The Triple Crisis in Hungary: The "Backsliding" of Hungarian Democracy after Twenty Years

By Agh, Attila | Romanian Journal of Political Science, Summer 2013 | Go to article overview
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The Triple Crisis in Hungary: The "Backsliding" of Hungarian Democracy after Twenty Years


Agh, Attila, Romanian Journal of Political Science


Introduction: The triple crisis in the New Member States

In Hungary the crisis of the democracy has taken place most markedly in both aspects of democracy, i.e. in the formal democratic institutions (procedural democracy with rule of law and the checks and balances system) and in their public performance (quality of democracy with the criteria of good governance). Therefore Hungary may offer itself as a worst case scenario, even when looking back until 2010, but it is much more so, if the period the incumbent Orban government has also been taken into account. The Democracy Index 2011 has put it clearly: "Some negative trends have recently got worse. Hungary perhaps the prime example among the EU's new member states in the region." (DI, 2011: 21). The Freedom House Report, Nations in Transit 2013 has supported this view when it has evaluated the backsliding of democracy in the "New EU States": "the most prominent example of this phenomenon may be Hungary, whose Nation in Transit rates have weakened more since EU accession than those of any other member state, with the largest decline in 2010 and 2011. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orban the conservative Fidesz party has used its parliamentary supermajority to increase political control over a number of key political institutions, most notably the judiciary and the media regulator." (FH, 2013: 6). Thus, this paper asks about the special reasons for this Hungarian worst case scenario, i.e. how Hungary has become from the trendsetter in the late eighties the latecomer, the worst performer in the early 2010s.

No doubt that the international ranking institutions have shown similar worrying tendencies of the "backsliding of democracy" in all new democracies due to the global crisis, since the "Global backsliding in democracy has been evident for some time" (DI, 2011: 2). The titles of the Freedom House Reports and the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit have indicated this trend (see FH, 2011a,b and FH, 2013 as well as DI, 2010, 2011 and 2013). Still the general framework to analyse the Hungarian development can only be the group of the New Member States, above all the eight NMS from Poland to Bulgaria where this tendency has also been pointed out in the above Reports at length and in depth. Therefore, for the proper analysis of the particular features in the Hungarian developments, it is necessary to compare them in their major points and on their key issues with the NMS developments in general. But this paper does not claim to give a general picture of the NMS case and it restricts itself to the analysis of Hungary. (3)

The most intriguing issue in this paper is why and how a deep change took place at the 2010 elections producing the two-thirds, constitution-making majority of Fidesz that led to some kind of backsliding democracy during the incumbent government as the latest Nations in Transit Report has emphasized. Simply said, the main problem in the Hungarian case is not the "parliamentary supermajority" in itself but the abuse of this majority by violating the checks and balances system, i.e. seeking "political control over a number of key political institutions". There have been many political analyses about the decline of the Hungarian democracy in the Orban government. Hungary has also become ill famed in the international media. But the main issue has remained unanswered so far: why did the voters give confidence in 2010 to a national-social populist party in Hungary after twenty years of democratization, i.e. why millions of Hungarians were so disillusioned, so exhausted and so desperate that they abstained at the elections or supported this "constitutional coup d'etat" as the abuse of "parliamentary supermajority" against the young democracy. (4)

Instead of simply arguing about the widespread discontent with the "democratic mess", this paper goes deeper to discover the long process of the socio-economic crisis that generated the protracted political crisis and its cumulative effects led to the "rupture" in 2010.

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The Triple Crisis in Hungary: The "Backsliding" of Hungarian Democracy after Twenty Years
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