Europe | February 18, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Lessons from the Hungarian Backslide

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The specter of authoritarianism looms over Hungary.  Once a harbinger of democracy in eastern Europe and a symbol of hope for liberal institutionalists within the EU, the Carpathian nation of ten million has begun to reverse its twenty-year post-Soviet march toward liberalization.  Through its political reversion, Hungary has provided us with a humbling reminder that democratization, even in the West, is by no means a linear process.

It started with an eccentricity in the electoral system: because of an overrepresentation of Hungary’s rural districts, the socially conservative Fidesz party took control of 68% of Parliament in 2010, despite earning only 52% of the popular vote.  A year and a half later, Fidesz’s support has plummeted, such that only 16% of Hungarians now support a party that still controls 68% of the legislature.

Under pre-existing law, two-thirds of Parliament was needed to overhaul the Constitution, a threshold Fidesz met in the 2010 elections.  And it was with this special majority status that Fidesz instituted the “Basic Law,” a piece of constitutional legislation that acts as the new foundation of Hungarian governance.  Structurally, Hungary’s government is still democratic, but functionally it has come to resemble what political comparativists might call a competitive authoritarian regime – a political system in which a democratic playing field still exists, but is tilted grossly in favor of incumbent powers.  As an example, in perhaps the ultimate case of gerrymandering, the new Constitution constructed by Fidesz calls for the redrawing of Hungary’s already disproportionate electoral districts.  The new electoral lines will make victory by any opposition party extremely difficult.  So difficult, in fact, that a respected Hungarian think tank recently calculated that under the newly drawn districts, Fidesz would have won majorities in the 2002 and 2006 elections as well as in the 2010 contest.

The constitutional assault on democracy is more widespread, however, than an attack on the electoral process.  It includes several provisions, such as the arbitrary lowering of the retirement age for judges and a rapid expansion in the number of judicial appointees, all of which essentially place Hungary’s judicial branch under the control of Fidesz.  Furthermore, the federal electoral commission will be placed under Fidesz control for the forseeable future, and the list of democracy-compromising grievances continues, far too many to list here.  On top of these constitutional degradations, there are indications that the government itself is growing increasingly illiberal in nature, pledging to shut down Klubradio, one of the only remaining privately owned stations in Hungary that touches upon political issues.

The actions of Fidesz are repugnant, and it would be inappropriate for any freedom-loving people to treat the ruling party with anything but disdain.  Still, while this crisis certainly affects the Hungarian populace, it does not point to a greater trend in eastern Europe, and I apologize to any Hungarian readers in advance for the apathy that could be gleaned from this comment, but the crisis in Hungary doesn’t really matter from an American foreign policy perspective.  Of course, some may view this situation as a referendum on the usefulness of the EU as a democracy promotion tool, and it will be an interesting experiment on the power of multilateral institutionalism.  But the legitimacy of the European Union as a whole is certainly not a function of one of its peripheral eastern members.  Thus, the direction of Hungary’s evolving government is unlikely to have any significant ripple effect in the international political system.

What makes the democratic backslide in Hungary interesting, however, are the troubling parellels that can be drawn in relation to our domestic political theater.  From a historical perspective, we damn Elbridge Gerry to this day for his assault on electoral politics, and even those of us sympathetic to the activist left cringe when we recall FDR’s court-packing tactics.  Both these events, as earlier alluded to, have direct parallels in the actions of Fidesz.

In the realm of contemporary politics, many of us recoil at voter registration laws perceivedly aimed at partisan gains, and anyone with a respect for responsible statecraft balks when Republican leaders assert their primary goal to be the removal of Barack Obama from office.  What Hungary has shown us is that our alarm at these attempts to place partisanship over democratic integrity is logical, and when the primacy of one’s party becomes paramount to the dignity of the political system, democracy inevitably suffers.  To be sure, America is not Hungary: democracy in the US is a deeply ingrained ideology, not a product of the Soviet Union’s collapse, and it is difficult to compare our relatively stable tradition of liberalism with the transitional politics of Hungary.  Furthermore, unlike Hungary, we have not conflated the hyperpartisan tactics of contemporary politics with the hyperpartisan mistakes of our past.  But, as explicated, this partisan machinery that has destabilized democracy in Hungary has precedent, or at least parallel, in the US.  To be sure, America is not about to backslide into competitive authoritarianism.  When one analyzes the Hungarian example, however, it becomes obvious that when partisans serve the parochial interests of their respective parties over the interests of the democratic process, even if through means that are perfectly legal, the integrity of democracy is invariably diminished.

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