Hungary Election Highlights Threat to Democracy

(Bloomberg View) -- Hungarians will head to the polls Sunday to elect their parliament. The big concern about Hungary is that it is one of a number of European democracies in which strong anti-democratic parties have taken control or have been threatening to do so. For some insight, I corresponded via email with political scientist Kristin Makszin, a research fellow at the Institute for Political Science at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; she also teaches at McDaniel College Budapest and Central European University.

The following has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jonathan Bernstein: What's the most important thing those of us in the U.S. and the rest of the world should know about the upcoming Hungarian elections?

Kristin Makszin: In all likelihood, Fidesz, the current governing party led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, will still govern after the election. Nevertheless, this is far from a boring election when we consider the political future of Hungary. The alternatives to Fidesz are the radical right party, Jobbik, and a fragmented left consisting of several small parties. The left has been divided since 2008 and some new parties have emerged, but they had difficulty cooperating. The lead-up to this election showed some signs of cooperation among the parties. The parties that come in second, third and fourth will likely gain legitimacy in the opposition. 

Fidesz won a landslide victory in the 2010 elections and held a two-thirds majority in parliament. So they have been in charge of the country for eight years, and passed sweeping reforms that reshaped how the Hungarian democracy functions, including changes to the constitution, electoral law and media law. Overall these reforms solidified Fidesz's power while deteriorating the quality of its democratic institutions.

It is important to note that the electoral system was reformed in a way that favors large parties. In 2014, Fidesz got just under 45 percent of the popular vote, and that translated into 66 percent of the seats in parliament. Given that Fidesz support is currently polling at around 40 percent (though it varies a lot depending on the poll), it seems highly likely that the current government will again be able to govern without a coalition partner. 

JB: Are there any (perhaps small) signs of trouble for Fidesz?

KM: The trouble would not be for this election, but there are some signs of cooperation between opposition parties. The opposition to the government includes the radical right party and a fragmented left. So when electing a single member of parliament for a district, the opposition is splitting the vote, which makes the Fidesz candidate the most likely to win. For the opposition, one of the most hopeful developments in the lead-up to the election is the prospect that opposition parties may finally be ready to cooperate. There have been some candidates stepping out of the election to improve the chances for remaining opposition candidates. Additionally, many opposition activists are actively coordinating strategic voting or even vote swapping for the representatives from single-member districts. Several websites were developed to show voters who is the most likely candidate to compete with the governing party's candidate and providing information for voters who want to see a change in government. The opposition, who has shown little potential for cooperation over the last 10 years, may be finally be ready to do so, even if it is too late to change the outcome of the election on Sunday.

JB: To what extent do Fidesz and Orbán constitute a threat to Hungarian democracy at this point?

KM: We don't need to look to critics of the government to find that Hungarian democracy has changed. Orbán has stated this as a goal and uses nationalist framing to propose an "illiberal democracy" where national and conservative values take priority over individual freedoms. At the very minimum, the extent of the reforms -- including changing the constitution and electoral law without sufficient consultation with the opposition -- was alarming.

Political scientists and many Hungarians have been worried about the deterioration of Hungarian democracy since 2010. Some say that Hungary already has an authoritarian regime. In my view, the erosion of democratic institutions was more gradual, but the transformation's subtlety is one of its most frightening parts. It means that many citizens don't feel the impact of the changes immediately, but over time they will.

The media law is a good example. In Hungary, you can still criticize the government in the media, but fewer and fewer people will be able to hear your criticism because access to non-state media is limited, especially outside of the capital. A newspaper, Nepszabadsag, and radio stations that were vocal against the government were shut down. Media ownership seems to be increasingly concentrated in the hands of the friends of Fidesz leadership. The government has an explanation for any single event, but when you add it all up, it is clear that Hungarian citizens' ability to freely access information and make decisions about their government is threatened. 

This is particularly evident in the recent hate campaigns that Fidesz conducted while in government. First it was against refugees, then Brussels, and now George Soros. They invested large amounts of taxpayer dollars in advertisements and "surveys" that read more like propaganda in an attempt to convince citizens to be afraid of each of these targets. These appear to have been quite effective and the fear that they evoked surely increased support for the government leading up to this election. The government also targeted nongovernmental organizations that support issues that they frame as a "liberal agenda" and have obstructed their operations in Hungary.

JB: Is this rising authoritarianism best thought of as part of a cross-national movement, or is it particular to Hungary?

KM: The threats to Hungarian democracy are surely linked to international trends where there seems to be increased support for nationalist views or disappointment with the functioning of democracy "on the ground," but I don't see it as a part of a cross-national movement. To be clear, we can't blame (U.S. President Donald) Trump, as the problems in Hungary started much earlier. Orbán did feel emboldened by Trump's election, I think, but continued on a path that began much earlier. The clearest connection to another country is Poland and its nationalist government. The Poland and Hungarian governments support each other at the EU level and show solidarity with each other's efforts to deteriorate democratic institutions. 

JB: Are there any signs of changes in Hungarian economic policy coming as a result of this election?

KM: There were not any major shifts in economic policy, but mostly continuity with early approaches. The rhetoric surrounding a commitment to "Hungary first" has been strong, but the policy action behind that has been more reserved recently. The government has a committed base, and it primarily relied on rhetoric to mobilize its base to vote and to generate fear of any alternative government through the hate campaigns.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

To contact the author of this story: Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

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