Under Viktor Orbán, Hungary has long been an enemy of democratic values and acted as an impediment to the deepening of the European Union. Will the parliamentary elections on April 8 change that? An analysis by Anton Pelinka, professor of political science and nationalism studies at the Central European University in Budapest.
Austrian journalist and renowned Hungary expert Paul Lendvai calls Viktor Orbán Europe's "new strongman" – and his tone is highly critical. The Hungarian prime minister stands for a departure from the core values of liberal democracy: a pluralistic media landscape, an independent judiciary and respect for diversity in civil society.
In some – although not all – respects, Hungary's development is similar to that of Poland under the Law and Justice (PiS) party. Under Orbán's Fidesz party, Hungary has moved to the furthest edge of what is considered democratic in the European Union – democratic in the sense of 1993's Copenhagen Criteria, the requirements that countries must meet to become members of the European Union. These include things like democratic order and the rule of law, and protection of human rights and minorities.
The latest Sustainable Governance Indicators (SGI) analysis published by the Bertelsmann Stiftung shows that Hungary's quality of democracy has been declining for years. The country currently ranks 40th among the 41 countries in the European Union and OECD.
The main reasons for this are a media landscape that is becoming less and less pluralistic, election processes that are designed to weaken the opposition, bullying of independent NGOs and discrimination of minorities. As the SGI sums it up, the Orbán government "continues to undermine democracy."
Fidesz's strength is the opposition's weakness
The Fidesz party currently has a comfortable absolute majority with 114 of 199 seats in the Hungarian parliament – just under a two-thirds majority. In the upcoming parliamentary elections on April 8 the party could reach that critical threshold.
The electoral system that was passed in 2011 – which combines a majority system and a proportional system – gives the strongest party a special bonus for gaining a majority. It enables that party to turn a relative majority into an absolute majority, or even a two-thirds majority in some cases. No matter what, Fidesz can expect to have a substantial majority in parliament after the next election.
The weakness of the opposition is another reason for this outcome, and a critical one. The opposition comprises the far-right Jobbik party and a fractured mix of centrist and leftist parties.
For sure, 2018 will not see a return to the times when an alliance of centrist and leftist parties ruled Hungary (1994-1998, 2002-2008). Given that Jobbik and the center-left will not join forces, Fidesz will be able to able to determine the shape of the new government after April's elections, even if it loses some of its seats. And Viktor Orbán, even if he grows weaker, will remain Hungary's head of state for another four years.
Opposition from civil society will not change that either. Protests by women's organizations, a gay-pride parade and a movement for the homeless have not managed to influence the increasingly authoritarian policy of the Orbán government in recent years.
The only exception here has been a protest movement that prevented Budapest from competing to host the Summer Olympic Games. Orbán's government had to drop its Olympic bid in response.
Brain drain is weakening Hungary's economy – but not Viktor Orbán
In terms of economic development, Hungary lags far behind the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, the other three countries in the Visegrád Group. This accelerates brain drain – the emigration of young, well educated Hungarians to other countries in the European internal market that offer better opportunities.
This means that Hungary's economic outlook is bleak, particularly in the medium term. Yet this has not resulted in any noticeable consequences for the majority in Hungary's parliament.
The policies of the Orbán administration have led to a noticeable deterioration in quality of life for many Hungarians – with medical care being one casualty following a drop in the number of doctors in the country – but this will probably not stop the Orbán government from surviving the upcoming elections either. Too many people are convinced that the opposition has not displayed the unity it needs to remove the Fidesz party from power.
To secure his power, Viktor Orbán has also constructed an external threat scenario and a bogeyman: mass migration from the Islamic world. The person pulling the strings in this scenario is George Soros. Orbán accuses the billionaire US investor with Hungarian-Jewish roots of planning a wave of mass immigration that could destroy Hungary's Christian heritage.
The government constantly talks about a "Soros Plan" that it is protecting Hungary from. It has not yet provided a shred of evidence for the existence of such a plan, however.
But regardless of that, it is clearly absurd to claim that migration arising from war and despair is the result of a plan that a single global actor has crafted against Hungary. Of course it's no coincidence that this smacks of conspiracy theories like those in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Orbán speaks highly of "illiberal democracies"
Along with Poland, Hungary played a key role in the mostly peaceful transformation of the communist system and the end of the Cold War in 1989 and 1990. Since then, Hungary has become known as the most pro-Russian member of the European Union and NATO. The Orbán administration appears to almost be ashamed of the dramatic reorientation towards the West that took place in 1989.
Orbán has said that Hungary's democracy does not have to be "liberal" – and he has had very positive things to say about Putin- and Erdogan-style democracies. He is also an outspoken opponent of any sort of deepening of the European Union. Budapest is ready to block possible EU sanctions against Poland that could be imposed for violating European law.
The ideas that people like Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker have proposed for further developing the EU will definitely not be implemented as long as this government rules Hungary.
Hungary needs the EU
But every government needs to take into account its country's economic interests too. And Hungary's have always been tied primarily to the EU – regardless of the emphasis that Orbán has placed on China in connection with that country's construction of a "New Silk Road."
The German auto industry, for instance, which makes cars in Hungary, wants to benefit from Hungary's low wages – and that provides jobs for Hungarian workers. If Hungary is to continue to benefit from this relationship and similar relationships that rest on very concrete interests, the country's affiliation to the European internal market must not be called into question.
Hungary needs this internal market – and it needs the solidarity that is associated with that market. Hungary draws great benefits as a result of regularly receiving significant funding from the EU budget as part of redistributions within the EU. Hungary should not put too much distance between itself and the European mainstream unless it wishes to put that funding in jeopardy.
The elections on April 8 are most likely not going to change anything about the overall situation in Budapest. A head of state commanding an absolute majority that he owes to a populist style of government will continue to test how far he can go to sustain a fundamentally nationalistic tone without endangering the benefits of being included in the European Union.
Hungary will continue to act as an impediment to the deepening of the European Union and attempt to find allies within the Council of the European Union. But that will be all it does. Hungary's interests are too closely linked to Europe for it to go any further than that.