Hungary is eroding democracy

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Abstract in English

(Eastern Europe 3-5 / 2018, pp. 5–6)

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In Hungary, the national conservative Fidesz won the parliamentary elections for the third time in a row on April 8, 2018. In parliament, Viktor Orbán's government has a two-thirds majority. Fidesz controls all state institutions in the country; Party people have held key positions in ministries, offices and courts, universities, radio and television for years. The Prime Minister's minions control the regional press and key sectors of the Hungarian economy. New laws narrow the scope of civil society. The Orbán system is firmly anchored.
In Poland, the national conservative Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) has been restructuring the political system since its success in the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015. The goal of the PiS under Jarosław Kaczyński is to expand the power of the executive so that it can intervene in politics and access the economy and society. The PiS disempowered the constitutional court, abolished the independence of the judiciary, brought the public media on course and set in motion a systematic exchange of elites in ministries, offices, courts and cultural institutions.
Are they illiberal democracies? No. After eight years of Fidesz rule, Hungary is a liberal autocracy - an autocracy in which civil rights still apply. Poland's government has set the course in this direction. The concept of “illiberal democracy” invented by Orbán's political strategists is misleading. He reduces democracy to majority rule and suggests that “liberal” is the term for a system with unlimited rights of the individual at the expense of the collective. Certainly, the rights of the individual guaranteed by the rule of law are in tension with the claims of the representatives of the majority determined in elections to shape social relations. But the rule of law restriction of power is the core of every democracy. It is not for nothing that the fear of the tyranny of the majority stands at the beginning of the democratic age. Nowhere is this formulated more clearly than in the book On Democracy in America, written almost 200 years ago.
Even more: where the separation of powers has been abolished, where supervisory bodies and institutional counterbalances have been eliminated, where the law does not restrict rule but is an instrument for exercising power, the character of the elections also changes. There is no doubt that Fidesz came to power in free elections in 2010, as did the PiS in 2015. But in the 2018 elections in Hungary, Fidesz as the party of power and the opposition parties did not run on equal terms. The government deployed administrative resources on a large scale and has behind it the media power of state television and radio, as well as the broadcasters and newspapers of party magnates. The opposition parties did not have comparable resources. It is no coincidence that the OSCE said that the elections were free, but not fair.
Certainly, in Hungary as in Poland, elementary freedoms of the individual are still in force. This is mainly due to their integration into the European Union. It distinguishes the two states from the authoritarian ruled countries in the east of the EU: Russia, Belarus, Azerbaijan and Turkey. But Hungary's leadership regards authoritarian states like Russia, China or Turkey as tactical allies in a defensive struggle against the European Union and is anxious to forge a tactical alliance with them against the supposed Brussels colonial rule.
All elements of this thinking are brought together in the contribution that Fidesz MEP György Schöpflin has written for this volume. A supranational elite is trying to enforce a quasi-fundamentalist liberalism with the help of a deterministic view of history and “so-called human rights”. As has been the case for centuries, the nations of East Central Europe are now again victims of oppression and forced modernization.
However, membership in the EU was not imposed on anyone. Hungary and Poland aspired to join the Union themselves, with the participation and at times under the leadership of the representatives of the current regime. And, according to her then, it was not just security and economic considerations that guided her. They wanted to belong to an association of democratic constitutional states, so that this would allow their societies more freedom.
Today in Hungary the attack on the open society has already begun. The Putin system and the Orbán system are becoming more and more similar in this respect. A central element is the production of enemy images, the permanent negative mobilization of the population. One of the technologies of power is suggestive pseudo-people surveys. First Orbán took action against domestic political opponents, since 2015 he has been running a xenophobic campaign against migrants and against the EU under the motto “Let's stop Brussels!”. In 2017, the Fidesz government covered the whole of Hungary with a poster campaign against the Hungarian-born investor and philanthropist George Soros, which uses anti-Semitic stereotypes.
It is time to say what's going on: neither Hungary nor Poland could become a member of the EU in their current constitution. You do not meet the Copenhagen criteria. But while aspirants are denied admission to the EU for this reason, Poland and Hungary cannot be excluded from the EU. The European Commission has at least initiated rule of law proceedings against Poland. In the case of Hungary, this did not happen during the years of state restructuring into a liberal autocracy because the European People's Party, of which Fidesz belongs, prevented it. This could change now. The rule of law procedure can ultimately lead to the withdrawal of voting rights or the suspension of payments from the structural and investment funds. But there is a long way to go. Not only are the legal hurdles high. Liberal democracy is eroding in many European countries. Hungary and Poland are expressions of this trend, they intensify it and carry it to other countries. This provides them with support. But even those who are aware that the erosion of the rule of law and the abolition of the separation of powers are attacking the foundations of the EU face a difficult task. You must always act in such a way that it is clear that cracking down on the regimes in Poland and Hungary is not an end in itself. It is always about one thing above all else: to stand by those people in Hungary and Poland who defend the principles of the open society and the liberal constitutional state and who are called "mercenaries", "foreigners", "fifth column" or " Poles of the Bad Kind ”are defamed.

Manfred Sapper, Volker Weichsel