Hungary was once a democracy: Now it is an ‘Orbanocracy’

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A woman holds a placard with a photo of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán R) and reading 'VETO' as demonstrators protest against an amendment of the higher education law, seen by many as an action aiming at the closure of the Central European University, founded by Hungarian born American billionaire businessman George Soros, outside the university's central building. Budapest, 4 April. [EPA/ZOLTAN BALOGH]

If democracy was the buzzword of the first two decades following the end of the Cold War, illiberal democracy appears to be the buzzword of today, writes Daniel Penev.

Daniel Penev, 23, is a Bulgarian journalist and a member of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria who is currently pursuing an M.A. degree in international relations at Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary.

If democracy was the buzzword of the first two decades following the end of the Cold War, illiberal democracy appears to be the buzzword of today. Common wisdom has it that dubious qualifications of this sort would make Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the like reconsider their policies and, ideally, return to normal – that is, liberal democracy. Unfortunately, these expectations have proved not only futile, but extremely dangerous, as they have allowed ruthless populist leaders to exploit the cracks in the system to their own advantage.

On the evening of 28 March, Michael Ignatieff, President and Rector of the Central European University (CEU) in Budapest, Hungary, sent an email to students, faculty, and staff, informing them about proposed amendments to Act CCIV of 2011 on National Higher Education, tabled in the Hungarian parliament earlier that day. If adopted, the amendments would practically prevent CEU from operating as a higher education institution in Hungary.

This email kicked off one of the most turbulent weeks in the history of CEU, which celebrated its 25th anniversary only last year. The controversial draft bill made the headlines across Europe and North America, with support for CEU coming from ambassadors of various countries in Hungary, the U.S. Department of State, universities and other educational and research institutions, rectors, professors, and Nobel Prize laureates. In response to the government’s reluctance to withdraw the bill, thousands of Hungarian and foreign students, professors, and civilians took to the streets in Budapest on 2 April to defend academic freedom.

The result: less than 168 hours after they were tabled in the Hungarian parliament, the proposed legislative amendments were passed in parliament, with 123 deputies voting in favor and 38 against. Hence, a majority of parliament members took the next step toward the consolidation of Orbánocracy – a form of perverse democracy in which the “demos” part has been lost on the way and in which the ego and obsession with power of a prime minister and his associates harm everybody else.

As a prime minister, Orbán has displayed remarkable consistency. Having publicly stated his preference for an illiberal state, he has proceeded to put his plan into practice. First, he came for the critical media. Then he came for the NGOs receiving foreign funds which he, like his role model Vladimir Putin, sees as “foreign agents”. Meanwhile, he reined in the judicial system and adopted a markedly heavy-handed approach (and repulsive rhetoric) toward refugees and asylum seekers, implementing rules that go against EU and international law. Because the world is big and national enemies are always lurking around the corner, especially when elections are knocking on the door, Orbán has now turned to CEU – the institution that embodies everything he abhors, namely liberal values, freedom of expression, critical thinking, and human rights.

This consolidation of power, reminiscent of current and past authoritarian regimes, has been possible partly due to the EU’s hesitant response. Even though they have expressed concern over recent developments in Hungary, EU leaders have mostly stayed by the side, watching the emergence of a political system that is certainly illiberal and largely undemocratic – all this in an EU Member State that probably wouldn’t be allowed in, were it to apply for membership today, and under the government of a party that belongs to the European People’s Party (EPP).

In What is Populism?, Princeton University professor Jan-Werner Müller makes a convincing case against the use of the term “illiberal democracy”. Using Hungary and Poland as illustrations, he shows why calling regimes like these illiberal democracies is detrimental to democracy in the long term.

“The supposed criticism confirms the Hungarian prime minister as exactly what he wants to be: an opponent of liberalism,” writes Müller in his 2016 book. “At the same time, he, Kaczynski, and all other populist leaders get to keep ‘democracy,’ which, for all the disappointments over the last quarter-century, remains the most important ticket to recognition on the global stage. Even better from the point of view of such leaders, the expression “illiberal democracy” confirms a normative division of labor, where the nation-state does democracy, and an entity like the European Union (EU) gets to be in charge of liberalism.”

To maintain an appearance of democracy, Orbán has put substantial efforts into guaranteeing the rule of law – a vicious form of the rule of law, however, used as an instrument to harass and oppress rather than protect. As one author has put it, Orbán’s regime rests on “a special kind of lawfare: the executive’s will always finds its way into the statute books or, if more serious obstacles arise, into the constitution.”

The CEU drama is a case in point. The Hungarian government doesn’t want to close the university. Rather, it simply introduces legislation that makes CEU’s existence impossible or impracticable. That is “illiberal democracy” at its best.

The developments in Hungary demonstrate a major deficiency of the European integration project. To gain access to all the benefits coming with EU membership, candidate countries have to fulfil the so-called Copenhagen criteria, among which is the existence of stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, and respect and protection of minorities. Once accepted into the EU, however, these countries can deviate from these criteria without major consequences because EU law does not provide for the exclusion of a Member State. Hence, the term “illiberal democracy” comes handy from the EU’s point of view, since its “democracy” component justifies Hungary’s EU membership.

The Hungarian government’s attack against CEU constitutes a conspicuous assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression. It is also a test for the EU’s strength and legitimacy. The incorporation of values and principles into the treaties does not matter much if they exist on paper alone. It is the active protection of these values and principles on a daily basis that distinguishes genuine democracy from pseudo democracy.