Political science uses Viktor Orbán as a caricature. He is thrown around as a stock example of democratic subversion. The criticism is warranted but few political scientists have gone beyond surface level analysis to understand The Orbán Regime in Hungary. It is not enough to laundry list the undesirable policies and laws his government have implemented. It is important to understand how it came about. It is necessary to recognize his sources of support. And most important of all it is important to fully understand the reasons for democratic decline in Hungary.
Hungary was widely recognized as a consolidated democracy before 2010. It had successfully passed Huntington’s two turnover test as early as 1998. It is coincidental that this was Viktor Orbán’s first term as prime minister. But it is also noteworthy that he handed power back to the socialists (MSZP) when Fidesz lost in 2002. Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa have written about the deconsolidation of democracies around the world. But a deeper analysis of Hungary brings to question the depth of its democratic roots.
András Körösényi, Gábor Illés, and Attila Gyulai regard Hungary as an ideal form of the Plebiscitary Leader Democracy. They attribute the concept to Max Weber. Their classification offers some insights into the political system they call The Orbán Regime and it draws parallels to other political systems. But there are problems in this approach. It does recognize international developments which have undermined the quality of democracy around the world. In this respect, Hungary is a harbinger of the decay in many other consolidated democracies. But there is also a risk to normalize Hungary as an inevitable outcome of political phenomena rather than an outlier due to its peculiar mix of institutional, cultural, and political circumstances.
Despite the vast attention on Hungary as a political outlier, there is little written about its political history after the Velvet Revolutions. It is impossible to understand the political system of Hungary unless the past thirty years are placed into context. Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz are widely criticized because they rewrote the Hungarian constitution after their election in 2010. It is unfathomable to an American to learn how easy it was for them to rewrite an entire constitution. It required only a supermajority in the unicameral legislature. The American process requires supermajorities in two legislative chambers and ratification from three quarters of the states. The nineteenth amendment that extended the right to vote for women came down to a single vote in the Tennessee legislature. The Equal Rights Amendment should have been uncontroversial but failed to achieve ratification from enough states. In contrast, the Hungarian constitution was rewritten almost on a whim and has subsequently been amended multiple times afterwards over the past decade.
Despite vast changes in the substance and nature of the constitutional framework, Hungary did not adopt a new constitution when it democratized. The communist constitution of 1949 was reformed and revised to accommodate liberal democratic reforms. Americans may marvel at the ease which the Hungarian constitution was redesigned, but nobody believed constitutional reform would ever be easy. Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi have written in the Journal of Democracy, “The framers had assumed that no single party would ever win such a majority. They turned out to be wrong.”
Hungarian democracy began as a diverse conglomeration of different political parties. Over multiple elections it transformed into a two-party system between Fidesz and the Socialists (MSZP). The first prime minister won under 25% of the vote but won 42% of the Parliamentary seats. The next strongest party won just 21% of the vote and 24% of the seats in Parliament. In contrast, MSZP and Fidesz combined to win 85% of the vote and 91% of the seats in Parliament in 2006. It is also important to recognize the two parties who would dominate future elections finished fourth (MSZP) and fifth (Fidesz) in 1990. They combined to win just under 20% of the vote and 14% of the seats in Parliament. The Socialists would emerge as a significant political force in 1994. Fidesz broke through in 1998. After 1998, the party system converged into these two parties until the implosion of the Socialists in 2010.
The consolidation of the party system in Hungary was a natural outcome of its electoral methods. Hungary established a complicated system where it combined a proportional system and single member districts along with additional seats assigned based on complex formulas. The expectation was a diverse range of parties from the proportional list, but direct personal representation from the single member districts. Jonathan Rodden has called a mixed system like this as the best of both worlds. But Hungary demonstrates, a mixed system brings about a natural consolidation toward a two-party system. Because so many seats were assigned to the two major parties, the proportional list became an opportunity to reinforce the original vote. Voters did not use the party list to a smaller group of diverse parties. They doubled down so their party would win a majority in Parliament.
The Socialists collapsed in the 2010 Parliamentary election because the prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, admitted to lying in the 2006 campaign. The distribution of the Őszöd speech discredited the legitimacy and credibility of the Socialist coalition as a governing party. Fidesz inevitably won a supermajority in the 2010 Parliamentary election. They swept every district and won the popular vote by a 33% margin. It is important to recognize their overwhelming victory represented just a bare majority of the popular vote, but the opposition fractured into multiple smaller parties. The British Electoral Survey have written about a series of Electoral Shocks in the United Kingdom, but none compare to the electoral shock of the 2010 Hungarian Parliamentary election.
The book, The Orbán Regime, does not spend enough time on the historical background and institutional features which made its rise possible. The book devotes pages to outline the historical conditions where a chapter was probably necessary. But it is remarkable for its detail for the ways Orbán has consolidated his support. The literature often describes the outcome 2014 Hungarian Parliamentary election as the result of gerrymandered electoral districts. This is partly true but is overstated. Fidesz completely redesigned the electoral map after their overwhelming victory in 2010. The electoral changes are often described as constitutional changes, but this is not entirely accurate. Electoral laws are cardinal laws which require a supermajority of those present. They are not technically constitutional changes but effectively require the same number of votes to make changes. Fidesz changed the composition of Parliament from 386 seats to 199 seats. Single member districts were given greater weight over the proportional party list vote. Fidesz lost 8 percent of the vote but retained their supermajority. While it is likely many changes in electoral rules shaped the election, it is important to recognize Fidesz held a 19% lead over their next closest competitor. Of course, a deeper examination is necessary to determine how much of this lead was the result of changes in the composition of the electorate.
Körösényi, Illés, and Gyulai take the time to explain how Orbán shaped the political narrative to consolidate his support. The 2014 election was defined by utility rates, while future elections were largely defined by the immigration issue. Both issues drove a wedge between the European Union and the Hungarian people. Orbán centralized his support through the redefinition of the political cleavage between Hungary and Europe rather than between the traditional left-right spectrum. Despite the hostility towards Europe, the Hungarian people recognize their inability to withdraw from the European Union. Some estimate about 2.5% of Hungary’s GDP comes from the balance of transfers from European Union programs.
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi has outlined how the European Union was used as leverage to produce good governance reforms in candidate countries. But she has also shown how this leverage dissipated after a country was incorporated into the European Union. The problem is exacerbated because Western Europe views European Parliamentary elections as second order. The activities of the European Union are defined by their national governments. Hungary, in contrast, has found their national politics has been defined by the demands of the European Union. Their financial dependence on the union gives an elevated importance to the decisions of the EU as well. Consequently, the membership of Fidesz view their political competition as outsiders. They have expanded the political map to incorporate all of Europe so their dominance in Hungary is viewed as natural.
There is an historical parallel to this political strategy. The American South consolidated its political support in the Democratic Party before shifting its allegiance to the Republican Party. The Solid South has offered little political competition until the growth of cities in Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia began to reshape their political maps. The lack of political competition allowed for a tradition of authoritarian policies in the form of Jim Crowe even after the abolition of slavery. The European Union has begun to experience a similar phenomenon as Eastern Europe has found a separate political identity from the more economically developed West. But the parallel is disheartening because of the depths of injustice experienced for so long in the American South by African Americans. And the length of time to rectify those injustices does not offer much hope either. It took about a hundred years after the Civil War to pass meaningful Civil Rights legislation and the failure to resolve these issues continues to affect the United States to this day.
The authors largely use the case of Hungary to offer a contribution to comparative political theory. They draw a sharp distinction between Plebiscitary Leader Democracy and Populism. They conflate populism as an ideology of majoritarianism. They believe Plebiscitary Leader Democracy offers a solution because it incorporates the elitist nature of the system where the people express their support for the system through the vote but have little influence beyond elections. Moreover, elections become a referendum on the leadership rather than any individual policy so there is no clear sense of the people on any single political issue. The people place their faith in the leader to direct public policy.
I have written previously how it is a mischaracterization of populism to define it as a rigid form of majoritarianism. Populism is a politics of inclusion based upon the exclusion of others. Populists will champion referendums when they believe they can win, but it has less to do with a majoritarian ethos than a desire to shut down political debate and legitimize their position without the need for compromise. The election of Donald Trump is an example where populists were not concerned when their President won the election but lost the popular vote. Körösényi, Illés, and Gyulai would argue Trump’s election is a soft example of Plebiscitary Leader Democracy rather than Populism. Some of the distinction has more to do with semantics than substance. But there are some important consequences for theory. My definition of populism recognizes its democratic component, while also highlighting its authoritarian sympathies. The classification of Hungary as an alternate form of democracy risks a normalization of its decline as the authors compare Hungary to political systems like the United States and the United Kingdom.
It helps to circle back to the Hungarian Constitution. The authors rightly recognize how the Hungarian Constitution became less majoritarian after Orbán’s reforms. It expands the use of Cardinal Laws to change public policy. The previous constitutional arrangement used Cardinal Laws to encourage cooperation and consensus for critical issues. The authors interpret the expansion of Cardinal Laws as inconsistent with the executive dominance of the new constitutional order. But this interpretation does not account for the differences in political context. The original framers believed supermajorities would require significant compromise and consensus to reach. The new constitution was established in an environment of political dominance where a 2/3 majority was simple to achieve. Fidesz is now in position to establish laws and policies that cannot be changed unless the opposition achieves a similar electoral dominance. The legacy of Viktor Orbán will be an effective veto of any law or policy change they dislike so long as they hold onto a one-third minority in parliament. László Kövér, a prominent member of Fidesz, explains their intentions when he said, “We have rebuilt the country from the cellar to the roof…. If we are able to govern successfully for four more years, many of our changes will become irreversible.”
The authors great contribution is to help the readers understand how Orbán has reshaped the political dynamics of his country. The book helps theorists understand the ways leaders legitimize corruption and poor governance. Because Orbán has redefined the major political cleavage between Hungarians and a Western European political elite, outright corruption becomes patriotic rather than despicable. Orbán can rightly claim he has shifted business from large German corporations to local Hungarians. But this patronage is reserved for the supporters of Fidesz. Its consequences become dangerous when it becomes applied to the media and its universities. His “patriotism” disguises a desire to censor alternative political perspectives. Institutional power becomes centralized under the power of the state in a fashion reminiscent of Orwell’s Animal Farm.
It is important for me to emphasize I did enjoy the book. The authors understand Hungary from their own personal experience. They have lived through many of the events I have described above and have internalized its lessons. They share many insights which are impossible to explain without personal experience of the Hungarian political transformation. Moreover, they describe details which are often overlooked in the literature. There are some aspects of the Hungarian political system that I wish had been given greater emphasis. For example, it would have helped to have spent more time on Hungary’s political history after democratization. It would have also helped to explain the electoral system and its consequences for the party system and the constitutional framework. Nonetheless, their insights allow theorists to examine The Orbán Regime from a different perspective. Moreover, Hungary should not be viewed as an isolated case. Its experience helps explain what Anne Applebaum describes as “the seductive lure of authoritarianism” and the methods rulers use to legitimize kleptocracy. Körösényi, Illés, and Gyulai offer an extended examination of Hungary with plenty for theorists to wrestle with in the implications of their work.
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