The Crisis of Democracy in Hungary

For twenty years, the Hungarian political system was a liberal democracy characterised by a multiparty system, free elections, free media and independent courts. But in the past years the country has returned to an authoritarian system. Andras Bozoki, former Minister of Culture between 2005 and 2006 takes a closer look at Hungary's transition away from democracy. ➤ Recent articles and publications on the EU & North America. 

For twenty years, the Hungarian political system was a liberal democracy characterised by a multiparty system, free elections, representative government, a strong opposition, free media, strong, independent courts and credible institutions that protected the rule of law (i.e. the Constitutional Court and the Ombudsman Office). With a few striking exceptions, human rights and religious freedoms were respected. During the two decades after 1989, incumbent governments always lost elections (except for 2006), the media criticised politicians, democracy was consolidated, and in 2004 Hungary joined the European Union. Until relatively recently (the eve of 2006), Hungary remained a success story of democratic achievement. Later, however, Hungary took a serious autocratic turn, as I explored last year [1]. Here, I explore the problem of the transition away from democracy more closely, as it has since escalated. Is it possible for my country to return to an authoritarian system as a fully fledged member of the European Union?

Conceptual underpinnings of the regime

The policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz party are based on the following pillars: “national unification”, a “central arena of power”, a change of elites, power politics, and an era of “revolutionary circumstances”. This is more than just empty rhetoric; Prime Minister Orbán genuinely believes them to be true.

First, almost all of Orbán’s important messages are based on the notion of “national unification”, which has both symbolic and literal significance. He expressly criticises the Treaty of Trianon which concluded World War I, the legacy of the communist system, and the forces of globalisation, which he sees as the most important political issues of the day. Orbán suggests that the “nation” serves as the bastion offering protection against these forces. Furthermore, the idea of national unification maintains that Hungarians living outside of Hungary are full members of the Hungarian nation with corresponding rights and privileges. Orbán believes that civic freedoms and membership in the European Union are salient only insofar as they do not contradict the priorities of national unification.

Concerning domestic politics, national unification refers to the “system of national cooperation” introduced by Orbán, which has emerged as an alternative to liberal democracy. The priorities of Orbán’s system, however, are not to improve the livelihoods of the poor, the marginalised and the Roma communities, nor does his system encompass the concepts of the republic or respect for social and cultural diversity. Far from uniting the nation, the reality is that Orbán is dividing society. For him, the term “the people” does not define the masses; rather, it represents a national-historical category.

Second, Orbán’s notion of a “central arena of power” eliminates the idea of competition endorsed during the transition to democracy. He wants to create a system based on the monopolisation of the most important elements of political power. Orbán does not need economic, cultural or political alternatives; he strives to establish a unitary, dominant system of values (i.e. his own system of values). Where no alternatives exist, there is no room for democracy. What remains is reminiscent of the era of state socialism: “the people’s democracy”.

Third, Fidesz has radically changed the country’s elites, by replacing top administrative, economic and cultural leaders tied to previous decades. The first Orbán government (1998–2002) used culture to strengthen its own power. The second Orbán government, by contrast, sees culture as a source of unnecessary costs and potential criticism. It does not engage in a cultural struggle because it does not want to argue; rather, it simply has changed the elites. The aim here is to dismantle the political independence of institutions and to install a group of Orbán loyalists in key positions. Anti-communism is the ideology bolstering this move, which today is no more than a cover for power ambitions. This endeavour to solidify clientelism has sent the message that life outside the “system of national cooperation” is unthinkable.

Fourth, the government’s policies have not been based on any single ideology, because according to the prime minister the era of ideologies has ended. Viktor Orbán is not a conservative thinker; he is an opportunistic politician. Instead of ideas, Orbán believes in maximising power. He is a tight-fisted leader focused on achieving order, not freedom. Moreover, Orbán believes that he embodies the traditional, patriarchal values of hundreds of thousands of rural Hungarians. Those who identify with this mindset are servile towards their superiors, but aggressive towards their subordinates. There are also those who are only obedient when they know they are being observed.

Fifth, Orbán’s two-thirds parliamentary majority has allowed him to employ exceptional methods, which he has justified by claiming exceptional “revolutionary circumstances”. As a result, Orbán has deployed warlike, offensive tactics, pushing legislation through parliament in order to quickly and systematically rebuild the entire public legal system. Fidesz often refers to the ideas espoused in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 led by Lajos Kossuth (i.e. revolution and the struggle for freedom), yet Fidesz’s own “revolutionary struggle” has undermined freedom. In its stead, Fidesz has worked to establish a single-party state, where power rests with the party and the prime minister himself. At present, there are no powerful groups critical of Orbán within Fidesz who could offer political alternatives. Thus, the will of the leader is largely binding and without limits.

The building blocks of the system

Fidesz was silent during its 2010 campaign about the most important tasks that it would undertake following its anticipated victory. Once in power, however, Orbán began constructing a new system to replace the “turbulent decades” of liberal democracy. As a first step, he issued the “declaration of national cooperation”, and made it obligatory to post this declaration on the walls of all public institutions. The essence of the new system is that anyone who agrees with the government can participate in this “national cooperation”; those who disagree cannot, because the system is based on submission to the ruling party.

On Orbán’s recommendation, the governing majority chose not to reappoint László Sólyom as president. Despite significant pro-Fidesz moves, the latter guarded the autonomy of the presidency. Servile Pál Schmitt, a former deputy president of Fidesz and Member of the European Parliament, was appointed instead. In addition, the new government saw the 1989 constitution as a heap of purely technical rules which Orbán has since shaped to fit the needs of his current political agenda. If any of his new laws proved to be unconstitutional, it was not the law but rather the constitution that had to be changed.

When, in the autumn of 2010, the Constitutional Court struck down a statute that had retroactive effect, Fidesz immediately retaliated by amending the constitution and constraining the Constitutional Court’s jurisdiction. Thus, the Constitutional Court was transformed overnight from a controlling body – a real check on legislative power – into a feeble controller of the application of the law. The president of the Constitutional Court had been chosen by the members from within their own ranks, but under the new rules this individual is appointed by parliament. In addition, the number of judges has been increased from eleven to fifteen, and the court packed with right-wing personalities and former politicians known to be close to Fidesz. The governing majority did not (despite longstanding criticism of the rule) do away with the possibility of re-appointing judges, and hence they may remain under check politically.

The government’s propaganda aims to equate Fidesz voters with “the people”, thus justifying arbitrary decisions by referring to the party’s “mandate”. Public institutions, for instance, have been renamed “government” institutions. Furthermore, the Orbán government has introduced laws that have made possible the immediate dismissal of public employees without cause, and thus the cleansing of the entire government apparatus. Central and local public administration offices have quickly become politicised and riddled with conflicts of interest as a result.

All of the important positions, including those in independent institutions, have been filled by Fidesz loyalists. For the post of chief prosecutor, they appointed an activist who had previously been a Fidesz candidate, and who subsequently – during the first Orbán government – was the “trusted candidate” for the job. As president of the Court of Auditors, they appointed a person who until May 2010 had been a Fidesz parliamentary representative. Another former Fidesz representative became president of the Media Authority, and the spouse of an influential Fidesz representative was appointed to head the newly-created National Judicial Office, which serves as the administrative body of the judicial branch. The Hungarian Financial Supervisory Authority and the Budgetary Council came under political influence as well. The new president of the National Cultural Fund is a Fidesz politician who simultaneously serves as president of the Parliamentary Cultural Committee; thus, this individual oversees his own job. A right-leaning government official took charge of the Ombudsman Office, doing away with the institution’s independence. Most of the above-mentioned party activists have been appointed for nine to twelve years, and thus they can stall or indeed prevent future governments from implementing policies that go against those of the current one.

State-sponsored media have replaced public radio and television channels. Their programmes heavily under-represent opposition politicians and intellectuals with opposition leanings. The media laws of 2010 created a media supervisory authority, and the individuals who are in this body’s decision-making positions are all close to Fidesz. The media authority can impose financial penalties at will, not only against radio and television programmes that fail to abide by the media laws, but also against print or electronic media – even bloggers. These fines can be so high that they effectively silence media outlets. The government does all it can to influence the media, ranging from personnel policies to state-led advertising. Measures aimed at curtailing press freedom, such as controlling the policies of news agencies and state television, editing cultural materials including outright forgery and manipulations, and the mass dismissal of employees, have created an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship among journalists and television reporters. The European Parliament determined that the media policy violates press freedom, and widespread European protests ensued. Under pressure from the European Commission, the Hungarian government withdrew some of the provisions of the media law, and the Constitutional Court repealed others. Nevertheless, the power to restrict freedom of the press remains on the books. The broadcasting operations of Budapest’s last opposition radio station, Klubrádió, were suspended; in the aftermath, television reporters carried out a hunger strike calling for the restoration of honest and transparent public media.

A minimum requirement of every democracy is to hold free and fair elections allowing for a peaceful change of power, which in turn enables an incoming government to implement policies that are different from the ones of its predecessor. After taking power, the Fidesz government filled the National Electoral Commission – the body responsible for conducting clean and smooth elections – with its own people. Shortly before the municipal elections of fall 2010, the governing majority changed electoral laws to make it more difficult for smaller parties to win seats in local government. Changes intended to advantage Fidesz have also been implemented for parliamentary elections – next scheduled for 2014. Overall, the law aims to filter out smaller parties and political opponents, and to make it more difficult for opponents of the new order to vote – including the poor, and especially the Roma (i.e. those who have suffered under the policies of the Fidesz government).

A snapshot of society and political culture

Initially, Fidesz’s sweeping electoral victory was interpreted by many as a populist reaction to the previous “weak” governments. After all, Fidesz had promoted economic nationalism and “unorthodox” economic policies by levying taxes on banks, launching anti-bank campaigns, and attacking foreign investors and multinational financial institutions. In an effort to balance the budget, the government levied “crisis taxes” on banks and in particular on large foreign-owned companies. At first sight, these measures may appear to be typical “left-wing” economic policies. This is a misleading interpretation, however, because Fidesz’s “unorthodox” economic policies were complemented by distinctly “anti-socialist” social policies. For example, the government now grants tax benefits to families with children of working parents; in effect, this means that, by definition, families with children of unemployed parents and who thus live in deep poverty (most notably the Roma) are excluded. Moreover, social spending on the homeless and the unemployed has been decreased, and homelessness as such has been criminalised. These measures have been justified with the notion of traditional, patriarchal family values. The Orbán government openly defends its anti-socialist policies. This is rare in continental Europe, where the majority of countries since World War II have aimed first and foremost to establish a social market economy, which they have since laboured to protect.

The government has taken several steps to prevent people from expressing opposition or dissatisfaction in a formal and organised fashion: It made the Labour Code stricter, which hurt workers, and it abolished the traditional forms of dialogue between employers and employees. Unions were forced to integrate into an emerging corporate structure, and the rights of workers to call a strike were curtailed. Furthermore, government-supported media launched a smear campaign against the new, more radical generation of union leaders.

A new law ensures that public education is managed and controlled by the central government. Local government and foundation schools are being nationalised, and a significant number of them are being placed in the hands of churches. Moreover, through these new laws, the government is homogenising the curriculum of public schools, and it has reduced the age until which students must attend school from 18 to 16 years. The law on public education merges the anti-liberal traditions enshrined in the dogmas of communism and Catholicism. It is no longer about education, but rather about discipline, and the state has the right to intervene in the lives of children and parents. The self-proclaimed “family-friendly” government strives to “re-educate” families, to enable them to become “worthy” of participating in the system of national cooperation.

Similar patterns can be observed in university education as well. The proposed new bill on higher education aims to radically limit admissions, with financial aid from the state to universities and colleges. The new law would even require students to repay tuition fees retroactively should they choose to live abroad after completing their studies. On top of all this, the Orbán government has proposed that certain university degrees could only be pursued upon payment of full tuition, which would make the more lucrative professions available only to the wealthy. It is the unspoken goal of the government to reduce social mobility, to bring the process of changing the elite to a close, and to entrench the social hierarchy that has emerged through a “revolutionary” process in the post-communist era.

Though the government stresses that it does not wish to return to the past, it nonetheless feeds nostalgia for the period between 1920 and 1944 characterised by Admiral Miklós Horthy’s nationalist and revanchist policies. Following the script of right-wing nationalism, Prime Minister Orbán has proclaimed the anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon as a “day of national unity”. The government has politically absolved individuals extolled during the Horthy regime by conferring new awards upon them. Under the guise of “national unification”, Orbán is granting citizenship and voting rights to Hungarian minorities living outside Hungary, based on the unfounded hope that in so doing he will increase the number of right-wing voters; the diaspora tend to vote for right-wing parties, and will perhaps return a favour in exchange for receiving citizenship. Orbán declared his wish to deal with the extreme rightist party Jobbik the same way that Horthy dealt with Nazi Arrow Cross movements: “Give them two slaps in the face and send them home”. Meanwhile, various right-wing extremist, paramilitary organisations have appeared in villages across Hungary with a range of eerie names such as “Magyar Gárda” (“Hungarian Guard”), “Véderő” (“Protective Force”), and “Betyársereg” (“Outlaw’s Army”), each echoing fascist symbols. These organisations launch racist campaigns aimed at the Roma, and courts that ban them are unable to prevent them from reorganising under different banners.

In the area of culture, the policies of the right and the ultra-right – Fidesz and Jobbik – overlap, as both have an exclusionary interpretation of “national values”. Under this label, both parties oppose the equal opportunity policies of past years. Though the government protected the National Theater’s director against homophobic and extreme-right attacks, compensation was not forthcoming. Instead, they appointed an extreme right-wing actor as director of the New Theatre, where he will now be working alongside István Csurka, the former president of the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP) – a former extreme-right party. At the helm of the Hungarian State Opera, Orbán (deceiving his own minister) placed a government commissioner who within a few weeks clashed with prominent representatives of Europe’s cultural scene. Within a year and a half, all the theatre directors across Hungary had been replaced. In many towns, relatives of Fidesz clientele have become the directors of theatres. By suspending the activities of the public foundation supporting film production, the government has effectively ended one of the most successful branches of Hungarian cultural life, and censorship in filmmaking has become institutionalised once again.

The government has commissioned sympathetic artists to create illustrations for the new basic law, so that it may leave visual footprints of its preferred historical periods next to the text, displayed on the mandatory “basic law tables” in government offices. They are redesigning Kossuth Square, the large area just in front of the Parliament Building, to restore the “conditions of 1944”. Their actions are full of contradictions. They laud both Chinese communism and the anti-communist neo-conservatism of the United States. They reject previous symbolic figures of Hungarian democracy such as István Bibó and Imre Nagy, turning instead towards the successors of Li Peng, with whom they are “forging an alliance”. They declare the Communist Party of the past a “criminal organisation”, including its predecessor and successor organisations, yet they welcome former communist party members in the government – who have even written parts of the basic law. A central propaganda machine protects nationalism, patriarchal family values, power politics and “law and order”.

It is surprising that – despite its qualified majority in parliament – the Fidesz government follows these steps with Blitzkrieg tactics, especially where legislation is concerned. If the government is to announce a new law, parts of it are leaked days before in order to “prepare” public opinion. The party’s parliamentary faction leader or the prime minister’s spokesperson then duly delivers the announcement, which is immediately submitted to parliament and voted into law. There is no broad-based public debate, no expert deliberations are held and no impact assessments are conducted. Nor is there need for other procedures considered conventional in a democracy. The opposition’s voice is divided, and it does not filter through the state-sponsored media. Furthermore, a modification of parliamentary rules limits debate explicitly, while proposals deemed important by Fidesz pass through smoothly.

This clearly contradicts the notion of a parliamentary democracy, which is based on idea of public debate. During the past year and a half, analysts, journalists and commentators hopelessly chased after events as they unfolded. The remaining democrats could barely keep up with the chaotic pace of new legislation – which was accelerated intentionally. By the time the concerned parties and non-state-controlled media had realised what had happened, the event had already concluded.

At first this gave the impression of a government determined to govern. Yet it has become clear that the goal is to centralise power. When criticised, the government has regularly responded by saying that the “most important talks” with society have already taken place, namely at the polling stations in 2010. Thus, the government claims that its policies reflect the will of the people. A constitutional coup has unfolded in Hungary, the speed of which was dictated by Orbán and his cronies.

The new basic law

The icing on the cake was the approval of the new basic law. Armed with a supermajority, Orbán gave parliament and society only two months to consider the issue. The democratic opposition parties – the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) and Lehet Más a Politika (Politics Can Be Different, LMP) – were not included in the parliamentary debate. Jobbik did participate, however, although in the end it voted against the new basic law. Under the label “society-wide debate”, Fidesz circulated a survey, which it touted as a “national consultation”. Professionally speaking, this survey was of low quality and impossible to process. Only a fraction of voters responded.

The constitution approved by the governing majority in April 2011 was the result of a unilateral governmental process which did not reflect a national consensus. The text of the new basic law did retain several portions of the 1989 constitution, but its treatment of individual freedoms is deeply problematic, as these are lumped together with communal interests. Although the basic law formally maintains the form of a republic (in one sentence only), it breaks with the essential notion of a republic by changing the country’s name from the “Republic of Hungary” to simply “Hungary”. The new basic law increases the role of religion, traditions and so-called national values. While it speaks of a unified nation, certain social minorities are not given due recognition and respect. In its definition of equality before the law, it mentions gender, ethnicity and religion, but not sexual orientation.

The 1989 democratic constitution was ideologically neutral; by contrast, the 2011 constitution features one of the longest preambles in Europe, composed of a whopping 26 paragraphs and serving as an expression of a “national religious belief system”. It is a vow, in which the Hungarians list all of their sources of pride and hope, and pledge to join hands and build a better future – parallel to Orbán’s “system of national cooperation”. The new text openly refers to Hungary as a country based on Christian values – exceptional for Europe and even unusual among the neighbouring Visegrád countries – stressing the role of Christianity in gluing the nation together, which is debatable in a largely secular country. It respects only the “traditions” of other religious but not their belief systems, thus viewing them as important only insofar as they form part of Hungary’s history. The text visibly turns its back on atheists and agnostics, who are purportedly unable to contribute intellectually to Hungarian national culture, and as such they have shut themselves out of the system. The text sees “culture” as synonymous with the unified and indivisible Hungarian national culture; the notion of cultural pluralism is not even mentioned.

The ideas of democracy, the republic and human rights are missing from the preamble of the new basic law; what does appear, however, is the traditional notion of the “true rule of the people”, which is not based on rights but on duties of the state. The text is classic Orbánian in its ending: “We, the citizens of Hungary stand prepared to base our country’s order on national cooperation.” This sentence mirrors the Stalinist constitution: “The Communist Party is the leading power of our society.” Since no one knows for sure what the “system of national cooperation” is exactly, it is Orbán himself, as Hungary’s leader, who is entitled to determine how it will be interpreted.

Opposing autocracy?

Despite the destructive efforts of the government, Hungary at the beginning of 2012 still retains a few of the basic characteristics of a multiparty democracy. Liberal democracy, however, has been replaced with a wrecked version of majority rule, in which freedom of speech is limited by self-censorship (people do not speak up for fear of losing their jobs), and press freedom is clearly being reduced to blogs, or to the blogosphere, as it were. The state-run television channels have turned towards tabloid journalism in order to depoliticise the news and remove political issues from media reports. The state-sponsored media, for instance, have either underreported or failed to report altogether on anti-Orbán mass rallies and demonstrations. There is no denying that control of the media will give Fidesz a clear advantage in the next general elections.

To ensure that elections continue to be free and fair, and to guarantee a return to liberal democracy, strong opposition parties willing to cooperate are needed, along with social movements, an independent press, civic organisations and heightened international scrutiny. By the end of 2011, the main points of opposition had already begun to appear, including independent unions and increasingly active civic groups, which now overshadow the dispersed opposition parties that still remain unable to join forces.

In January 2011, a group calling itself “One million people for the freedom of the press!” sent ten thousand protestors into the streets; by 15 March and 23 October – two of Hungary’s most important national holidays – their numbers had grown to 30,000 and 70,000, respectively. Labour unions organised larger gatherings in April and June. On 1 October, the Hungarian Solidarity Movement was formed, and organised a demonstration of 30,000 people in front of parliament. In December, it announced that it would become a countrywide organisation. On Christmas 2011, representatives and activists of opposition party LMP chained themselves around the Parliament Building to prevent parliamentarians from entering. The aim was to draw attention to legislation being passed by parliament which threatened the rule of law. The police – borrowing a tactic from their Ukrainian and Belarusian colleagues – accused the protestors of “restricting personal freedoms”.

If society is unable to counterbalance the system against the current governmental leadership, democracy is in danger. The proponents of autocracy, however, cannot cement their power, nor can they stop the clock to lock in their present favourable situation for all time. It is an important lesson for those who believe in democracy that they cannot pretend all is well, as they have in past decades. Democratic action is required. That there has been such action in the past year is a hopeful sign.

Hungary’s most recent past demonstrates that history did not end with the transition to democracy. Democracy is never a complete condition; rather, it is a dynamic process, full of tension. In essence, it is but a fragile equilibrium of forces and counter-forces. If Hungarian democracy survives the present authoritarian challenges thanks to resistance from society, there is a good chance that it will emerge stronger than ever. The political crisis draws attention to the fact that democracy cannot be reduced to institutions, because institutions can easily be hollowed out by leaders who do not respect the ideals of freedom. Democracy can only be preserved if, along with its values, a plethora of dedicated people help it thrive.

Prof. Dr. András Bozóki is Professor of Political Science at the Central European University (CEU) Budapest, Hungary. He has published widely in topics of democratization, the role of intellectuals, the roundtable talks of 1989, East-Central European politics, the transformation of communist successor parties, and the ideology of anarchism. Bozóki is the former Chairman of the Hungarian Political Science Association (2003-5) and was a member of the executive council of the European Political Science Network (2002-8). Since 2008, he is member of the executive committee of the European Confederation of Political Science Associations (ECPSA). In 2005-6, András Bozóki served as Minister of Culture of Hungary.

[1] The Hungarian Shock: The Transition from Democracy?, <>.