Hungary’s Illiberal Democracy
The purpose of democracy is to confer political legitimacy. Political leaders are legitimate when democratically elected. Laws are legitimate when passed by valid democratic procedure.
But what happens when a democratic system reaches, so to speak, the wrong conclusion? How should we think of democratically elected leaders who are unfair or unjust? What if they pursue policies that undermine democracy itself?
Many nations are confronting these questions, but they are felt with special force in Hungary, whose relationship with democracy has never been more fraught. From the perspective of western liberals, the problems in Hungary begin and end with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party, who have effectively turned the country into a one-party state.
But this was not the result of an authoritarian coup d’état. In fact, when Orbán returned to power in 2010 (he was Prime Minister once before, from 1998 to 2002), he had the overwhelming support of the electorate. He won in a landslide. This is precisely what allowed him to make fundamental changes to Hungary’s system of government, leading to the consolidation of his power. Ten years later, Orbán enjoys broad control over the press, election procedures, and the judiciary in Hungary. Given the direction of the country, did democracy in Hungary arrive at the wrong conclusion in 2010?
Many people do not think so. For one, Orbán is still popular in Hungary. He enjoys relatively high approval ratings, and the public supported his heavy-handed response to the coronavirus pandemic by wide margins. His precise degree of support is open to dispute, given that polling is often conducted by pro-government agencies like the Nézőpont Institute, but they are not inventing numbers out of thin air. He also won reelection in 2014 and 2018, with his Fidesz Party retaining a supermajority in Parliament after both elections. These results are also misleading to an extent, thanks to redistricting efforts in recent years that favor Orbán’s party. But he still legitimately won his bids for reelection; they were not sham victories in any literal sense. Orbán is not a universally reviled autocrat—far from it. Many Hungarians love him.
Orbán also has admirers abroad, including in the United States. He is especially popular among religious conservatives, who admire his explicit and enthusiastic insistence that Hungary is a Christian nation. Hungary’s purported Christian identity is even written into the country’s Constitution, another change that followed Orbán’s election in 2010.
So now Hungary is an “illiberal democracy.” This is Orbán’s description, not a critical epithet leveled by his detractors. It is illiberal because the government openly favors, in both its rhetoric and policies, one set of beliefs at the expense of others. Christianity, or rather a specific strand of conservative Christianity, enjoys a privileged status; it is first among unequals. And this arraignment is arguably just a reflection of the will of the Hungarian people. An illiberal democracy is still a democracy, after all.
Or is it? That is the question this piece explores.
Beauchamp, Zack. “The American Right’s Favorite Strongman,” Vox, August 10, 2020, https://www.vox.com/2020/5/21/21256324/viktor-orban-hungary-american-conservatives
Caldwell, Christopher. “Hungary and the Future of Europe,” Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2019, https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/hungary-and-the-future-of-europe/
Dreher, Rod. “The Situation With Viktor Orban,” The American Conservative, April 6, 2020, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/the-situation-with-viktor-orban-hungary-emergency/
Zerofsky, Elisabeth. “Viktor Orbán’s Far-Right Vision for Europe,” The New Yorker, January 2, 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/01/14/viktor-orbans-far-right-vision-for-europe
PhD Candidate, Religious Studies
Evan Sandsmark is a PhD student in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He studies philosophy, theology, and ethics, with a research focus on the problem of evil. He is an editor for The Square, the blog for the Religion and Its Publics project. He has an MA in Theology and Religion from Durham University, and a BA in philosophy and English literature from the University of Colorado.
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