Democracy Goes Out with a Whimper

by Natalie Bowlus

Viktor Orban is killing Hungarian democracy.

In 2010, his center conservative Fidesz party won a landslide victory. They had an overwhelming popular mandate to clean up the country after eight years of mismanagement under MSZP, the sclerotic socialist party run by holdovers from Hungary’s communist days. Excitement was real and palpable – Hungarians I knew from all walks of life genuinely believed that Viktor Orban could bring a breath of fresh air to the political system.

But we were soon disappointed. Instead of implementing pro-business reforms or reviving the flagging Hungarian economy, Orban has used his party’s two-thirds majority in Parliament to ram through restrictions on the free press, tax increases on large foreign businesses, the nationalization of private pension funds in a vain attempt to reduce the deficit and, most recently, the introduction of a new constitution enshrining Fidesz’ conservative social values. This constitution also puts limits on the independence of the judiciary and the central bank, which lead the European Commission to announce that it would be taking Hungary to the European Court of Justice.

These are not the changes voters had in mind, and disappointment is reflected in the polls: at the end of January, only 18% of eligible voters supported Fidesz, a more than 50% drop from their election two years ago. More worrisome, however, is that a decline in voter support for Fidesz hasn’t translated into increased support for any other political party. Rather, more and more of Hungarians have no faith in any political party. These numbers signal a return to the general pessimism and distrust of the government that plagued the country two years ago. When asked to choose between the better of two evils, Fidesz or MSZP, Hungarians are choosing not to choose instead.

The only message that seems to be fresh and credible comes from Jobbik, a party that is anti-Roma, anti-Semetic and proudly anti-democratic.

This, then, is the real crisis: faith in the government is so low that the only attractive response appears to be doing away with the institutions altogether. Jobbik appeals exactly to those voters who are disappointed with the performance of Hungary’s elected officials. This disappointment is in the same vein as the malaise that brought Fidesz to power, a malaise that is now returning.

Jobbik is by no means representative of the mainstream view; however, they are representative of an extremely vocal minority. Furthermore, they don’t need to win over a majority of Hungarians, only a majority of those who care enough to vote. In 2010, they gained 17% of the seats in Parliament; the more that apathy eats away at the majority in Hungarian society, the more realistic Jobbik’s chances of increasing power becomes.

As Viktor Orban continues his headlong dash to consolidate Fidesz’ hold on the government, he is also hastening his own demise. By reducing Hungary’s democratic institutions at the expense of bringing in the reforms he initially promised, he is undermining citizens’ confidence in the government’s ability to enact change and fueling support for anti-democratic radicals. Should this nosedive towards total rejection of government continue, Orban might soon find himself forced out of power by those who care less for democracy than he does.

Orban’s track record in office is a chilling reminder that the transition to democracy is not a one-way street and that the European Union needs to be as vigilant of countries inside its borders as it is of its neighbors. Just as they have lent their support to the democratic movements that have blossomed across the Middle East, so they must aggressively reinforce democratic institutions at home, especially in those countries with weak democratic traditions. Unemployment across the continent is rampant, the economy is in crisis and confidence in elected officials is at an all-time low: Hungary is the canary in the coal mine.

About the Author

Natalie Bowlus is a second year MALD student at The Fletcher School where she focuses on Security Studies and Political Economy. Prior to Fletcher, Natalie spent three years in Hungary studying, teaching, and working in the private sector.

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