HUNGARY: first-ever country to fall two entire Regime Categories in the Freedom House report

Article originally published on Freedom House – accessible here

Author: Gábor Filippov

Over the last decade, the right-wing alliance of Fidesz and Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), which won a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, 2014, and 2018, has gradually undermined the rule of law in Hungary and established tight control over the country’s independent institutions. After adopting a new constitution, the ruling coalition fundamentally changed the electoral laws and system of campaign financing; it has also captured the public media and taken control over large segments of private media through an extensive network of government-friendly oligarchs. These developments grant Fidesz-KDNP an extraordinary advantage over the opposition. Consequently, Hungary today can no longer be regarded as a democracy but belongs to the growing group of hybrid regimes, sitting in the “gray zone” between democracies and pure autocracies.

The year 2019 started with political unrest in Hungary, followed by public disillusionment and a wave of political apathy, but ended on a high note after unexpected electoral success by the opposition. Yet, altogether, the year led to further consolidation of government control over the country’s institutions. After an intense period of antigovernment mobilization in late 2018, when thousands marched against the so-called slave law (an amendment to the labor law that negatively impacted employment protections), the protests died down in January and left the government’s popularity more or less unaffected. Fidesz-KDNP managed to maintain its dominant position for most of the year, while the opposition continued to struggle with internal divisions and weaknesses.

In 2019, two elections were held in Hungary with mixed political results. While the European Parliamentary election in May brought another landslide victory for the ruling coalition, the municipal elections in October achieved significant gains for the opposition. The parties’ new electoral strategy—fielding joint candidates against the government in several municipalities—proved to be effective, and for the first time since 2006, the opposition successfully prevented a Fidesz sweep victory.

These developments have reconfigured the Hungarian political landscape to some extent. Since 2010, the Fidesz-KDNP coalition has dominated Hungarian politics from the municipal to the government level, lacking any serious challengers. With the opposition victories, however, the myth of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s invincibility has been broken, and in the capital and several other larger cities, major opposition parties have gained access to power, financial resources, and media coverage, as well as the opportunity to articulate a new political alternative at the local level. Moreover, the successes of 2019 have the possibility of encouraging similar coordination ahead of the 2022 election, increasing the opposition’s chances of defeating Orbán. Still, for 2019, Fidesz remained the strongest party nationally, maintaining an unquestionable lead throughout the countryside, and holding strong positions in several cities.

In both electoral campaigns, Fidesz-KDNP deployed a proven campaign strategy. It mobilized its constituents with conspiracy theories and extremely polarizing messages aimed at whipping up fear and anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment. This messaging continued to pay political dividends: according to opinion polling at year’s end, despite the negative outcome of the municipal elections, Fidesz fully retained its position as the most popular political force.

This was also due to the party’s other source of enduring popularity. In addition to the government’s financial and media advantages, tilted electoral playing field, and weaknesses of the opposition, the regime’s stability rests primarily on the public’s perception of strong economic conditions in the country. Due to the global expansion of the past decade and inflow of vast European Union (EU) structural and cohesion funds, the Hungarian economy was in relatively good shape in 2019. The country’s GDP grew higher than the European average, real wages continued to rise, and the unemployment rate continued a five-year decline.

In 2019, the governing Fidesz-KDNP coalition passed laws that further eroded transparency and democratic accountability, including instituting limits on the opposition’s check on government and restricting the watchdog role of independent media. These changes were complemented by further centralization of the vast progovernment media empire. Through loyal outlets, the ruling coalition continued its permanent campaign against independent journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and academic institutions. Still, in the second half of the year, there were disruptions to established government messages. With a significant decline in illegal border crossings (and absence of actual migrants in Hungary), the issue of migration seemed to lose salience with the public, while the climate crisis, largely ignored by the government, became a central topic in the municipal campaign.

Both the government and the opposition were preparing for the 2022 parliamentary elections at year’s end. Even though many expected Fidesz to take a more moderate tone and soften its political message as a result of the setback in the local elections, there were signs that the government will keep on mobilizing its supporters with tough stances on migration and cultural identity, while invoking new enemies, including the country’s Roma population or lawyers defending prisoners’ rights. Several prominent Fidesz politicians also indicated that, after a decade of economic growth, a slowdown or possible recession is likely. While Fidesz accepted the unfavorable results of the 2019 municipal elections, new measures restricting the opposition’s activities in the National Assembly suggest that the party is prepared to make further changes to the electoral system to consolidate its advantage. Meanwhile, the main task ahead of the opposition, in addition to presenting itself as an attractive political alternative in an already limited media environment, is to lay the foundations for electoral cooperation among candidates and parties in 2022.

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