Analysis

Orbán Abolishes Democracy in Hungary

Parliament is dissolved and all elections are postponed for as long as Orbán wants.

Viktor Orbán Benjamin Netanyahu
Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán speaks with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in Brasília, Brazil, January 2, 2019 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

I try to avoid Nazi-era comparisons, since they’re seldom appropriate, but Viktor Orbán isn’t making it easy. The only thing that could make his power grab in Hungary more like the Enabling Act of 1933 is if, like the Reichstag fire, COVID-19 really had been manufactured (in a Chinese lab funded by George Soros, if we are to believe Russia’s disinformation).

Using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse, Orbán has dissolved parliament and postponed all elections — indefinitely.

The Constitutional Court technically still functions, but it is packed with Orbán loyalists and provides no real oversight. For all intents and purposes, Orbán now rules alone.

Illiberal democracy

Hungary’s descent into dictatorship has been so gradual that for years it could be described as an “illiberal democracy”.

Orbán nominally governed with the consent of parliament, although he manipulated the electoral system to make it possible for his party to win two thirds of the seats with fewer than half the votes. Elections were free, although hardly fair. The opposition struggled to get its message out. Orbán didn’t outright nationalize the press, but critical media outlets were harassed, prosecuted and bought out by Orbán’s allies. Approximately 90 percent of the Hungarian media is now Orbán-friendly. Reporters’ access to parliament has been restricted. Freedom of information requests are routinely ignored.

Like his stealth takeover of the press, Orbán didn’t formally abolish the independence of the central bank, civil service and judiciary. Rather, he put his cronies in charge, who over the years hollowed out those institutions from the inside.

In the last few years, Orbán focused his attention on the few independent institutions that were left: pro-democracy nonprofits and universities. The Hungarian-born and Jewish financier and philanthropist Soros, who supported both, was his perfect foil. In fake news eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, pro-Orbán media portrayed Soros a globalist puppet master pulling the strings behind every “alien” cause, from gender neutrality to open borders. The Central European University he funded was chased out of Hungary in 2018.

Can’t the EU do something?

Hungarian liberals who pinned their hopes on the EU have been disappointed.

The European Commission and European Parliament have criticized Hungary for everything from ignoring economic policy recommendations to mistreating asylum seekers. The latter has gone so far as to recommend stripping Hungary of its voting rights.

But both institutions can be overruled by the European Council, the conclave of European leaders, where unanimity would be required to take away Orbán’s votings right, which could then open the door to sanctions. (There is no provision for ejecting a country from the EU.) Orbán has lost the unconditional support of his Czech and Slovak neighbors, but he can still count on his ideological counterparts in Poland. So long as the far-right Law and Justice party rules in Warsaw, Orbán is safe.

Mainstream conservatives have done their part to protect Orbán. Most members of the center-right European People’s Party, to which Orbán’s party belongs, have had enough and want to kick Fidesz out, but Germany’s Christian Democrats, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the People’s Party of Spain have so far resisted the call. They argued that, so long as Orbán remained in the European conservative family, they could rein in his worst instincts.

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