How Viktor Orban degraded Hungary’s weak democracy

The roots of democracy in Hungary are shallow.

That’s been especially clear in the last nine years, as Prime Minister Viktor Orban has created a repressive and increasingly authoritarian state, operating under a pretense of democracy.

In recent weeks the political situation has become volatile. By early 2019 the Hungarian government was the target of a series of major demonstrations in Budapest and other Hungarian cities.

A flash point was a new labor law allowing employers to compel overtime to make up for the country’s labor shortage. The shortage was caused by the emigration of nearly a million young and skilled workers during the Orban years and the regime’s extreme anti-immigrant stance.

It’s not clear whether the protests are a passing phenomenon or a surge of new interest in democracy.

Conditions ripe for nationalism

Hungarians have a history of authoritarian domination, often by outsiders – Mongols, Ottomans, Russians, Hapsburgs, Fascists and, after World War II, communist rule under the Soviets.

Having lived recently in Hungary for seven years, I witnessed how the psychological legacy of externally imposed rule has hobbled the growth of civic participation, a precondition for democracy. In Budapest, the common spaces of apartment buildings are often run down, and volunteering for an international civic organization is frowned upon.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of Soviet domination, Hungarians went through two decades of democratic development, including a parliamentary system, a free media, an independent judiciary and growing civic participation.

But the global financial crisis of 2008 hit Hungary harder than other countries in the region, driving the economy down and unemployment up. It left many people feeling no better off than they had been during communism. Nationalism grew in the Hungarian countryside, where xenophobia thrived.

These were the preconditions for Viktor Orban’s sustained attack on Hungary’s weak democracy after coming to power in 2010.

Protesters walk past riot police officers during an anti-government march in central Budapest, Hungary, Dec. 21, 2018. AP/Marko Drobnjakovic

Orban ascendant

Orban had earlier served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002, steering the country toward membership in NATO and the European Union, but then moving far to the right after his defeat at the polls.

Orban’s biographer, Jozsef Debreczeni, explained this shift to The New York Times: “They say that power spoils good politicians. With Orban that wasn’t the case. It was the loss of power that did it.”

The former prime minister blamed his defeat on the media and democratic pluralism. He set out to make sure that when he came to power again he would never lose it.

In his 2010 campaign Orban fanned the flames of Hungarian discontent by attacking outsiders as oppressors, skillfully playing to Hungarians’ grievances about their history.

The European Union was his initial target. He depicted Brussels, the site of EU headquarters, as “the new Moscow,” and he smeared his opponents as stooges of foreign interests.

He anticipated the flow of migrants into Europe and made them a target by stimulating anti-Muslim sentiment and fears of terrorism long before the mass migration began in 2015.

Orban asserted that he was building a new model of governance, which he dubbed “illiberal democracy.” In reality, the mixture of voting and authoritarianism was an Orwellian hypocrisy in which the winner of an election, like Viktor Orban, could claim a mandate to undermine democratic institutions.

Undermining civil society

After his 2010 election, Orban set out to centralize power.

He took over the media through a combination of political and financial pressure, regulation, censorship and disinformation.

Then he went after the judiciary. He weakened the rule of law by stacking Hungary’s Constitutional Court with allies, limiting its jurisdiction and forcing the early retirement of judges.