Autocracy with a democratic façade; anti-EU ideology gaining ground
Hungary has been governed by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party since 2010. The gaining of successive two-thirds majorities in the 2010, 2014 and 2018 parliamentary elections has given the government the necessary leeway to push through far-reaching changes and to install a new kind of autocracy where the quasi-monopolistic rule of the governing elite has been hidden by a democratic facade. In this ride to autocracy, Orbán and his clique have acquired full power not through one attack, as in the traditional case of power change, but in a long process of “permanent coup d’état.” In the first step, the government ruined the system of checks and balances, and conquered all commanding heights in the state. In the second period, it conquered strategic positions in the socioeconomic system, created a new form of state capitalism and built a politico-business network with Fidesz-friendly oligarchs. Finally, it has engaged in a “cultural war,” strengthening its control over the media, and taking over universities and cultural institutions. Since the mid-2010s, the government has turned openly and aggressively against the European Union. A traditionalist-nativist, anti-EU ideology has served as the cultural framework for the official fighting for freedom against Brussels narrative.
Pandemic used as justification; expansion of emergency powers
Following Churchill’s famous advice to “never let a good crisis go to waste,” the Orbán government has seized the opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic to redistribute resources to oligarchs close to the government, consolidate its power, and continue its assault on democracy and the rule of law. Under the pretext of mitigating the economic fallout of the pandemic, the Orbán government has pushed through economically and politically dubious infrastructure projects, such as the Russian-led expansion of the Paks nuclear power plant and the Chinese-backed modernization of the Budapest-Belgrade railway link. Ignoring massive international protests, the government has made full use of the emergency powers available to it at the outset of the pandemic and has expanded future emergency powers by amending the constitution. It has weakened the political opposition by substantially reducing public financing for political parties, and by severely restricting the competences and resources of the municipalities, a major power base of the opposition. It has used the pandemic as a pretext to limit access to government information, and to further restrict media freedom by criminalizing so-called fake news and scaremongering.
Risk of defeat at ballot box; locking in changes
With the parliamentary elections in 2022, the Orbán government switched to a campaign modus. Given widespread dissatisfaction with the government’s COVID-19 management and the unexpected unity of the opposition, it feared defeat at the ballot box. It has further tightened its control over the media and has intensified its smear campaigns against the opposition. Ignoring the ballooning fiscal deficits and soaring inflation, it has run a highly populist economic policy. Finally, it has tried to limit the powers of a possible opposition-led successor government by “privatizing” universities and cultural institutions, by creating new non-majoritarian organizations such as the Supervisory Authority for Regulated Activities (SARA), and by having the new Hungarian president elected by the outgoing rather than incoming parliament.