This piece is part of the discussion generated by Jeffrey C. Isaac’s piece, Illiberal Democracy

Is it possible to have an increasingly flourishing autocratic regime in the European Union? After all, the Union was built on liberal democratic values, as a community with “ever closer” cooperation. Member states of the European Union are supposed to be liberal democracies, but Hungary, in harboring authoritarian features under a disintegrating guise of democracy, is rightly called a hybrid regime. As such, it is the first non-democratic member state in the history of the European Union.

In Hungary, the deconsolidation of democracy, widely perceived as elitist, started in late 2006. The opposition Fidesz-party, led by Viktor Orbán, behaved not so much as rivals but definitive enemies of the coalition government, as an already polarized political discourse became increasingly driven by hatred. The economic crisis of 2008 led to the political storm of the 2010 elections, when Fidesz received a qualified majority in the Parliament. Since that time, the quality of democracy steadily deteriorated. At the beginning, supporters of the regime talked about “majoritarian democracy” as if liberal democracy would survive unharmed. Retrospectively, one can claim that the regime was some sort of damaged, broken, or illiberal democracy between 2011 and 2015. Democratic institutions were gradually less respected by the government but important democratic principles, listed by Jeffrey C. Isaac,[i] were still in place. These included open political contestation, freedom of speech, freedom of association, legal equality, egalitarian conception of citizenship, gender-neutral civic status, albeit all of them were somewhat distorted. Finally, however, the regime left “illiberal democracy” behind, and has been relying on increasingly authoritarian measures. The time factor is relevant: the book Hungarian Patient, which contains the term “illiberal democracy” in its subtitle, edited by Peter Krasztev and Jon Van Til,[ii] reflects on the political processes occurred before 2015. Any serious discussion about broken, damaged, defective or illiberal democracies should consider the ever-changing nature of these regimes.

In 2016, when Hungarian citizens were prevented from submitting a referendum question by brute “civilian” force and with the government’s tacit consent, i.e., they were barred from exercising their constitutional right, it was time to ask the question again: Does it still make any sense to talk about democracy in Hungary? With its outsourced violence and its plan to amend the Constitution claiming a ‘state of terrorist threat,’ the Orbán regime took another step on the road to establishing a power monopoly in early 2016. Just as the far right Jobbik party once had a paramilitary wing, there were indications that a similar team of loosely organized thugs in Fidesz colors was about to emerge whose members, while not wearing uniforms, were deployed to intimidate demonstrators and members of the opposition. For policy reasons the regime proudly claimed that its enforcement agencies did not use direct force (instead, it had come to prefer existential threats) and the job of intimidation has been outsourced to “civilian” street fighters, the ultras of some football clubs and others.

All this was not taking place in Milosevic’s rump-Yugoslavia at the end of the previous century. The policy perfectly fits the Orbán-regime’s governance strategy characterized by a deliberate effort to blur the differences between official and unofficial, responsible and unaccountable agents. Decisions are made outside the established institutions, behind their back, in an invisible and grey zone, in a world of shady organizations bearing no political responsibility or liability. Under this scheme, acts of violence that may embarrass those in power are performed by skilled skinheads that, in turn, can be easily disclaimed by Fidesz. Similarly, the budget is not necessarily drafted by the minister in charge, but by private firms (acting as money-laundering operations, according to a former staff member) with no legal ties to the government, and whose members may also have access to classified information.

There is a point where even broken democracy comes to an end. At a point where the line between private and public interest is swallowed up, the difference between nationalization and privatization disappears, where public interest becomes indistinguishable from the interests of politicians/economic players capturing the state, where mutatis mutandis, the system ends up defending these entrepreneurs. Corruption is legalized. Hungary has arrived at this point: “What is called corruption is in effect Fidesz’s most important political aim,” the regime’s chief ideologist András Lánczi stated with undisguised honesty.[iii]

Today, corruption in Hungary is no longer seen as deviant behavior but an integral part of the system itself. Breaking the law has become the new normal. What was once described as the abuse of power, today has become a defining feature of the regime. As Bálint Magyar put it: “The mafia state is a privatized form of the parasitic state,” where the patron/client relationship no longer refers to the patronage system also seen in democracies; essentially, it is the “eradication of the foundations of individual autonomy and the shoehorning of all existential issues into a system of dependencies.”[iv] This already comes dangerously close to a definition of authoritarian regimes.

The concept of “mafia state” is one of the most consistent theoretical arguments to describe the regime, and its Orwellian communication can be used not only as opposition criticism of the regime, but also for an academically sound analysis of Hungary’s political system. We have come to a point where the Orbán regime has slipped the bounds of democracy definitions in the broadest sense, i.e., “defective,” “electoral,” and “minimal.” There are too many defects, elections are not clean and the democratic minimum is evaporating. Has the time come to take another look and reposition the Orbán regime along the political continuum?

I consider the centralization and personalization of power, the propaganda of “national unification” coupled with the discrimination and marginalization of underclass elements of the society, the forced change of elites by the predatory (or mafia) state, and the practice of power politics as the building blocks of the regime. The regime is rooted in the prime minister’s conviction that “revolutionary circumstances” mandate him to execute exceptional policies.[v]

The Orbán regime of 2016-17 is largely different from its early days of 2010-11, although one can trace the origins of its authoritarianism to its beginning. It has experienced a gradual process of transformation since 2010. Excessive majoritarian arguments dominated its early stage of development.[vi] The first step toward illiberal democracy was the unilateral writing and approval of a new constitution, the Fundamental Law, by the governing party only. As a result, abusing its democratically legitimized power, the government has done away with the rule of law step by step. The best example of this is the fourth modification of the Fundamental Law in the spring of 2013: This modification made the Constitutional Court legally possible to disregard its decisions from before 2010.[vii] (Similar processes are observable in today’s Poland, although the governing bloc does not have the qualified majority to change the constitution. Therefore, the Polish governing far right PiS party, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, goes openly against the constitution in the hope that the castrated Constitutional Court will give them green light.)

In Hungary, up until the 2014 general elections, the possibility of free and fair elections could not be excluded. Those elections, however, failed to meet the minimal requirements of the democratic process, due to the “uneven playing field” of the competition. Orbán’s statement on building an illiberal state, in July 2014, instead of indicating the launch date of a new order, had simply promised further measures aimed at entrenching his authoritarian system. By that time the regime had the unfair elections safely behind it, and was just done with changing rules for municipal election in Budapest, just a few months before balloting. The system has undergone massive change over the years. By 2014 it already left the illiberal democracy signpost behind. Today, we have no proper terms to describe the phenomenon before our eyes.[viii] The regime’s move toward authoritarianism has continued, which is best evidenced by some recent actions:

  • Hiring of enforcers to block violently the opposition’s attempt at initiating a referendum and the public prosecutor’s failure to press charges. Outsourcing violence to football hooligans and paramilitary groups reminds us of the early Putin years in Russia.
  • The state’s vehement anti-immigrant propaganda campaign during the government initiated referendum in 2016.
  • By using its overwhelming political and economic power, the government closed the biggest left-liberal daily newspaper, the Népszabadság in 2016.
  • The attempt to close down the Budapest-based Hungarian-American private university, the Central European University in 2017.
  • The aggressive handling of civic organizations. As an official of the governing party declared, independent NGOs “must be swept out of Hungarian public life” because they interlope in politics. This statement was followed by discriminatory legislation against NGOs, which had received foreign funds in 2017.

The language used by the regime serves to hide reality. Propagandistic mass communication, a questionnaire sent to all citizens with a set of biased or manipulative questions, is called “national consultation.” With this, the primary goal of Fidesz was to refresh the list of its supporters. “Protection” stands for the collection of protection money. In reality, the “defense” of retirement benefits means the requisitioning of pensions by the state. Utility-cost cuts have led to higher prices and deteriorating services. The protection of the Hungarian people has resulted in the impoverishment of large segments of the population. As corruption became the norm and a part of daily routine, it has become invisible to the public. Apart from public works programs for the poorest of the poor, utility-cost cuts benefiting the well-off, and a flat tax, the system gains legitimacy through investments demonstrating the symbolic power of the ruling elite (e. g. the prime minister’s new office, which is a palace on the Castle Hill in Buda), nationalist campaigns and government-generated xenophobia.

The Orbán regime gradually evolved from its larval stage and today it stands fully formed (if we can talk about “full formation” at all).[ix] This is not to suggest that the leader of the regime follows a pre-calculated blueprint. The authoritarian direction was clear, but there were lots of incidental events, spontaneous reactions, contradictory policies, and periods of slower or faster speed of change, as the political situation allowed. Since 2014 the main problem with the regime is not only that it is illiberal, but that it is increasingly anti-democratic.

Moreover, due to the constraining power of the European Union, by now the Orbán regime appears to be relatively more liberal than democratic. The EU is more equipped to sanction deviations in human rights than the deconstruction of democracy. In this regime, a few fundamental rights (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, right to privacy, freedom of movement) remain protected despite the autocratic monopolization of politics. In essence, it is an emerging authoritarian setup which could be moderately tamed by the European Union with regard to basic human rights and civil liberties. [x] In other words, the international embeddedness of the Orbán-regime hinders, or makes slower, its slide toward authoritarianism. Because of this external constraint, the leaders of the Orbán-regime have been forced to engage in Janus-faced methods, double talk, double standards, and pay lip service to democratic values, in short, to pursue a hypocritical behavior that they would not do under other circumstances. The government tries to justify their anti-democratic policies by appealing to democratic norms, which softens the autocratic nature of the regime. The regime uses a rhetoric that exploits xenophobia, a nationalist interpretation of Christianity,[xi] so as to throw off the European Union’s liberal democratic rule of law with limited success. Lately, the developments in politics abroad, particularly in Turkey and Russia, encourage the opponents of pluralist democracy further to eliminate the liberal elements of the regime.

In sum, the Orbán regime could be described as a hybrid regime with mafia state structure, unorthodox economic policy that serves social inequality, ethno-nationalism, and re-feudalization. The regime could be called competitive authoritarianism,[xii] provided it allowed genuine competition — which it does not, however. There is a dominant party-system with limited competition and elections are held without real options. While opposition forces may win in several electoral districts in by-elections, their hope for victory in the general elections is much constrained. The ruling political clique combines political and economic tools to maintain its power, yet it lacks the intellectual and moral support of the largest part of society. The regime relies on its political loyalists, while it divides and neutralizes its potential opponents, no matter whether they are passive or active.[xiii]

It appears the downward spiral continues, regardless the country’s membership in the European Union. The Hungarian politics of “worst practices” is quickly copied by Kaczynski and the Szydlo cabinet in Poland. When citizens’ constitutional rights for initiating a referendum are denied even on the apparently trivial issue of whether retail stores should stay open on Sunday, what arsenal would the governing forces deploy should their hold on power be threatened? Perhaps we need to reverse the premise of our analysis: Instead of trying to understand why Hungarian democracy is illiberal, let’s study what makes this European autocracy so liberal.



[i] Jeffrey Isaac (2017), Is There Illiberal Democracy? A Problem with No Semantic Solution” Public Seminar, July. I refer here to the longer, original version of the article.

[ii] Peter Krasztev & Jon Van Til eds. (2015), The Hungarian Patient: Social Opposition to an Illiberal Democracy. Budapest-New York: CEU Press

[iii] András Lánczi (2015), „Viccpártok színvonalán áll az ellenzék” [Opposition Is Like a Joke] (Interview by Imre Czirják) Magyar Idők, December 21.

[iv] Bálint Magyar (2016), The Postcommunist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary. Budapest – New York: CEU Press, 13.

[v] In more detail, see András Bozóki (2015), „Broken Democracy, Predatory State and Nationalist Populism” in Péter Krasztev & Jon Van Til eds. The Hungarian Patient: Social Opposition to an Illiberal Democracy. Budapest – New York: CEU Press, 3-36.

[vi] András Bozóki (2011), „Die autoritäre Versuchung: Die Krise der ungarischen Demokratie” Osteuropa, Vol. 61. No. 12. December, 65-88.

[vii] Imre Vörös (2015), “Hungary’s Constitutional Evolution during the Last 25 Years” Südosteuropa, Vol. 63. No. 2. 173-200.

[viii] Cf. Balázs Trencsényi (2017), „What Should I call you? The Crisis of Hungarian Democracy in a Regional Interpretative Framework” in Bálint Magyar & Júlia Vásárhelyi eds. Twenty-Five Sides of a Post-Communist Mafia State. Budapest – New York: CEU Press, 3-26.

[ix] Most recent analyses of the Orbán regime are available in Bálint Magyar & Júlia Vásárhelyi eds. (2017), Twenty- Five Sides of a Postcommunist Mafia State. Budapest – New York: CEU Press

[x] András Bozóki & Dániel Hegedűs (2017), „An Externally Constrained Hybrid Regime: Hungary in the European Union” Paper presented at the annual conference of the Council of European Studies, Glasgow, U.K. July 12-14.

[xi] Zoltán Ádám & András Bozóki (2016), „’The God of Hungarians’: Religion and Right-Wing Populism in Hungary” in Nadia Marzouki et al. eds. Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion. London: Hurst & Company, 129-148.

[xii] Stephen Lewitsky & Lucan Way (2010), Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes after the Cold War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[xiii] In this respect, it fits to the model set up by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita & Alastair Smith (2011), The Dictator’s Handbook. New York: Public Affairs