Democracy in Hungary? 


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March 5, 2019

Democracy in Hungary? 

The Orbán regime is clearly not democratic

  • Democracy
  • Hungary
  • Politics

This essay was originally published on March 5 2019.

There is no democracy in Hungary anymore.

If you have a hegemonic party that has gained a constitution-making majority in the parliament three times in a row, in increasingly rigged elections, one does not have a democracy. If the power of all major independent institutions is curtailed, or they are led by loyal servants of the hegemonic party one does not have a democracy. If billions of dollars of EU resources are shamelessly channeled to entrepreneurs aligned with the government one does not have a democracy. If the overwhelming majority of the media has been bought by shell companies owned by close allies of the hegemonic party, and if media competition law no longer applies because of “national strategic interest,” and if most independent media outlets have fallen victim to hostile takeovers, then one cannot meaningfully apply the term of democracy to your country anymore. Whatever the true nature of the Orbán regime is, it is clearly not democratic.

There are several competing descriptions of the Orbán regime. Some are calling it an externally constrained hybrid regime, others a mafia state. There are those who consider it an electoral authoritarianism, a plebiscitarian leader-democracy, or an illiberal democracy. And there are those who argue that the concepts of populism and fascism should be integrated into any description of the Orbán regime. But I prefer to follow Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way’s important book, and call it a competitive authoritarian regime. In the following I explain why.


By my lights, these other definitions miss three things that I hope mine captures. First, the Orbán regime is primarily a political project – everything else it does plays only an instrumental role in satisfying Orbán’s libido dominandi. Second, the regime itself is still a work in progress – it is still proceeding from political crisis to political crisis in a series of ruthless efforts to maintain widespread popularity and prevent opposition from gaining momentum. And third, it has been made possible by factors mostly independent from Orbán himself – the irreversible collapse of the old left between 2006 and 2010, for example, as well as the vast financial resources provided by the EU and big German investors.

In an alternate universe (one almost identical with ours but in which Fareed Zakaria did not coin this term, and in which a neo-Aristotelian regime theory was in use rather than modern democratic theories) I would be content to call Hungary’s present state an illiberal democracy. As many researchers have rightly pointed out, this new generation of authoritarians do in fact seek to grab and keep power through electoral politics. They do in fact regularly hold multiparty, often free (albeit always unfair) elections. In contrast to other authoritarian regime types, neither voting rights nor office-holding rights are constitutionally restricted by illiberal democratic regimes. Further, they usually refrain from overtly violent political oppression or massive electoral fraud to secure their rule. In other words, instead of degrading elections to some kind of adornment, these kinds of authoritarian regimes look to create and maintain wide popular support in elections by non-democratic means. And Hungary is no exception to this rule.

Nor is it mere happenstance that these regimes like to disguise themselves as modified versions of democracy. Rather, it reveals a disturbing continuity between the political logics of these regimes and modern democracies. In the abovementioned alternative universe, it would not be wholly unreasonable to call these regimes democracies. Evil ones, sure; tyrannical ones, yes; but still democracies. Fortunately, we do not live in that neo-Aristotelian universe and thus we do not have to bother with this aspect of these authoritarian regimes.

But why call Hungary a competitive authoritarian regime? To answer this we must look more closely at what it means and how it differs from the other main candidate for describing the Hungarian case: electoral authoritarianism. Andreas Schedler’s electoral authoritarianism (as it is elaborated in The Politics of Uncertainty) and Levitsky and Way’s competitive authoritarianism have much in common. Therefore, it is not at all surprising that both offer more or less adequate accounts of what is happening in Hungary today. Both theories originally described cases belonging to the broad gray zone between democracies and more fully authoritarian, or repressive, forms of autocracy. Both theories concede that authoritarianism is compatible with multiparty elections, media pluralism, the absence of both massive electoral fraud and widespread political violence; and with the irreducible contingency of electoral politics. Both theories emphasize the importance of electoral politics and understand elections as political arenas (arenas for real political competition whose outcome may well be systematically misshaped by authoritarian means, but which cannot be made entirely safe for those in power). They are strikingly aligned concepts.

But the main difference between them is that competitive authoritarian regimes often allow free, albeit unfair, elections, while electoral authoritarianisms are defined by their utterly unfree elections. In my opinion, the Orbán regime has, for most of its history, been in a phase in which elections were not completely rigged. That is why it is more like other competitive autocracies than it is like electoral ones.


What makes Hungary a textbook example of competitive authoritarian regimes? To apply Levitsky and Way’s concept to our case, the Orbán regime is a “civilian regime in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of state power places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents.” This regime is “competitive in that opposition parties use democratic institutions to contest seriously for power,” but it is not “democratic because the playing field is heavily skewed in favor of incumbents. Competition is thus real but unfair.” This is precisely the situation in Hungary today.

I will mention here just one singular example of the kind of event that never could happen in a truly democratic polity: the “information” campaign that preceded the 2016 E.U. migrant quota referendum. This shamelessly-one-sided, hate-mongering campaign was itself sponsored by the government at an alleged cost of 16 million Euros – more money than was spent on the entire 2014 electoral campaign (which was itself the most expensive in modern Hungarian history). In addition, public media coverage of the campaign was obtrusively biased, with the opposition receiving hardly any attention at all. It was even reported that civil servants were involved in mobilizing citizens to vote for the government’s side, but the authorities refused to launch investigations into this. Further, and this media campaign notwithstanding, the referendum itself was flawed, containing a poorly formulated question asserting that the E.U. intended to settle huge masses of migrants in Hungary without the consent of the Hungarian government.

What happened in Hungary on referendum day cannot be fairly compared to the Brexit referendum — or to anything else that takes place in a consolidated democracy. It was the large-scale operation of a non-democratic political machinery that blurred the boundaries of state and private resources, civil service and party organization, and helped the hegemonic party expand its popular support to an unprecedented level. Further, it helped Orbán’s regime to replace massive defection by more educated and metropolitan voters with new voter cohorts taken mainly from villages and small towns, and to refresh their nationwide organizational infrastructure before the 2018 parliamentary elections. What must be noticed here is that, while at first glance the hegemonic party’s political ends might seem deceptively similar to the goals of a given democratic political party, the means used betray a fundamental difference. These means were completely unacceptable by the standards of democratic politics. And what is more important, it most probably played a considerable role in skewing the political playing field to the advantage of the hegemonic party and helping them to preserve their power without massive electoral fraud in 2018.


There is one final, alarming, fact that is peculiar to the Hungarian case: Hungary is not the product of failed democratic consolidation but of the deconsolidation of a consolidated democracy. This is particularly alarming because it is part of a broader democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe. In other words, if we want to understand what is happening to Hungary, we need to assess it not only internally, but internationally as well.

In particular we must take account of the way that the incomplete and imperfect institutions of the European Union have allowed – even provided liberal financial support for — a member state to systematically undermine its own democratic polity. The repeated debates about the Hungarian situation in the European Parliament were received mainly with indifference on the part of the European public. And the European People’s Party in particular showed a shockingly opportunistic and cynical attitude toward the rise of the Orbán regime. This is important not only because of the part the E.U. has played in the deconsolidation of Hungarian democracy, but also because it raises a novel challenge to the model of competitive authoritarianism provided by Levitsky and Way — as their model originally focused on cases of incomplete democratization rather than de-democratization.

Finally, I have to conclude this essay with a concession: the rather static description of the Orbán regime I have given here does not do justice to its historical rise to power — particularly to Orbán’s sweeping 2010 electoral victory which has sent Hungary into a free fall towards a fully authoritarian regime. Such a diachronic analysis will be the topic of another, forthcoming, essay here at Public Seminar. For now, the preceding analysis of the form of Hungary’s presently absent democracy must suffice.

Zoltán Gábor Szűcs is a research fellow at Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He is currently finishing a book in normative political theory, Political ethics in illiberal regimes with Manchester University Press.

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