, built a fence on the Serbian and Croatian borders to keep migrants out. In addition, Orbán refused the EU’s relocation scheme for migrants. His party also received international attention for its country-wide anti-EU campaigns and anti-Soros campaigns, in which he accused the Hungarian-American philanthropist of his involvement in the migration crisis.

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The EU and international NGOs have widely criticized Orbán and his government for its reforms and the democratic backsliding and the violation of basic democratic principles, and its handling of minorities and migrants. And still, Orbán and his party managed to secure a majority of the votes to serve for a third consecutive term as governing party with Orbán as prime minister. And after all the reforms made, he still managed to further violate western values and curb democratic freedom.

The COVID-19 Crisis and Orbán’s Rule by Decree

In 2020, following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Hungarian prime minister took the chance to enact emergency measures to rule the country by decree. The parliament, where Fidesz holds a majority with its “coalition” (read: satellite) party KNDP, voted in favour of these emergency measures. This empowers Orbán to rule the country without any checks and balances whatsoever. Elections of any kind are postponed until the government revokes the state of emergency. The state of emergency is indefinite in time, and the Hungarian government itself decides when it is over. Facts, which evoke mixed feelings in some European capitals over the state of democracy in Hungary.

Further measures within this emergency law seriously infringe basic democratic principles, such as on freedom of the press, as the law threatens with prison charges of up to five years for “disinformation” and “fake news”. This is concerning since clearly, whatever has not been published by and is not in the interest of the Hungarian government, would consequently be deemed fake news.

Regarding these recent relative drastic measures, it is important to question what kind of “emergency” we are really talking about in Hungary. According to the government’s webpage, as of April 2, 2020, Hungary has 858 confirmed cases of Covid-19. Zero deaths1. Comparing these numbers to other European countries, which have by far more confirmed cases and deaths, it is hard to see if and why we really are talking about an emergency situation here. This is not to say we should negate the possible seriousness and the worsening of the situation. But considering these numbers, there would be no need to rule the country by decree.

Indeed, other EU countries implemented emergency measures too. However, they do not contradict European values to the extent that Hungary’s emergency laws do. Simple measures, like the ones other countries have taken, would suffice. Common sense should enable governing and opposition parties to act in accordance during a situation like this – even in a country like Hungary. There is simply no need to pass emergency laws of this bandwidth and a rule by decree. Imposing charges in case of “disinformation” only further closes the already restricted media landscape. The measures taken by the Hungarian government are simply disproportionate with regard to the situation on the ground.

EU (in)action in Hungary

For the past years, the European Union silently watched what unfolds in one of its own member states. The EU has noted the various scandals that happened in Hungary in the past but failed to address these properly. The Article 7 proceeding that the EU opened in the light of Hungary’s failure to commit to democratic, European values has likewise failed to bring the expected results. Hungary continues to receive vast amounts of cohesion funds from the European Union, despite its open criticism vis-à-vis the Union.

Even regarding the Hungarian government’s latest actions, the emergency laws and Orbán’s rule by decree with no end date, the EU showed little reaction. Neighbouring Austria’s chancellor Kurz failed to mention what was happening across its eastern border. European Commission President Van der Leyen similarly only spoke of the importance to uphold fundamental rights but forgot to mention the country of concern.

It is alarming that the EU seems unable to do something about the democratic decline in its own member state. Article 7 proceedings are apparently inadequate to address such developments, as we have seen in the cases of Poland and Hungary. The EU needs more effective mechanisms to sanction member states who breach fundamental values. Qualified majority voting should replace the need for unanimity when withdrawing a country’s voting rights in the EU council. This could seriously threaten states that violate fundamental EU values, and they may refrain from doing so in the future.

Furthermore, cohesion funds should underlie some basic conditionality. Countries who do not play by the EU rules would have no access to the money until they change their policies and uphold democratic values. Also, money paid to countries should underlie more scrutiny to retrace how countries use it. This may also ensure the prevention of misappropriation of EU funds, especially in highly corrupt countries, like Hungary2.

Because in the end, how can the EU present itself as a powerful global actor if it is unable to keep things in order within its own ranks?

 

Postscriptum

By June 16, 2020, the Hungarian government finally revoked its emergency powers and rule by decree, appearing to the general public as if the situation would return back to what is considered a “normal” in Hungary. And yet, while the government ended the state of emergency, it simultaneously proposed new legislation which is supposed to ensure the possibility for Orbán to rule by decree in the future. In case the parliament adopts the bill, it gives the governing party the power to take any measures deemed necessary without the parliament’s approval. This includes the suspension of laws and provides the government with the ability to declare a “state of medical emergency”. It thereby paves the way to restrict the freedom of movement and assembly for six months, indefinitely renewable, without parliamentary scrutiny. As perfectly summed up in an article by Human Rights Watch: “This is just another example of the Fidesz government using, as it has for the past ten years,  its two-thirds parliamentary majority to rubber-stamp multiple rights-abusing laws and authoritarian-style measures (…)”.

 

Sources

Apelblat, M. (2020): Hungary only EU member state ranked as partly free, The Brussels Times, https://www.brusselstimes.com/all-news/eu-affairs/99373/hungary-only-eu-member-state-ranked-as-partly-free/, accessed, 14.06.2020

BBC (2013): Q&A: Hungary’s controversial constitutional changes, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-21748878, accessed, 04.06.2020.

BBC (2016): Hungary’s largest paper Nepszabadsag shuts, alleging pressure, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-37596805, accessed 05.06.2020.

Benková, L. (2019): Hungary-Orbán ́s project towards “illiberal democracy”, AIES, https://www.aies.at/download/2019/AIES-Fokus-2019-02.pdf, accessed, 05.06.2020

Bienvenu, H. (2016): Newspaper Closes in Hungary and Hungarians See Government’s Hand, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/12/world/europe/hungary-newspaper-nepszabadsag.html, accessed 07.06.2020

Csaky, Zs. (2020): Nations in Transit 2020 Report: Dropping the Democratic Facade, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/2020-04/05062020_FH_NIT2020_vfinal.pdf, accessed, 14.06.2020

Euractiv (2020): Hungary set to end disputed emergency virus powers, https://www.euractiv.com/section/justice-home-affairs/news/hungary-set-to-end-disputed-emergency-virus-powers/, accessed, 16.06.2020

European Court of Human Rights (2014): BAKA vs. HUNGARY, https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{“itemid”:[“001-144139”]}, accessed, 07.06.2020

Human Rights Watch ( 2013): Wrong Direction on Rights: Assessing the Impact of Hungary’s New Constitution and Laws, https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/05/16/wrong-direction-rights/assessing-impact-hungarys-new-constitution-and-laws, accessed 08.06.2020

Human Rights Watch (2020): Ending Hungary’s State of Emergency Won’t End Authoritarianism, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/05/29/ending-hungarys-state-emergency-wont-end-authoritarianism, accessed 18.06.2020

Rankin, J. (2020): Hungary’s emergency law “incompatible with being in Eu”, say MEPs group, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/31/hungary-emergency-law-incompatible-with-being-in-eu-say-meps-group-viktor-orban, accessed 08.06.2020

Santora, M. (2018): Hungary Election Gives Orbán Big Majority, and Control of Constitution, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/08/world/europe/hungary-election-viktor-orban.html, accessed 07.06.2020

The Hungarian Helsinki Committee (2015): Hungary’s Government Has Taken Control Of The Constitutional Court, https://www.helsinki.hu/en/hungarys-government-has-taken-control-of-the-constitutional-court/#, accessed 07.06.2020

Walker, S. (2020): Hungarian journalists fear coronavirus law may be used to jail them, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/03/hungarian-journalists-fear-coronavirus-law-may-be-used-to-jail-them, accessed 09.06.2020


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The New START: Discursive effectiveness but little congruence with what it proposes

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