How Does Hungary Get Back to Democracy?

At the start of the 2012, Hungary arguably became the first European Union (EU) member state to slide from democracy back into authoritarian rule. Per a story in Tuesday’s Christian Science Monitor,

In the past year, Hungary has undergone an extraordinary consolidation of power by President [sic: he’s prime minister] Orban. No other nation in Europe has made such sweeping and overnight change in its basic laws and approach, and with little public consultation. The culminating event came Jan. 1 with a new Constitution that boldly favors the ruling party and has many European leaders shaking their heads.

The details of Hungary’s backslide have been documented so thoroughly elsewhere–see especially Kim Lane Scheppele‘s writings here and here–that I’m not going to dwell on them. I will say that it’s still unclear to me whether or not these changes go so far that we can now say Hungary is no longer a democracy. The Fidesz government has used its super-majority in parliament to diminish many of the constraints on its executive authority and to lay the groundwork for unfair elections in the future, but it has followed the law to get there, and the sitting government was chosen in elections that were free and fair. The real concern is what this all means for future elections and governments. In Scheppele’s words,

In a democracy, the population can “throw the bums out” and replace the government with a different one that can change the policies that do not have public support. But that will be nearly impossible under this constitution. In addition to compromising institutions that are necessary for a free and fair election – like a free press and a neutral election apparatus – the new constitution embeds Fidesz control even if another political party defies the odds and wins an election.

For purposes of this post, I’m going to assume that Fidesz’s critics are right, that Hungary’s national government has become the democratic equivalent of a “dead man walking.” Instead of splitting conceptual hairs, I’m going to focus here on why Hungary’s backslide is so surprising, and where it might be headed.

Hungary’s slide is surprising because it contradicts the few things that most political scientists thought they knew about when and why democracies break down. For starters, Hungary’s reversal violates the “iron rule” identified by Adam Przeworski and his co-authors that democracies above a certain wealth threshold never fail; in global historical terms, Hungary is a rich country. Fidesz’s creeping coup also puts to the lie all talk of how membership in the European Union would “lock in” democratic gains in the countries that threw off Communist rule after the Iron Curtain fell. We also know that democracies which have already weathered at least one alternation of the party in power are much more likely to survive than ones that haven’t, and Hungary had already seen two turnovers in government since 1990.

So Hungary has upended conventional thinking about democratic consolidation. Now the question is: How soon can Hungary get back to (unambiguous) democracy? I hate to say it, but I’m skeptical that it will happen soon, because I just can’t see a short and clear path to that end.

Opposition parties have already taken to the streets to protest Fidesz‘s creeping coup, but it’s hard to see how demonstrations will soon restore the democracy that has been lost. These protests are undoubtedly important for calling attention to the reversals and building organized opposition to them. Short of seizing power, however, the protesters can’t actually effect a return to democracy. Restoring democracy in Hungary will require new laws, if not a new constitution, and the restocking of various government offices. To make those kinds of changes, you have to actually hold power. Absent a revolution, then, elections are the only real mechanism for ousting Fidesz and reversing its “reforms.” But elections aren’t supposed to happen again until 2014, and the changes Fidesz has imposed will steeply tilt the playing field in those elections in its own favor. (That was, in fact, their point.)

If Fidesz’s domestic opponents can’t force a restoration of democracy, the European Union (EU) might try its hand. In theory, EU membership spurred the consolidation of democracy in post-Communist countries through a mix of positive and negative incentives, or “carrots” and “sticks.” On the positive side, these “emerging-market” countries were thought to prize EU membership because it conveyed a variety of economic benefits, including direct subsidies. On the negative side, they were expected to fear expulsion that would eliminate those benefits if they backtracked in their commitment to democracy.

Clearly, positive reinforcement alone was not sufficient. The question now is whether the sticks the EU might wield are sufficiently menacing to compel the desired response. I’m doubtful. Absent a provocation as clear as a coup d’etat; without precedent to draw on; and in the midst of a financial crisis that’s already threatening to tear the union apart, I suspect it’s going to be hard for the EU membership to agree on drawing a bright line in response to Fidesz’s consolidation of power. Given the current economic and political disarray in Europe, it’s not even clear who needs whom the most. The EU’s executive branch is already threatening to pursue a legal challenge if Hungary doesn’t undo some of its recent constitutional changes, but that process would take many months under the best of circumstances, and its outcome would be uncertain.

It saddens me to say it, but I just don’t see a quick path back to democracy in Hungary. I have no doubt that Fidesz will eventually fall from power, and that democracy will eventually be restored there. I just don’t see how it happens before 2014 elections at the earliest. I would love to hear from Hungarians or Hungary-watchers who are more optimistic than I about the current state of affairs or prospects for a speedy reversal. In the meantime, Hungary’s tumble offers sad confirmation of something I wrote in my book on democratic consolidation (p. 16):

There is no magical set of conditions under which democracy becomes permanent and the risk of failure is therefore zero. As other scholars have observed, there do appear to be conditions under which the persistence of democracy becomes an equilibrium from which actors are highly unlikely to deviate. That persistence should not be confused with permanence, however, and even in the world’s oldest democracies, there exists at least the possibility that unexpected shocks to the system or an accumulation of other processes could lead to authoritarian rule.

Leave a comment


  1. Tom

     /  January 13, 2012

    Jay … Nice post. I follow Hungary a bit due to family connections. Based on my limited observations, I would add there is a distinct increase in nationalist rhetoric, symbolism, and sentiment that has accompanied the Fidesz consolidation of power. We also need to acknowledge that over the past 20 years, Hungary has been a stabilizing presence in a tumultuous neighborhood that includes Serbia, Croatia, Romania, and Ukraine. So, dramatic changes in Hungary could have serious consequences for the region as a whole.

  2. Andrew

     /  January 20, 2012

    I think Edward Hugh on Fist Full of Euros has laid out the most likely path for a return to democracy: Though I’m not confident he would do it, I imagine Orban might step down if it were to save Hungary from economic collapse.

  3. illissius

     /  January 21, 2012

    I think the one thing Orbán and Fidesz may not have calculated with is that economic conditions are unlikely to improve (rather get worse, if anything), and any politician or political party in power in an economy like this is likely to get walloped. Fidesz’s crushing victory in 2010 (itself the product of a terrible economy) seemed exceptional at the time, but under conditions like these, it’s not all inconceivable that a different party could win a similarly huge majority in the next election*. Recall the 2008-2010 seesaw in the US. You might not even necessarily need to have a specific opposition group win a 2/3 majority: it might be sufficient to just keep Fidesz under 1/3. Left-wing parties and ultranationalist Jobbik have next to nothing in common, but one thing they do have is that Fidesz’s self-entrenchment disadvantages them both. So it’s not inconceivable that they might band together to reverse some of the changes and restore some semblance of a fair democracy (it being the lowest common denominator they can both agree on, albeit I’m not so sure about that in Jobbik’s case).

    That’s the hopeful view, anyway. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

    * (I haven’t studied the new laws with regards to exactly -how- far they stack the deck in Fidesz’s favor, but you do need to have people voting for you in order for (re)districting to be able to help you.)

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