From a democracy to an authoritarian regime – Orbán’s dirty tricks – The Weekly 32
My two previous posts described the political and economic aspects of how Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party “drifted out of Europe”, dragging Hungary to a political no-man’s land and an economic uncertainty. These acts seem to have a more and more hefty price, which may as well include Orbán losing his power. This brings us to the topic of today’s post. Apparently, Orbán will stop at nothing to keep his rule, including the most blatant authoritarian measures. This is no exaggeration: the process has already started.
But how could Hungary turn from the eminent student of the Central European democratization era into a state sinking back to dictatorship?
This question has been asked many times, especially since Fidesz got into power with a two-thirds majority in 2010. However, the many intriguing arguments rarely mention the painful deficiencies in Hungary’ public law framework and traditions, which greatly helped Viktor Orbán in shaping Hungarian politics to his own image.
During the post-Communist democratization process, Hungary adopted a mixed electoral system with single-member constituencies and party lists in order to promote “stability in government” at the expense of proportional representation. To put it simply, the system rather punished the loser and reinforced the winner in the Parliament. This arrangement pushed the burgeoning post-Communist democracy to a direction where governments enjoyed a nearly absolute power during their term, without even a minimal consideration for the opposition. On the other hand, political rotation still existed at the time and it functioned as a certain kind of check to keep the current Hungarian leadership under control.
Back in 2010, Fidesz still won the two-thirds majority of the parliamentary seats in this old system which did favour the winner but was nonetheless much more proportional than the current one. Having been given an exceptionally strong mandate, they immediately started to transform the system. However, the goal of the transformation was not to eliminate the anomaly existing ever since the collapse of Communism. Instead, they leveraged the Hungarian political system’s deeply imprinted bad practices in order to make it even more extreme. Adopted in 2012, Fidesz’ new electoral system was based on their realization that the opposition parties – the left and Jobbik – were too far apart politically to cooperate and had no real chance to win many single-member constituencies on their own.
Consequently, Fidesz’ new system was designed to fill up most of the parliamentary seats through the single-member constituencies.
This arrangement brought further two-thirds victories for Fidesz in 2014 and 2018, despite the fact that less than half of the voters actually chose their candidates and lists in the elections. Even back then, Fidesz already needed to take quite a few unorthodox steps that are unusual in any democracy. These steps included preventing the opposition parties from running their advertisements, taking the public media under full government control and imposing a giga-fine of € 3 million on Jobbik in a show trial, right in the middle of the national election campaign.
In addition, Hungary’s political climate went through a major change in 2018. Moving towards the centre right to become a people’s party, Jobbik coordinated its candidates with those of the long-fragmented left in the 2019 elections. As a result, they achieved significant success against Fidesz, which led to the opposition parties declaring their intention to run together in the 2022 elections. This meant that Fidesz got a challenger again; something they have not been accustomed to for quite a while.
It’s important to note here that the opposition cooperation is the result of a highly complicated and diverse negotiation process. It should come as no surprise since it required organizations with very different ideological traditions and lots of past political battles against each other to sit down to the same table first and then to develop the framework of cooperation.
This situation is new for everybody as the Hungarian political sphere, including the opposition is learning the nature of making compromises and agreements with a 30-year delay, due to the reasons mentioned above.
The discussions also raised such questions as how many party lists should be nominated beside the joint opposition candidates of the single-member constituencies to maximize opposition votes.
Learning about these efforts however, Fidesz, which had not refrained from illegally manipulating the elections before either, began to rework the election law once again. In the first round, they just wanted to narrow the opposition’s opportunities by making it harder for opposition parties to nominate separate party lists alongside the joint candidates but a couple of days ago they decided to accept far-right MP János Volner’s motion which completely blocks opposition parties from nominating separate party lists if they run joint candidates in the single-member constituencies. In the meantime, there are more and more rumours about how Orbán may introduce further measures to reduce the opposition’s options, potentially including administrative steps to exclude candidates with good chances from the election (by the way, we have already seen this idea in practice in the 2020 Borsod-Abaúj Zemplén County by-election, where they shrewdly applied some legalistic technicalities to delete Jobbik’s name from the ballot, from right next to the name of the party’s own candidate).
These trends are quite frightening, especially because Orbán is suffering his biggest defeat of recent years in Europe while he has just given up his cautious economic policy and put Hungary in debt in order to increase his diminishing leverage in his battles with the EU.
Furthermore, Fidesz’ propaganda media more and more concretely talks about how Hungary has other options than the EU.
This narrative was further reinforced by the PM in his live Hungarian Radio broadcast, where he said: the reason why the UK can better protect its citizens from the pandemic is because the country is no longer a member of the EU.
So it is clear which way Orbán and his Fidesz regime is going: out of the European Union, and away from democratic norms. The 2022 election campaign will start in 2021, in an economically weakened country that will have probably lost its EU funds by then. It is not entirely impossible that Orbán will see only one way out of the impending election defeat: to apply the methods we have clearly seen in action in Lukashenko’s Belarus. The range of his options is wide: from undermining the operation of other parties, imprisoning potent political leaders or driving them into exile, political murders, completely obvious election fraud, all the way to brutal policing measures against regular citizens.
In the meantime, Europe will face an unprecedented decision: how to handle an increasingly violent dictator, who is not in a geopolitical buffer zone like Lukashenko of Belarus or a despot who tramples on people at home but shows a flattering smile outside like Vučić of Serbia (who is also an EPP member just like Orbán). This time the dictator will be the leader of an EU member state.
Despite all the propaganda, the people of Hungary rely on Europe. The question is: do they matter to Europe?