On 8 April 2018, Hungarians head to the polls. Despite twelve years in office, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is running again. Over the past decade, he has rebuilt the Hungarian state in the image of his Fidesz party, he dominates the media landscape, he has rewritten the constitution, and the supreme court has been packed with loyal judges. Despite (or because?) of all this, Orbán’s party is ahead in the polls. So, are Hungarians satisfied with the work of the government?
Supporters argue that Fidesz helps ordinary working families, has cut taxes, and reduced government debt. What’s even more important to many Hungarians is that Viktor Orbàn presents himself as a strong man defending Hungary’s interests against the EU. More than 1,300 infringement cases have now been initiated by the EU against Hungary. And, when it comes to the controversial issue of redistribution of refugees according to EU quotas, Hungary has stubbornly refused to give way.
So far, this approach seem to have had few real consequences for Hungary. Over 4% of Hungarian Gross National Income comes from EU funding, and Hungary remains one of the biggest net recipients in the EU. Yet, despite calls at the national level in some Member States to cut off EU money to Hungary over the refugee quota row, there seems to be little appetite for this in the European Commission.
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in by Ralph, who argues that liberal democracy is always preferable to the so-called “illiberal democracy” championed by Fidesz in Hungary. Is he right?
To get a reaction, we put Ralph’s comment to András Fekete-Györ, a Hungarian opposition politician and leader of the Momentum Movement political party. What would he say?
I agree with Ralph. I also prefer a liberal democracy rather than an authoritarian one, as we have in Hungary. The thing is, we have the framework of a democracy, but the institutions are not filled with the right content. By that I mean that many important posts in state institutions are occupied by party supporters instead of experts. Hungary is increasingly looking more like the system in Russia or Turkey, rather than those of our European partners. This is very painful for us young Hungarians. We moved, worked and studied in the EU. The European Union is in our DNA and we want to turn Hungary into a European country again.
To get another perspective, we also put Ralph’s comment to Jan Niklas Engels, the office manager of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Budapest. What would he say?
… In Hungary there are many political parties and also a separation of powers. However, since 2010, the current government has had a two-thirds majority, and this power has been used to implement a lot of changes very quickly. For example, in the Hungarian Parliament there is now the possibility of speeding up legislative procedures so that laws can be introduced and enacted within a few days. Opposition politicians complain that they have too little time to scrutinise the new law, and that discussion in Parliament and the time for effective public debate is then kept very short. They also complain that many important positions in Hungary’s political institutions are now occupied by party members, and therefore the system of checks and balances no longer works properly.
Next up, we had a comment sent in from Milan, who argues that the reason Orbàn keeps getting elected is because he represents the people’s will. What would Jan Niklas Engels say? Does he agree Hungarian democracy is working?
In the upcoming Hungarian elections on 8 April there are 35 parties running, including active opposition parties, which all have very different policies. Therefore, voters have many options to choose from. However, one has to ask whether elections are all that are needed for a democracy to function properly.
At the last election in 2014, the vote was observed by the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe], which was invited to do so by the Hungarian Government. The final report stated that the governing parties had an ‘improper advantage’ due to restrictive election laws, biased media coverage, and a lack of clear lines between party political and government work. I would say this situation has not changed as far as the elections this year are concerned.
However, it must also be said that, above all, Orbán’s position on refugees is broadly popular with the public. But because of the unfair advantages he has, other parties have a much harder time clarifying their positions. For example, we know from surveys that many Hungarians consider health issues to be much more important than immigration. But, in the election campaign, the topic of migration dominates.
How would András Fekete-Györ respond to the same question?
Democracy in Hungary is grey, rather than black or white. Therefore, we cannot definitely say one way or the other. For example, we clearly have pluralism, as a political movement like mine may exist in Hungary. Yet there are clear limits.
For example, yesterday we received five minutes of airtime on public service television for the first time ever, despite having existed for 15 months. For the first time, a Momentum member was invited onto television, which is funded by the public. So, you can participate, but you only get five minutes of airtime a year. In the elections, we will see if there will be fraud. We will keep this in mind. The problem is more about bogus parties founded by Fidesz and now on the electoral lists. That is problematic!
Is democracy broken in Hungary? Do people have a meaningful choice? Are too many institutions under government control? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to experts and policymakers for their reactions!