An Illiberal Polity in the Euro-Atlantic World Lessons from Hungary’s Backsliding Gábor Halmai

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An Illiberal Polity in the Euro-Atlantic World

Lessons from Hungary’s Backsliding

Gábor Halmai

Following the 1989-90 democratic transition Hungary experienced twenty years of solid liberal democratic period, until 2010, when Fidesz with its 2/3 majority in the parliament introduced a new constitutional system eliminating checks and balances, and guarantees of fundamental rights.i After the second 2/3 victory in 2014 Prime Minister Viktor Orbán publicly insisted to aim at an illiberal democracy, naming among other Russia and China to be followed as models.ii

Until the fall of 2014 the Hungarian public seemed to be unconcerned about the government’s illiberal politics, and also the first anti-government demonstrations were either apolitical (against a planned Internet taxiii), or consequence of an external action (the United States’ diplomatic step to deny entry for corrupt public officialsiv). Even though most of the demonstrators requested the resignation of the current government, some of the speakers at the ‘Day of outrage’ in Budapest on 17 November, 2014 spoke out also against the 1989 liberal democratic transition rejecting all of its political actors, and requesting a real ‘regime change’. In other words the protests are directed both against illiberal and liberal democracy. The demonstrations were escorted by a serious slide in both Fidesz's and Orbán’s popularity. The party had lost 12%, 900 thousands voters, while the Prime Minister 16% of his sympathizers within one month.v
Here I neither want to discuss the very reasons of the four years silence of the public: existential fear, lack of alternatives, because of the weakness of the opposition, and therefore fear from chaos, nationalistic fervor, nor the nature of the demonstration: populism in a good sense or leftist Instead I would like to deal with two interrelated and seemingly conflicting issues:

  1. The very characteristics of the 1989-90 transition, and the role of the political and intellectual elite in these changes.

  2. The public perception of liberal democracy in Hungary.

1. Whatever the speakers of the November 17 demonstration think about it, the 1989-90 ‘rule of law revolution’ put in place the institutions of a full-fledged liberal democratic system. This institutionalization was a top-down elite process, where two differently but equally illegitimate actors, namely the Communist party and the new-born opposition movements agreed upon the new constitutional order. One can argue that having democratic elections first would have been a better way to proceed, but actually both parties to the National Roundtable negotiations had good reasons to be afraid of the victory of the other.

But even if understandable, the lack of any kind of public participation in the design of the new system was certainly instrumental for the population not to identify itself with the idea of liberal democracy. Also not to finish this ‘post-sovereign’ constitution-making process later with a democratically enacted new constitution is a failure of the elite. This gave Fidesz in 2010 the opportunity to falsely argue with the real ‘change of regime’, and the replacement of the ‘Stalinist’ constitution.
Also the Constitutional Court and some public intellectuals (myself included at least till a certain point) have their own responsibility not to take the legitimacy issue seriously by arguing that the comprehensively amended old constitution with the active interpretation of the Court provided an effective ‘living constitution’, and there was no need for a legitimate new one. Even if some critics of the ‘legal constitutionalism’ seem to forget the important role of the Constitutional Court (at least in the first nine years), the current disappointment with 1989, and with the ideal of liberal constitutional democracy is partly due to the lack of any participatory element in this process. As I said, this is the failure of the entire elite, not exclusively that of the political parties, because to make the public accept a set of ‘proper’ values is a historic responsibility of elites.vii
2. This leads me to my second point: how much were the values of liberal democracy accepted by the Hungarian population in 1989 and how much are they now.
Regarding 1989, even though the transition to democracy in Hungary was driven by the fact that a large share of the population gave high priority to freedom itself, one of the legacies of the mild version of socialism with the toleration of private businesses, relative social security, no unemployment in the Kádár-regime (“the happiest barrack in the camp”) from the 1960s onwards, was that people expected the new state to produce speedy economic growth, with which the country could attain the living standards of neighboring Austria overnight, without painful reforms. In other words, one can argue that the average Hungarian pursued the West in 1989, though not so much in terms of the Western economic and political system, but rather in terms of the living standards of the West. Therefore there was a relatively huge possible backsliding effect of the economic changes and decline in living standards, which undermined the legitimacy of democratic institutions and could turn back the process of democratization. This failure was reason for disappointment.
The lack of real economic reform and success did not help to strengthen the middle class and the civil society, and in such a situation the perceptions of liberal democracy can play a crucial role. I do not think either that there were ‘dormant’ Fascist or even National Socialist mentalities, which has gradually found their way to surfaceviii, or that Orbán is a ‘neo-Fascist dictator’ix, but as surveys on the links between modernization and democracy show, the society’s historic and religious heritage leaves a lasting imprint.x According to these surveys, the public of formerly agrarian societies including Hungary emphasizes religion, national pride, obedience, and respect for authority, while the publics of industrial societies emphasize secularism, cosmopolitanism, autonomy, and rationality.
The described democratic backsliding in Hungary demonstrates that the institutional framework is a necessary but not sufficient element of a successful democratization. Behavioral elements, among them political and constitutional culture are as important as institutions. The other lesson of this case study is on the one hand that the very definition of democracy is changing, and it is not necessarily liberal, and on the other hand the borders of democratic and authoritarian regimes are blurred, and there are a lot of different hybrid systems, such as the current Hungarian. Another important aspect of these developments that due to a new cold war situation these are not influenced exclusively by the liberal democratic West. The behavior of the Hungarian government supported by the other Visegrád countries during the refugee crisis has thaught us that the membership in the European Union isn’t a guarantee for having liberal democratic regimes in all Member States.

Professor of Law, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest; Visiting Research Scholar, Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton, N.J.

i About the backsliding see G. Halmai, ‘The Rise and Fall of Hungarian Constitutionalism’, Chapter 7 of the Transatlantic Academy report, The Democratic Disconnect: Citizenship and Accountability in the Transatlantic Community (Washington, D.C.: Transatlantic Academy, May 2013).

ii In a speech delivered July 26, 2014 before an ethnic Hungarian audience in neighboring Romania, Orbán proclaimed his intention to turn Hungary into a state that “will undertake the odium of expressing that in character it is not of liberal nature.” See the full text of the speech: Despite criticism in an interview given to Bloomberg in December Orbán has repeated his claim by saying: ‘‘Hungarians welcomed illiberal democracy… In the Hungarian context, the word liberal has become negative. Liberal democracy has no or very little support in Hungary.” Hungary on Path to Shed Junk Grade and Shield Forint, Orban Says, Bloomberg, December 15, 2014.

iii Rick Lyman, ’Proposed Internet Tax Draws Hungarians to Streets in Protest’, The New York Times, October 29, 2014.

iv Rick Lyman, ’U.S. Denial of Visas for 6 in Hungary Strains Ties’, The New York Times, October 20, 2014.

v The opinion poll was taken by TÁRKI between November 13 and 23. See

vi According to the survey conducted by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre for Social Sciences Institute for Political Science among the anti-government demonstrators of December 16, 2014 the overwhelming majority of the ‘active elite’ voted for the opposition parties in the April 2014 parliamentary elections. See

vii Naturally, I do not conflate the elite with politics here. I agree with Helmut Schmidt’s wise assertion that it is not incumbent on politics – and much less on reigning governments – to make the public accept a set of ‘proper’ values, even though in reality there are political leaders from time to time who also wish to be cultural leaders of their respective peoples. See H. Schmidt & F. Stern, Unser Jahrhundert, C. H. Beck Verlag, München, 2010, p. 139. Still, I am also aware of the intellectuals‘ historic responsibility in conveying value systems. The literary icon, Paul Auster, makes a similar observation on the total absence of any influence exerted by intellectuals, especially in anti-intellectual America. See ‘Dies ist ein geteiltes Land. Der amerikanische Autor Paul Auster spricht über seinen neuen Roman‚ Sunset Park’ und über Amerika vor der Präsidentenwahl im Herbst,’ Die Zeit, 19 July 2012.

viii Cf. R. Ungváry, ’Hungary: Ruling in the Guise of Democracy’, Eutopia Magazine, November 8, 2014.

ix John McCain denounced him this way, after the Senate on December 1, 2014 decided to send Colleen Bell, a political appointee and TV soap opera producer as the next ambassador to Budapest.

x See R. Inglehart & C. Welzel, ‘Changing Mass Priorities: The Link between Modernization and Democracy’, Perspectives on Politics, 2010, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 551-567.

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