“Freedom House got it wrong !” We can expect to hear this message from an angry official in Budapest after the release on Thursday of the Freedom in the World Report 2012. Hungary has the unfortunate distinction of being the only Western democracy in which governance and civic liberties declined over the last year. Just this week, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban was grilled in the European Parliament for his government’s recent policies, including some seemingly draconian legislative steps that have brought an unexpected number of protesters to the squares and streets of Budapest. Compared to other democratically-elected leaders in post-communist countries who departed from their countries’ democratic trajectories, Orban is younger, more talented, better educated, and has a superior understanding of Western politics. But following the constitutional and political reforms of the last year — which have given him wide-ranging and centralized authority over many areas of governance and society — Orban’s furious critics at home took to calling him “Viktator.”
Like many such leaders before him, Orban has used a tried and true formula to justify or defend his actions : a political mandate, appeals to nationalism, and a sense of crisis. Orban and his followers in the Fidesz party — which won a two-thirds or constitutional majority in the 2010 elections — like reminding their critics of their popular mandate. They argue that they are simply carrying out the wishes of the people, in line with Hungary’s democracy. Secondly, Orban’s followers make appeals to the greatness and historical exclusivity of a suffering nation, defending their actions as being in the spirit of the country’s founding fathers while redressing past mistakes. Finally, they imply that the country is embroiled in a serious economic and moral crisis and that Orban is the only person capable of saving it.
Following multiple demarches by Brussels and Washington, popular domestic criticism led by prominent Hungarian intellectuals and activists, and worrisome economic trends being highlighted by credit-ratings agencies, one might expect Orban to modify his course. But it does not appear that the politically skillful Orban is about to reset his policies any time soon. In fact, rather paradoxically, the ongoing economic and political crises in the European Union and the United States have allowed Orban to advance his own assertive political rhetoric. He can also, for the time being, capitalize upon the weaknesses of a fragmented domestic political opposition, a controlled media, a scared business community, and a civil society, academia, and church that have been silenced. He is also capable of deftly tackling criticism from European technocrats by pretending to fix things around the margins.
At the same time, Orban should be aware that his country, hit hard by the economic recession, cannot survive long in isolation. Nor can he continue bluffing the United States and European Union forever. His neighbors, many of whom have sizable ethnic Hungarian minorities, will not let him freely continue making grand and bizarre gestures and statements featuring obsolete Great Hungary tones. Most of all, Orban should be aware of his own people’s power and keep in mind the fates of other seemingly omnipotent leaders in his immediate neighborhood and beyond.
Over the last two decades, countries in post-communist Europe produced various forms of government, ranging from Western-style liberal democracies to authoritarian rule. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, it was generally assumed that those countries that graduated from the pre-accession process and entered the European Union would become immune to authoritarian practices. Hungary single-handedly overturns this assumption. Orban’s willingness to ignore criticism of his country’s departure from shared European values amid the gradual destruction of checks and balances has created headaches in many EU capitals. In that sense, Hungary’s future is deeply intertwined with that of the European Union and what it stands for : cohesion, good governance, and respect for state sovereignty.