Hungarian democracy is at an important crossroads; in just over eight months time, voters will be casting their ballots on whether to restore democratic ideals to the country or continue down the path of far-right leader Viktor Orban’s ‘illiberal democracy’ and issue a death blow to the very values he once campaigned for as an activist in 1989.
After Orban returned to power in 2010 (he also led the country from 1998 to 2002), he has worked to turn the country’s young democracy into an authoritarian state, seizing control of media organisations, gerrymandering the voting system, pandering to other tyrants abroad and attacking opponents as agents of Jewish billionaire George Soros.
Under Orban, corruption has spread out of control, to the point that more than two-thirds of Hungarians see corruption as a significant problem (although they remain divided on whether the government is accountable for it). When Orban isn’t pissing the country’s money down the drain in vanity projects like expensive football stadiums in towns and villages, he has been weakening independent institutions and misusing EU funds – including directing EU taxpayers’ money to fund a tourist train service to Orban’s birthplace, which attracts almost no tourists. Business leaders and oligarchs loyal to Orban can expect fruitful government contracts in return, whilst Orban signs deals with Russia and China to boost Hungary’s standing but to little gain at home.
Orban’s government has sought to hide any criticism or exposure of his government’s indiscretions by exerting all but total control over the country’s media landscape. His allies have bought up many television networks and newspapers and either changed their editorial stance to the party line or forced them to close entirely. It now even suspected that his government has hacked the phones of investigative journalists, in Orban’s continued efforts to suffocate all possible accountability of his rule.
To solidify control further, Orban has also gerrymandered the country’s electoral system in his party’s favour – eliminating second-rounds for constituency seats, increasing the number of seats elected under first-past-the-post, redrawing constituency borders to their advantage and increasing the threshold required to win proportional seats. All these measures have ensured Fidesz maintains a two-thirds majority in parliament, with the power to change the constitution at their will.
Whilst the country has vaccinated over half the country with help from Russian and Chinese vaccines, initial inaction and prioritisation of the economy has come at a deadly cost – the country has the second highest death rate in the world, at a rate of 3,072 deaths per 1 million people.
Even amid rising cases and global lockdowns, Orban used the pandemic as an opportunity to seize greater power by passing an act to rule by decree, which also made the distribution of fake news about the pandemic punishable by up to five years in prison; an action seen as a threat to the country’s independent journalists reporting unfavourably about the government. The state of emergency was abolished a few months later – but not before Orban had used it to attack the trans community by effectively banning individuals from changing their legal gender.
This has been part of Orban’s attempts to stoke up a ‘culture war’ – similar to that of nearby Poland and their right-wing populist government. Regarding LGBTQ+ rights as ‘not compatible with Christian values’, Orban has loosened protections for LGBTQ+ from discrimination and, in recent weeks, passed legislation to censor ‘homosexual propaganda’ in schools. The law, now due to go to a referendum (with questions set up to provoke the response the government wants), prohibits even the broadcast of shows with any reference to LGBTQ+ people until after the country’s watershed. With neo-Nazis protesting Budapest Pride this week, it is little wonder why many of the country’s community are considering fleeing for more tolerant countries.
In addition, inflation has hit 5.1 percent – the highest in the EU, homelessness has been criminalised, companies can demand up to 400 hours overtime from employers while delaying payment for them by three years, and a labour shortage has been worsened by Orban’s tirades against foreigners and refugees and his strict policies on immigration.
All of this has gone on while the country continues to benefit from EU funding for a range of projects, as well as misusing them for their own gain; Orban slams the European project publicly whilst needing their money privately. However, legal challenges over blatant violations of the EU’s democratic norms and values could threaten this, just as the country’s economy needs support the most.
It is clear that Orban fears losing power – already he has used his two-thirds majority in the nation’s parliament to try and cut off any future government from exerting control over key areas, such as healthcare and education, by putting them in the hands of ‘independent’ operators run by Orban loyalists.
The party is also offering $2 billion in extra payments to pensioners, grants to families and tax cuts for young people – but Orban will have to answer difficult questions about where the money will come from. The economic climate is unpredictable and he will should face criticism over why taxpayer money was funnelled to his cronies and not to provide direct cash payments to those who needed it in the health crisis; the country’s furlough scheme lasted a mere three months.
The only way Hungarian democracy can truly be restored is to deal Orban and his party a through rout at the polls next April – a two-thirds opposition majority would ensure that much of the rot at the heart of government can be reversed; a majority of that size is required to make changes to the nation’s constitution, which has been bastardised under Orban. However, the likelihood of this actually playing out is slim, even with all the opposition parties united in their fight to oust the government.
Even should the opposition succeed, they may also face the prospect of a Fidesz president blocking legislation they wish to pass. The current term of President Ader is due to end a month before the expected general election date, meaning the current parliament – with Fidesz’s two-thirds majority – would elect the new president. Such a move could condemn any opposition government’s prospects of reform for their entire term in office; the next presidential election would come the year after the 2026 general election.
Regardless of the challenges an opposition government might face, 2022 marks the crossroads for the Hungarian people and the country’s future. The nation’s democracy, and potentially even their future within the European family of nations, is hanging by a thread. Should they choose wisely, Hungary can begin to rehabilitate from another return to authoritarianism, but should they fail to oust Orban – he may ensure such a challenge to his power can never come close to toppling him.