Democracy’s Fragility Is Evident in Hungary

In September, the European Parliament voted to trigger Article 7 of the European Union (EU) Treaty against Hungary for breaching the EU’s fundamental values. Members of the EU Parliament based the determination on government attacks on the media, evidence of erosion of rule of law and restrictions on immigration. They also expressed concerns over Hungarian limitations on academic freedom and freedom of association as well as human rights violations targeting ethnic minorities.  Consideration of the allegations by the European Council is the next step, however, a vote of 80 percent of the Council’s members would be needed to proceed further. For the most onerous penalty to be meted out – revocation of Hungary’s voting rights within the Union – all EU member states except Hungary must agree that the central European nation has engaged in a “serious and persistent breach” of EU principles. Such unanimity is a practically unattainable threshold as Poland, another EU member country to trigger Article 7, is unlikely to support the measure, and other member states – especially some of the more recent EU entrants whose adherence to EU principles is frequently tenuous – might join Poland in opposition.

This is a disappointing development for a nation that was on the fast track of integration into Western institutions during the decade following the Cold War’s end. Hungary showed early democratic promise liberalizing rapidly both politically and economically. According to Freedom House and the World Economic Forum, Hungary’s slide into autocracy began in 2010 with the election of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán of the Fidesz Party. Since Orbán’s election, there have been substantial changes in the government that have put Hungary on an authoritarian path.

Established in 1919, modern Hungary was ruled by a regent for 25 years and was Soviet satellite state after World War II. In 1956, encouraged by the United States and Europe, Hungarians staged an unsuccessful uprising against the Soviets. However, Hungarian discontent spurred the USSR to experiment with limited economic and political openness. In 1989 with the Soviet Union in decline, the democratic opposition and the communist government created a democratic government and by 1991 the Soviet Union eliminated its military presence in Hungary leading to increased freedom. Greater liberalization attracted the investment needed for economic growth and eventually led to the ascension of Hungary into NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. By the early part of this century, eighty percent of Hungary’s GDP consisted of privatized business heralding significant improvements in education and infrastructure.

The European migrant crisis sparked the most recent strains between Hungary and the EU. The EU had directed Hungary to uphold the refugee quotas established in the United Nations (UN) migration pact. Hungary has denied refugees and has even gone as far to create a law that outlaws assisting refugees.

An erosion of democratic norms, such as changes to the constitution and actions to centralize the government and country to support Orbán’s national agenda are also troubling autocratic trends. One particularly disturbing constitutional change involves gerrymandering legislative districts in Fidesz’s favor and awarding voting rights to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries that were likely to support Fidesz.

Requiring all state institutions to protect Hungarian culture, Orbán centralized the government under the premise that it is an illiberal Christian state that will promote Christian values inhibiting the assimilation of non-Christians into Hungarian society. The government does not consider liberalism a central part of state organization resulting in a narrow approach to national policy. Orbán declared “…the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, such as freedom, etc. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.”

Orbán cleared the Constitutional Court installing his appointees to ensure that the majority of judges are Fidesz supporters. He created a media agency within the government staffed primarily with Fidesz members that initiates campaigns called “government information” that broadcast public messages with a decidedly Fidesz slant. In October 2016, a popular leftward leaning daily newspaper was taken over by the Fidesz media agency; the newspaper was shut down.

Hungary exhibits common signs of a democracy in retreat including government interference with the media and the gerrymandering of electoral districts to favor the ruling party. However, it is not too late for the Hungarian people and its political institutions mount a robust defense of liberal ideals. The rewards, such as innovation leading to economic growth, are worth the struggle. The suppression of free expression, diversity and creativity typical of authoritarian rule results in fewer patents filed than in open, democratic societies. The Council on Foreign Relations’ The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace observes that there is a “democratic advantage” pointing out that democracies “realize superior development performance” over illiberal regimes. They even note that poor democracies are more likely to have steadier economic growth and are less likely to experience economic and humanitarian catastrophes than wealthier authoritarian regimes because civil liberties act as a curb on corruption and misuse of resources. Enhanced economic growth is one of many good reasons to stem the tide of the erosion of democracy in Hungary and worldwide.

In Depth: Federalism

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