U OK Hun(gary)?
Viktor Orban. Attila Volgyi/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images   

Did democracy just drown in the Danube? The result of last Sunday’s Hungarian general election was yet another crushing victory for the ruling party and a third consecutive term for Viktor Orban, the country’s PM since 2010.

Amid accusations of ‘irregularities’, Yascha Mounk, in an article for Slate, questions the legitimacy of the elections:

“All in all, then, the Hungarian elections were mostly free but hardly fair. The best way to think about them is as falling somewhere along the long continuum between true democratic elections and the complete sham that is perpetrated at regular intervals in countries like Russia or Venezuela.”

Mounk goes one to place Hungary towards the wrong end of this spectrum:

“[Hungary] was once a liberal democracy. As Orbán undermined the rule of law, dismantled the separation of powers, and massively violated the rights of ethnic minorities, it turned into an illiberal democracy. Now, it is effectively a dictatorship with a thin electoral veneer.”

If he’s right, then he’s also right to see Sunday’s result not only as a disaster for Hungary but for democracy in general:

“Until recently, many political scientists believed that there was a certain set of countries in which democracy was safe: Once a country had changed governments through free and fair elections a couple of times, and reached a GDP per capita of about $14,000 in today’s terms, its political system had supposedly ‘consolidated.’ We could confidently predict that it would still be democratic 10 or 25 or 50 years from now.”

He concludes that “…the events in Hungary… show us that a widely held theory about the future of democracy is wrong and raise the specter of dictatorship’s return to the heart of Europe.”

But does Hungary really represent the first fall of a ‘consolidated’ democracy?

There is genuine cause for concern, but Mounk over-simplifies the situation. Universal theories of democracy are all well and good, but some local context is also helpful.

The main reason why Fidesz (the ruling party) is so strong is because the main opposition is so weak. During the previous decade, the dominant party was the Hungarian Socialist Party. In 2006, the Socialist PM was caught on tape making a truly spectacular series of gaffes and admissions to a closed meeting of his party. The ensuing public protests turned into a political crisis – not least because of a thuggish police response that recalled the repression of the Communist era. The credibility of the Socialist Party (a direct descendent of the Communist era ruling party) never recovered.

To compound matters, the biggest opposition party is now Jobbik – a far-right outfit that makes Viktor Orban look like Emmanuel Macron.

It’s also worth noting that there are examples of consolidated democracies where one party has dominated for decades. For instance, the Liberal Democrats in post-war Japan and the Social Democrats in 20th-century Sweden. One might say that Germany is heading in the same direction – where the biggest rival to Angela Merkel’s CDU is more usually to be found as its ever-diminishing junior partner in government, and the biggest opposition party (the populist AfD) has zero hope of forming a government.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) is welcomed by Jean-Claude Juncker , the president of the European Commission. (Credit: Wiktor Dabkowski / PA)

And then there’s the EU itself – whose most prominent figures don’t bother with popular mandates and whose ‘parliament’ is controlled by a permanent stitch-up of establishment parties who face little chance of being kicked-out by the voters.

Yascha Mounk condemns the Euro-establishment’s weak response to Orban’s tightening grip – but when it comes to true democratic accountability, they’re in a poor position to preach, let alone act.

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