After the Berlin Wall fell, General Electric ran a commercial with an elderly woman waltzing at a grand ball, proclaiming, “I feel young again.” The idea was that Hungary, a country that challenged its Soviet occupiers throughout the Cold War, was ready to embrace freedom and democracy. One could not run that ad today.
Today, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is accused of using spyware against Hungarian civil society. Orban’s government issued an official reply to the accusations, saying that Hungary is a democratic state that believes in the rule of law. That may be the problem. The rule of law is being used as an excuse to establish an autocratic regime in Hungary and elsewhere. Orban’s Hungary offers a cautionary tale of how this move toward autocracy can happen in the context of a parliamentary democracy.
Viktor Orban did not start out as an autocrat. He stood up against the Soviet Union as a university student, calling for the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary in 1989. His Fidesz Party, which now rules Hungary, was founded by a group of pro-democrats. When the Berlin Wall came down, Orban supported democratic elections and a market-based economy. He embraced Hungary’s engagement with Europe and was active in Hungarian liberal politics.
Orban and Fidesz began a shift to the right in the mid-1990s when the largest center-right party fell apart and Fidesz claimed that political space, despite its liberal roots. It worked, and in 1998 Fidesz prevailed in the national elections and Orban became prime minister. Fidesz lost power in 2002 and Orban was out. He became prime minister again in 2010 when he and Fidesz regained power. The interregnum between 2002 and 2010 apparently was a learning period for Orban and his party. The lessons learned were about power, not policy.
Hungary was hit hard by the 2008 economic crisis. Its economy shrank by 7 percent in 2008, and the solution was to turn to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which required Hungary to implement an unpopular austerity program. Orban and Fidesz viewed this as an opportunity, and successfully ran in 2010 on a platform of taking on big business and the European Union, and telling voters he would help them take back their country. It was Orban’s first foray into what would become his brand of autocratic populism.
After winning the election in 2010, Orban began efforts to control the media. Specifically, he established a commission fining journalists for vague attacks on “human dignity.” He put Fidesz loyalists in charge of state-supported media outlets, and imposed regulations on media outlets critical of the government, while giving special rights to those that were supportive.
Orban did not stop there. In 2012, he pushed a new constitution through parliament. He reworked the electoral system with creative gerrymandering. He also overhauled the judicial system, among other things, establishing a National Judicial Office so Orban could put in place judges loyal to him and Fidesz.
Orban’s politics were in keeping with his more institutional moves to consolidate power. He began to embrace the issues being put forward by the far-right Hungarian Party, Jobbik, which has an anti-Semitic focus, because he viewed them as a political threat. In 2015, Orban declared that he would build a 100-mile fence on the Hungarian border to keep refugees out, referring to them as rapists, criminals and terrorists.
Versions of the Orban playbook are appearing elsewhere in Europe, including Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic, with varying degrees of success. The biggest ally of Orban and Fidesz, however, has been the lack of an organized political opposition. The erosion of democracy in Hungary took time, and the political takeover came from within, in part, because the pushback by the political opposition was ineffective and at times apathetic. Recent protests in Hungary in support of LGBTQ+ rights are an indication that the Hungarian people are beginning to push back against Orban, but this effort must be expanded and sustained if it is to succeed. Much damage has been done already.
In 1933, then-German President Paul von Hindenburg brought Nazi Party leader Adolf Hitler into government as chancellor, even after the Nazis lost seats in the 1932 election. While he was chancellor, the Reichstag (or Parliament) burned under suspicious circumstances and Hitler used it as a pretext to call for elections. The Nazis won a majority and later took complete control through a legal framework known as the Enabling Acts. As Hitler did, Orban and others in Europe and globally make use of existing government frameworks to build their power base. They face down political opposition with audacity and determination.
Democracy works only if it is supported by the people. Its demise may not come with a violent insurrection or civil war. It can come by way of a gradual undermining of institutions through existing constitutional and legal means. Orban’s Hungary offers a cautionary tale for those who believe “it could never happen here.” It can happen anywhere if there is not a united front to protect and preserve democratic institutions.
To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, that’s the way democracy could end, not with a bang but a whimper, unless the opposition is willing to fight for democracy every step of the way.
William Danvers is an adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School and worked on national security issues for the Clinton and Obama administrations.