Democracy Should Be Restored In Hungary While There Is Still Time and Capacity

Current Developments

European Union (EU) and Hungary have been at odds for years over issues ranging from judicial independence to media freedom, and from LGBTIQ+ affairs and refugee rights. In November 2021, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that Hungary “failed to fulfill its obligations” under EU law with a 2018 Hungarian bill which prevented people from applying for asylum and banned individuals and organizations from assisting illegal immigrants in claiming asylum.[1] In response to the ruling from the CJEU, Hungarian President Viktor Orbán stated at a press conference on December 21, 2021 that Hungary will not change its immigration laws.[2]

On November 30, 2021, the Hungarian parliament voted to hold a referendum on LGBTIQ+ issues, potentially on the same day of the 2022 national election.[3] Orbán desires to limit teaching about homosexuality and transgender topics in schools, allegedly to defend Christian values against Western liberalism.[4]

Both developments raise concerns over the rule of law, freedom, and human rights in Hungary. They also indicate that the row between the EU and Hungary is likely to continue for a foreseeable future. Against this backdrop, this policy brief aims to provide a broad look at shrinking space for democracy and authoritarian tactics utilized in Hungary, as well as to offer practical guidance for local and international actors on how to respond.

Shrinking Space for Democracy

According to a 2021 report by the Freedom House, the world is in the 15th consecutive year of decline in democracy and global freedom.[5] In Europe, Poland and Hungary have been making the headlines for contributing to this downfall trend in freedom with their increasingly authoritarian practices in the past decade.[6] What is worse, many leaders around the world have reportedly used the Covid-19 pandemic to their advantages to ramp up repression on critics and consolidate the power.[7] The Hungarian parliament, in particular, declared a state of emergency in early 2020 under the pretext of addressing the public health emergency, giving Prime Minister Victor Orbán unlimited power to rule for an indefinite time.[8] With the gained power, Orbán can suspend existing laws and implement new ones by decree, without any parliamentary or judicial scrutiny. The law also allows for imprisonment of those who spread “false” or “distorted” information concerning the public safety by several years in prison.[9] The vagueness of the terms stated in the law leaves it open for interpretations and present serious threats for freedom of speech and independent media.  

In the past decade, Hungary has dropped out of the group of democracies and become a hybrid regime.[10] The country, under the leadership of Victor Orbán, has indulged in antidemocratic practices, limiting space for freedoms and rights, to silence dissent and consolidate the power.[11] Although Hungary has been criticized for its authoritarian turn by other European countries[12], Orbán seems to be determined to follow this trend further, considering his firm stance against the 2021 ruling from the CJEU. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as scholars have long addressed the emerging threat of democratic backsliding in Hungary.[13] Yet, it is particularly important to reiterate this call with a concise diagnosis of the threat and suggestions, considering the upcoming parliamentary election in Hungary scheduled for the spring of 2022. It is, therefore, crucial to inform the electorate as well as policy-makers and scholars of the increasing threat to democracy. Moreover, the antidemocratic developments in Hungary are likely to threaten the peace and humanity prospects in the region. For one thing, the Hungarian government’s treatment of refugees, i.e. unlawful pushbacks and deportations, fuels anti-refugee rhetoric and practices in neighboring countries, such Croatia and Serbia. Similarly, Hungary’s model of controlling media has reportedly been embraced by other governments in the region, i.e. most visibly in Poland and to a lesser extent in Serbia and Slovenia, with increasing mainstreams of smear campaigns and government propaganda, as well as verbal attacks on journalists.[14] All these suggest that this antidemocratic learning process, if not stopped, is likely to generate further violations of human rights in the region and disrupt the peace.

New Authoritarian Tactics

The phrases, such as authoritarianism or repression, to describe the conditions in Hungary might appear irrelevant or delusional to some, as these terms are often used to describe categorically authoritarian states (e.g. Iran, Saudi Arabia, or China) and physical harms, respectively. This, in fact, explains the real threat that lays ahead of countries in transition, such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and many others: a systematic repression through simulated democratic actions. In the past decade, leaders have adopted more indirect, less visible, and more selective repressive tactics to silence society and suppress dissent at home.[15] Some scholars have referred such tactics as practices of “smart” or “soft” repression.[16] Doing so, leaders aim to remain the veneer of democracy while indulging in antidemocratic practices. The main motivation here is to keep their repressive actions and the purpose of their actions are to be unknown to the general public.[17] This is mainly because while overt repression, such as police brutality or violent crackdown on dissent, might trigger public outrage, creating a backfire effect[18], the general public is less likely to pay as much attention to indirect repressive tactics. The 2020 law in Hungary that criminalizes spreading “false” or “distorted” information, for example, is a key example of repressive action. While the law has significantly limited space for free speech and independent media, the general public may not be fully aware of scopes and potential harms of such practices. This is particularly important because most of the so-called indirect repressive tactics cannot be visible to the larger public. Thus, failing to see shrinking space for civil society, academia, or media would result in pseudo legitimation of such repressive attempts. This would then turn everyday repression into normal practices.[19]

This new authoritarian toolkit consists of low-risk tactics which would strengthen elite loyalty, suppress dissent, and reinforce public support while mitigating a backfire effect.[20] To achieve this, governments target all institutions upon which the state’s power resides on, including judiciary, media, NGOs, academia, and many others. This might work either by co-opting these institutions through appointing loyalists or limiting their capacities to raise critical voices.[21] As such, press freedom is severely restricted, and pro-government media dominate the flow of information in the country.[22] Unlike media, Orbán did not need to force judiciary into compliance, as his party has had the majority in the parliament to pass any laws since 2010. Moreover, Orbán’s power under the present state of emergency allows him to rule without the judicial scrutiny. Yet, on October 5, 2020, Orbán appointed Zsolt Andras Varga, a loyalist, to lead the country’s highest court, which has been considered an attempt to further strengthen Orbán’s grip on power.[23] Academic freedom, on the other hand, is under serious attacks. A prime example of this is that Central European University (CEU) has been forced out of the country due to a 2017 bill issuing new criteria for foreign universities, including the requirements that foreign universities must have a parent institution and conduct actual educational activities in the country of origin.[24] The bill was rapidly referred as “Lex CEU’ as most of the new criteria exclusively applied to CEU.[25]

This short policy recommendation draws attention to two important aspects in addressing the democratic backsliding. First, the authoritarian transition does not unfold overnight, but takes some time. This, however, often happens at a pace which is invisible to the larger public. According to the 2021 freedom report by Freedom House, Hungary is categorized as a partly free country, scoring 69 out of 100.[26] With its current score, Hungary is slightly ahead of where Turkey were back in 2015 with the score of 54.[27] By 2021, Turkey’s score declined to 32, placed under the category of not free due to increasing crack down on judiciary, media, and civil society.[28] These institutions are under increasing threats in Hungary as well. This suggests that Hungary is on a slippery slope on which it would not take long to fall into a not free country, if it followed suit with Turkey. From an optimistic point of view, however, there is still more hope for Hungary, as democracy is not yet a lost cause in Hungary.[29] Although there is a sharp decline in the quality of democracy, it may be reversed if proper local and international interventions are applied, which are discussed below. Therefore, it is suggested here that rights-based civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs should act while they still have some space for raising critical voices and mobilization. Second, the increasing authoritarianism in Hungary does not only pose threats to the country, but also the whole region. As such, authoritarian practices set precedents for others to follow, and authoritarian leaders learn from each other.[30] Similarities in antidemocratic rhetoric and practices between Poland and Hungary are suggestive evidence to this trend.[31]

Recommendations

Several recommendations listed below are to call upon both local and international actors to act in order to improve human rights and freedom in Hungary.

For local actors:

  • Rights-based civil society organizations (CSOs) and NGOs should take the lead in communicating the government’s repression with the larger public and revealing the ulterior motives of seemingly legitimate actions of the government.
  • CSOs and NGOs should organize discussion groups and mass media campaigns with the aim of mainstreaming the discussion on fundamental rights and freedoms.
  • Civil society and independent media organizations should work together to facilitate discussions on democracy and citizenship rights, by using an inclusive and sensitive language with the aim of raising public awareness over the rights LGBTIQ+ individuals and refugees.
  • Opposition political parties should support the initiatives of CSOs and NGOs campaigning on freedom and democracy, as well as demanding the rights of LGBTIQ+ individuals and refugees.
  • Opposition political parties should form a united front to fight against the government’s antidemocratic practices and repression. Although the opposition seems to be currently united around the candidacy of Peter Marki-Zay, there are already some signs of emerging cracks in the coalition[32]. This would significantly play into the hands of Orbán’s Fidesz party in the election. To prevent this, the opposition should put aside their difference and unite to defend democracy against increasing authoritarianism.

For international actors:

  • The United States and European Union should press Hungary to respect for democratic norms and values, take a proactive role in strengthening civil society in Hungary through providing funding and training for civil society actors and activists, and take steps in supporting independent and free media in Hungary.
  • European countries and European Union should take a more proactive role not only to encourage Hungary to uphold democratic norms of Europe, but also to prevent such antidemocratic practices spreading to other European countries. This appears to be a serious concern with Poland following suit with Hungary.
  • The European Commission should consider taking further legal proceedings on issues concerning LGBTIQ+ affairs and refugee rights, in case of sustained violations.

Summary

European Union and Hungary have been at odds for years over issues ranging from judicial independence to media freedom, LGBTIQ+ affairs and refugee rights. Hungary, under the leadership of Victor Orbán, has indulged in antidemocratic practices to silence dissent and consolidate the power. The antidemocratic turn in Hungary does not only limit space for freedom and rights at home, but also threatens the peace and humanity prospects in the region. This brief aims to inform the electorate as well as policy-makers and civil society actors of the emerging threat to democracy, ahead of the upcoming parliamentary election in Hungary scheduled for the spring of 2022. Civil society actors, political oppositions, and international actors are encouraged here to facilitate and mainstream the discussion on fundamental rights, freedoms, and democracy, as well as to improve the capacity of civil society and free media.  European countries and European Union, in particular, are encouraged to press Hungary to uphold democratic norms of Europe and to prevent antidemocratic practices spreading to other European countries.


Ilker Kalin holds a PhD in Political Science from Wayne State University. He is now an independent researcher based in Turkey. His research focuses on the topics of nonviolent action, conflict resolution, state repression, and human rights. Ilker also serves as a researcher in The Peace & Security Monitor project at the Platform for Peace and Humanity.


[1] Maïa De La Baume, ‘Hungarian law criminalizing asylum seeker help breaches EU law, top court rules’ Politico (16 November 2021) <https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-top-court-rules-hungary-breached-eu-law-over-treatment-of-asylum-seekers/>.

[2] Thibault Spirlet, ‘Hungary won’t abide by EU court ruling on migration, Orbán says’ Politico (21 December 2021) <https://www.politico.eu/article/hungary-challenge-eu-court-ruling-migration-viktor-orban/>.

[3] ‘Hungary approves referendum on limiting LGBTQ representation in education’ Deutsche Welle (30 November 2021) <https://www.dw.com/en/hungary-approves-referendum-on-limiting-lgbtq-representation-in-education/a-59979388>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipwitz, ‘Freedom in the World 2021: Democracy under Siege’ Freedom House (2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2021/democracy-under-siege>.

[6] Dalibor Rohac, ‘Hungary and Poland Aren’t Democratic. They’re Authoritarian’ Foreign Policy (5 February 2021) <https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/02/05/hungary-and-poland-arent-democratic-theyre-authoritarian/>; Nicholas Mulder, ‘The revolt against liberalism: what’s driving Poland and Hungary’s nativist turn?’ The Guardian (24 June 2021) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jun/24/revolt-against-liberalism-eastern-europe-poland-hungary-nativist-politics>.

[7] Sarah Repucci and Amy Slipwitz, ‘Democracy under lockdown’ Freedom House (2020) <https://freedomhouse.org/report/special-report/2020/democracy-under-lockdown>.

[8] Laura Livingston, ‘Understanding Hungary’s Authoritarian Response to the Pandemic’ Lawfare (14 April 2020) <https://www.lawfareblog.com/understanding-hungarys-authoritarian-response-pandemic> Accessed on 26 December 2021.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.   

[11] Zselyke Csaky, ‘The Antidemocratic Turn’ Freedom House (2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/article/new-report-attacks-democracy-intensify-autocracy-spreads-europe-and-eurasia>.

[12] ‘EU slams Hungary and Poland over democratic standards’ Deutsche Welle (30 September 2020) <https://www.dw.com/en/eu-slams-hungary-and-poland-over-democratic-standards/a-55106932> Accessed on 26 December 2021.

[13] Michael Abramowitz, ‘Poland and Hungary must not be ignored’ Freedom House (26 May 2020) <https://freedomhouse.org/article/poland-and-hungary-must-not-be-ignored>; Zselyke Csaky, ‘Capturing Democratic Institutions: Lessons from Hungary and Poland’ Freedom House (3 November 2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/article/capturing-democratic-institutions-lessons-hungary-and-poland>; Zyolt Enyedi, ‘Democratic Backsliding and Academic Freedom in Hungary’ Perspectives on Politics (2018), 16(4), 1067-1074; Nancy Bermeo, ‘On democratic backsliding’ Journal of Democracy (2016), 27(1), 5-19.

[14] Zselyke Csaky, ‘The Antidemocratic Turn’ Freedom House (2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/article/new-report-attacks-democracy-intensify-autocracy-spreads-europe-and-eurasia>.

[15] Erica Chenoweth, ‘Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response: Is Violence towards Civilian-Based Movements on the Rise?’ Global Responsibility to Protect (2017), 9(1), 86-100; Erica Chenoweth, ‘The future of nonviolent resistance’ Journal of Democracy (2020), 31(3), 69-84.

[16] Erica Chenoweth, ‘Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response: Is Violence towards Civilian-Based Movements on the Rise?’ Global Responsibility to Protect (2017), 9(1), 86-100; Myra Marx Ferree, ‘Soft repression: Ridicule, stigma, and silencing in gender-based movements’ In Authority in Contention (eds.) by Patrick G. Coy, Daniel Myers, and Daniel Cress (2005). Emerald Group Publishing Limited; Lee A. Smithey and Lester R. Kurtz, ‘Smart Repression’ In The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements (eds.) by Lee A. Smithey and Lester R. Kurtz (2018). Los Angeles: Syracuse University Press.

[17] Jennifer Earl, ‘Tanks, Tear Gas, and Taxes: Toward a Theory of Movement Repression’ Sociological Theory (2003), 21(1), 44-68.

[18] Gene Sharp, ‘Waging Nonviolent Struggle: 20th Century Practice and 21st Century Potential’ (2005). Boston: Porter Sargent.

[19] Ilker Kalin, ‘Smart Repression at work: Shrinking Space for Academic Freedom in Turkey’ Freedom House (2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/programs/regional-programs/europe-programs/advancing-fundamental-freedoms-turkey>.

[20] Lee A. Smithey and Lester R. Kurtz, ‘Smart Repression’ In The Paradox of Repression and Nonviolent Movements (eds.) by Lee A. Smithey and Lester R. Kurtz (2018). Los Angeles: Syracuse University Press.

[21] Ilker Kalin, ‘Smart Repression at work: Shrinking Space for Academic Freedom in Turkey’ Freedom House (2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/programs/regional-programs/europe-programs/advancing-fundamental-freedoms-turkey>.

[22] Please see; Zselyke Csaky, ‘Capturing Democratic Institutions: Lessons from Hungary and Poland’ Freedom House (3 November 2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/article/capturing-democratic-institutions-lessons-hungary-and-poland>.  

[23] ‘Hungarian lawmakers appoint new top court president despite judges’ rejection’ Reuters (19 October 2020) <https://www.reuters.com/article/hungary-court-idINL8N2HA2VU>

[24] Zyolt Enyedi, ‘Democratic Backsliding and Academic Freedom in Hungary’ Perspectives on Politics (2018), 16(4), 1067-1074.

[25] Ibid.

[26] ‘Freedom in the World 2021’ Freedom House (2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/country/hungary/freedom-world/2021>.

[27] Arch Puddington, ‘Discarding Democracy: Returning to the Iron Fist’ Freedom House (2015) <https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2015/discarding-democracy-return-iron-fist>.

[28] ‘Freedom in the World 2021’ Freedom House (2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/country/turkey/freedom-world/2021>.

[29] Zyolt Enyedi, ‘Democratic Backsliding and Academic Freedom in Hungary’ Perspectives on Politics (2018), 16(4), 1067-1074.

[30] Erica Chenoweth, ‘Trends in Nonviolent Resistance and State Response: Is Violence towards Civilian-Based Movements on the Rise?’ Global Responsibility to Protect (2017), 9(1), 86-100.

[31] Please see; Zselyke Csaky, ‘Capturing Democratic Institutions: Lessons from Hungary and Poland’ Freedom House (3 November 2021) <https://freedomhouse.org/article/capturing-democratic-institutions-lessons-hungary-and-poland> accessed on 26 December 2021.  

[32] Amanda Coakley, ‘Hungary’s Opposition Struggles to Take the Fight to Fidesz’, Foreign Policy (20 December 2021) <https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/12/20/hungary-opposition-election-marki-zay-fidesz-orban/>.

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