Hungary from liberal to illiberal democracy

Building of Parliament in Budapest, Hungary. – Credot” By Zabotnova Inna / Shutterstock.com

By Sedef Asli Topal

Sedef Asli Topal, M.A. Graduate in International Relations – Legal and Business Aspects, University of Szeged, Hungary

Hungary is considered as one of the most remarkable countries which show illiberal democratic tendencies along with Poland and Slovakia in Europe. The EU has been closely monitoring democratic developments and policy changes in Hungary, in particular, owing to attitudes of Hungarian Government in refugee crisis such as strong rejection of resettlement of refugees among member states and building fences in its national borders without regarding Schengen Agreement signed in 1985. Sometimes, the tension between Brussels and ruling Fidezs Party is even escalated more owing to the claim of Hungarian side that Brussels immodestly tries to interfere in internal affairs of Hungary and does not respect to its national sovereignty. On the other side, Brussels shows its concerns on anti-democratic movements of Hungarian government on media, academic environment, protection of human rights and bureaucratic transparency. At this point, is Hungary really shifting from liberal democracy to illiberal democracy? Or had liberal democracy ever actually appeared in Hungary before? To figure out the answers, we have to shortly look over the history of democracy in Hungary from the point of state structure, political parties, human rights violations, freedom of speech and press, civil service system, decentralization of power and civil society activeness.

Hungary is a unitary state and parliamentary constitutional republic. It has been governed by local and central administrations which are democratically elected according to the liberal democratic principles since the Hungarian Parliament approved a democracy package in 1989. Following that, Workers’ Party was disbanded, and the Hungarian Socialist Party was founded in 1989 (Valki 2001, 285). Last Soviet soldiers left the country by 1991. “For historical reasons, the German model, whose electoral system is characterised by a combination of the proportional and individual constituency as well as by a strong prime ministry and a powerful Constitutional Court, was the most influential in developing the Hungarian constitutional structure. The July 1989 G7 summit in Paris declared Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary as the countries with the best chances of success in effecting peaceful transitions to a post-communist world.” (Valki 2001, 284)

It is obvious that the CEECs developed a mixed type of democratic regime that involves the features of both ‘minimal’ (minimal requirements for a democratic governance such as universal suffrage, secret ballot and free elections) and ‘aggregative’ democracy (more than minimal requirements are needed for a well-functioning democracy such as active civil society, freedom of press, transparency and accountability). Democratic despotism showed itself in each part of political and social life in Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary during the 1990s. In Hungary, Constitutional Court had been strong where the Prime Minister also had a significant amount political power just as in German tradition. This seems unchanged by now since the 1990s according to the current parliamentary structure. Still Prime Minister is relatively powerful as the Head of executive branch in comparison to other governmental organs.

On the other hand, in terms of human and minority rights, Hungary was one of the most successful countries among the CEECs in guaranteeing the civil rights of ethnic and religious minorities during post-Soviet period, but Roma people were derived from certain rights such as equal citizenship and treatment in public education. Owing to on-going social exclusion of Roma children in Hungarian schools and political ineffectiveness of Roma minority, the problem of discrimination against Roma people hasn’t been solved completely yet in Hungary. Problems in integrating Roma people into Hungarian society still continue.

With respect to the role of political parties, it is clear that Hungary has a long experience of coalition governments. “The first free general elections took place in May 1990 and were worn by a coalition of three opposition parties. After 1994, the Federation of Young Democrats abandoned its liberal position and turned conservative, successfully trying to create an alliance of right-wing parties. As a result, when the third election took place in 1998, it was won by the Federation of Young Democrats by 30% of the votes the Smallholders by 13%, and the Democratic Forum by 2.8 %. The Prime Minister became the chairman of Young Democrats, Viktor Orban. The Socialists received 33% of the votes but had to go to the opposition.” (Valki 2001, 286-287)

Political life in Hungary was pluralistic as it must be in real democratic states, but the voice of opposition was weak during the pre-EU period. After it joined the EU, Hungarian democracy has considerably improved when the opposition parties had a stronger role in politics. There are four most supported political parties in Hungary: (i) “FIDESZ – Hungarian Civic Union (Fidesz Magyar Polgári Szövetség), (ii) MSZP – Hungarian Socialist Party (Jobbik Magyar Szocialista Párt), (iii) Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom), and (iv) LMP – Politics Can Be Different (Lehet Más a Politika!)”[1]. The current government was established by Fidesz Party led by Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban who won general elections for two times since 2010.

However, Fidesz Party is often accused of being authoritarian by also opposition parties and Western Media apart from Brussels. It is asserted that PM Orban attempts to suppress opposing voices through new amendments and legal acts thanks to the superior number of seats his party occupies in parliament. Correspondingly, Brussels concerns about a possible shift from liberal democracy to illiberal democracy in Hungary due to his Euro-scepticism and conservative political attitudes increased much more with Mr. Orban’s parliament speech on 26th of July 2014. He clearly stated that ‘I don’t think that our European Union membership precludes us from building an illiberal new state based on national foundations’ (Zoltan 2014). He pointed to Russia, Turkey and China as examples of ‘successful’ nations, ‘none of which is liberal and some of which aren’t even democracies.’ His words are considered as worrisome by liberal democrats and pro-EU politicians from both national and international arena. What’s more, “In 2010, Hungary’s parliament passed a controversial media law that will expand the state’s power to monitor and penalise private media, allowing a media regulator appointed by the ruling party to fine journalists if coverage is deemed unbalanced. The ruling Fidesz party, with a parliamentary majority of more than two-thirds, drafted legislation that creates a Media Council elected by parliament. The body’s chairperson will be appointed for a nine-year term by the prime minister, currently Fidesz leader Viktor Orban.” (Sobczyk 2010)

On the other hand, during the pre-EU period, civil service system was highly depended on the ruling party in the CEECs. Each government intended to dismiss the civil servants and state offices who were appointed by the previous ruling party, if their ideologies were different, to replace them with the ones who were loyal to them. Today, some of the CEEMSs are still struggling with the same problem despite the EU monitoring. There are on-going debates related to the politicisation of civil service in Hungary also. In 2010, the new cabinet led by Viktor Orban, just as it got into power, introduced the largest changes in the civil service system since 1992. Among other policies, the cabinet introduced and applied with retroactive effect were new arrangements for the termination of civil servants across the board. Civil servants could be laid off without stating the reason, with a two-month notice (previously the civil servant was placed on a reserve list for six months with a full salary) and a severance pay not higher of ca.” (Neuhold, Vanhoonacker and Verhey, 2013, 133).

Prague, Czech Republic – February 15, 2016: The Prime Ministers of Hungary Viktor Orban is speaking during a press conference after meeting of The Visegrad Group (V4) in Prague, Czech Republic. – Editorial credit: Belish / Shutterstock.com

In respect of the decentralisation of power, Hungary has successfully empowered the local governments. It assured the equal distribution of wealth among different regions regardless party policies but, it is not considered to be much successful in strengthening civil society. In the pre-EU period, there were numerous active NGOs and foundations. However, clientelism was an unquestionable feature of these organisations. Today, it is surely beyond doubt that ‘civil society culture’ is more democratic in Hungary. The EU’s effect is undeniable at this point. However, recently there is a serious criticism concerning the academic freedom and freedom of association in the country. “Hungary has been accused of trying to ‘suffocate’ civil society amid mounting international criticism over a new law that could force an acclaimed international university to shut its doors in Budapest. The decision to target the Central European University (CEU) is seen by critics of Mr Orban as a significant escalation in an apparent battle for academic freedom and liberal democracy now being waged in Hungary.” (Day and Foster, 2017)

In sum, Hungary had a successful transition from an anti-democratic single-party system to a democratic multi-party system during the pre-EU period. Pluralism of political life has remained well-protected via free, fair and competitive elections. The Constitutional Court and Prime Ministry are empowered in accordance with the German model. In terms of human and minority rights, it has guaranteed the equal protection of civil rights and liberties despite the existing problems in implementation. It is claimed that Roma people are likely to be exposed to discrimination in equal citizenship and distribution of state benefits.  Moreover, there are serious concerns about academic freedom, civil society, free press, and politicisation of civil service owing to the laws and amendments that the Hungarian Parliament passed in last seven years since Fidesz Party came to power.

[1] Norsk senter for forskningsdata (NSD), 2008. ‘European Election Data Base (EED)’. Available at: http://www.nsd.uib.no/european_election_database/country/hungary/parties.html (Accessed 14 April 2017).

© Copyright 2017, Sedef Asli Topal.

This article part of in an ongoing series of scholarly or academic papers to be presented on the Global Geopolitics net site. Scholars and journalists are welcome to submit papers with more in-depth analysis for publication as part of this series.