Backsliding: Loss of freedom and populist authoritarianism in post-communist Hungary — The landscape in 2017


Despite being a member of both NATO and the EU, Hungary today is no longer a free society or a functioning parliamentary democracy. The entire system of checks and balances has been demolished. The few democratic institutions that survive have been reduced to empty shells and do not sustain the rule of law. The country’s economic, political and cultural life is in the ever-tightening grip of a power-hungry autocracy that has no goal other than making itself richer and even more powerful, and whose policies have resulted in Hungary’s lagging behind even the other post-Communist countries by all indicators of any significance.

Hungary in 2017:

A Review

Of all the East European nations in the post-Soviet orbit, Hungary seemed best set for success at the time of the regime change in 1989, ready to forge ahead. Unlike the rest of the so-called “socialist” countries, it already had some vestiges of free enterprise and even some institutions of a free-market economy and parliamentary democracy in place. Hungarian society had a quite lively economic and intellectual intercourse with the West, and people enjoyed personal freedoms which their counterparts in the other “socialist countries” did not. The evolution of full-blown parliamentary democracy began, with free elections held first in 1990. The transition from Communist dictatorship to parliamentary democracy in 1989-1990 was peaceful and appeared almost seamless.

A little more than 25 years later Hungary is almost back where it started or even worse off, with the difference that the current setup is more a hybrid between outright dictatorship and make-believe democracy, a virtual one-party state ruled by a regime proudly calling itself “illiberal” which removed the system of checks and balances and has either destroyed the institutions of a democratic society or reduced them to empty skeletons.

The openly nationalist-populist Fidesz party and its leader Viktor Orbán were swept into power in 2010 by a landslide victory owing to the enormous loss of popularity of the previous Socialist governments because of their rampant corruption and gross mismanagement of the economy (coupled with the recession of 2008). Orbán won a two-thirds supermajority which enabled him to fulfill his long-held plan to dismantle the entire edifice of checks and balances of parliamentary democracy through legislation. He replaced the democratic structure with his own version of mafia-type crony capitalism coupled with xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric which he knew would appeal to the worst instincts and historical traditions of Hungarians, the products of a long history of failed struggles for national and individual freedom. Some analysts call this regime a “mafia state”, while others point out its uncomfortably close parallels to fascism.

Photo credit: Viktor Orbán / Facebook

With the help of his supermajority in Parliament, Orbán’s Fidesz enacted a new Constitution in 2011, amended several times since to suit his or his cronies’ particular needs. Renamed “Fundamental Law”, it has now been reduced to a shopping list for changes based on custom-built laws that would have been deemed otherwise unconstitutional. A new, first-past-the-post, winner-takes-all election system was introduced which even rewards the winner with a substantial number of bonus votes. Thus, all opposition parties are forced to unite their forces before the elections and field a single candidate in every voting district as well as a single national leader, an almost impossible task. The new election system aims to maintain the absolute majority of the current ruling party for decades to come.

In Hungary the two most crucial checks on the power of Parliament are formally the President of the Republic and the Constitutional Court. The President has the power to veto new laws and send them back to Parliament or to the Constitutional Court for review. The latter is formally still accessible to Members of Parliament and certain judicial bodies as well as individuals under set terms. Hungary’s current president, however, is one of the founders of Fidesz, and a faithful party officer ever since, in fact a former college roommate of the Prime Minister. Curiously, the President of the Parliament was also quartered in the same dorm. One may call it an odd coincidence. Just elected to his second five-year term, the President has yet to oppose a single major piece of legislation enacted by Parliament. The 15-member Constitutional Court, also filled with Fidesz loyalists, has not done so either. It has given in to every whim of the Prime Minister and his cronies while sometimes making cosmetic changes just for show.

In the same way, in a system which is by now an unquestioned one-man rule, all other checks on the will of the Prime Minister, asserted most frequently through legislation, have been either eliminated or emptied out, be it the Ombudsman’s Office or the Budgetary Council. None of them would resist the will of Orbán in any way, no matter how arbitrary a given piece of legislation might be. As for Parliament itself, with a small and ineffective opposition kept for show, it even violates its own rules by introducing major legislation in the form of individual representatives’ proposals, which can be legislated into law overnight without proper scrutiny or even discussion. Many of these acts of law are ad hominem acts or are custom-made for a given specific political purpose. One example is the Lex CEU of recent times, disguised as a law to regulate higher education institutions in general but meant in reality to curtail the rights and possibly drive out of the country, the prestigious Central European University, a Hungarian-American institution accredited both in Hungary and in the State of New York in the USA.

Much of the judicial system has also been subjugated (to be fair, some of the courts have still been able to retain their independence). The Chief Prosecutor, also a long-time Fidesz crony, acts like a sturdy goalkeeper, making sure that no corruption charge, or any other charge involving Fidesz, ever reaches the courts, let alone sticks. The head of the Judicial Office is no one else than the wife of one of the founders of Fidesz, now its MEP.

The last fallback position of democracy and transparency under such circumstances would be a free media. Media freedom, however, has been almost completely eliminated by now. All state-owned or state-sponsored media, print, electronic and online, have deteriorated and degenerated into mouthpieces of the government. In addition, Fidesz has also bought up the overwhelming majority of commercial media outlets through devious means. They are now spewing out government propaganda 24/7. The few remaining free newspapers, internet portals and small commercial television channels have a very limited reach. The consequence is that much of the population is hopelessly misinformed. This situation constitutes an insurmountable barrier for the democratic opposition to gain strength and influence.

Some analysts consider the existence of free and fair elections as the watershed between democracy and dictatorship. Due to the above described conditions, elections in Hungary may still be regarded largely free but are no longer remotely fair by any means. The next General Election is to be held next year, in spring 2018. Under the current election rules, however, to achieve victory and to remove the Orbán regime would require a full-scale alliance of all democratic forces from left to right, a daunting task since the opposition is, by nature, pluralistic. It does not make the job any easier that the opposition has very limited access to the media, making it extremely difficult to spread its message.

One can no longer speak of a free market economy in the true sense of the word either. With the slogan of “building up a national bourgeoisie”, Fidesz awards highly lucrative, overpriced government contracts to cronies and the measure of businessmen’s success is not their worth in markets but their loyalty to the government. These cronies are shielded from competition in any field of the economy they should venture into. It must be added that a great deal of the money thus handed out to loyal cronies comes from the EU. Contests are rigged, all commissions are skimmed, and corruption is running rampant. Since the newly minted crony capitalist class undertakes very little productive investment, growth and all major construction in Hungary today is financed by EU-funds. Owing to legislative uncertainty, open favoritism and corruption on all levels, foreign direct investment is at an all-time low. Unemployment, while officially also very low, is obscured by the extensive use of public employment schemes.

Centralization is the order of the day in all walks of life. The current ruling group is deeply hostile to autonomy in any and all forms, be it local self-government, trade unions, education, health care or cultural associations. It favors various forms of corporatism Mussolini style. It has created politically loyal professional associations organized and directed from above.

The quality of all public services is in serious decline. The health care system, underfunded and understaffed, is in a miserable state. Unsurprisingly, the system of public education, heavily centralized, has also deteriorated and lost much of its quality. In the age of globalization and knowledge society, the Hungarian government’s express policy is to turn Hungary into a country of menial workers.

The foreign policy of the Hungarian government is erratic and unpredictable, characterized by deviousness, a caricature of grand designs and turning away from the country’s avowed alliances. Inventing and fighting against imaginary enemies and immigrants for purposes of keeping the faithful together, the government postures as a defender of traditional Christian values in Europe. In reality, however, it constantly defies the most fundamental values of the system of international alliances it belongs to, i.e. the European Union and NATO. It hinders common European endeavors and has become a de facto adversary of European integration while moving uncomfortably close to Russia in many areas. It has become completely isolated in the process. The only foreign head of state regularly visiting Hungary lately has been Vladimir Putin while all important EU leaders conspicuously keep away.

In recent years, taking advantage of the European Union’s freedom of movement and employment across borders, an estimated half a million Hungarians, mostly young and well-trained, have left the country and settled abroad. They are fleeing not only from the country’s backward living conditions but, according to their own confession, also from its oppressive atmosphere. In fact, twice as many have left as in 1956 when people were fleeing from the tanks of the Soviet army following a crushed revolution.

János Boris


János Boris is Managing Director at the Freedom and Reform Institute.


  1. Albrecht Neumerker says:

    Short and concise. But the word “crony”, I think is not the proper expression for the relationship between the leader and the oligarcs. This relationship is not mutual, but strictly hierarchical.

    Thanks for a good paper.

  2. Excellent summation of the situ in Hungary, by a member of the Conservative intelligentsia in Hungary. No one can accuse Boris of being a Gyurcsány lackey. The Hungarian Mafia State, as the studies of Bálint Magyar or Harvard economist János Kornai show is not a straight forward dictatorship – the relationship between the oligarchy and Orbán is NOT a hiararchy, but mutually reinforcing, as is the relationship between the Orbán regime and the Western diaspora, or some members of the Learned Societies in Canada and the USA. I reported briefly on the latter in an earlier essay: “Portrait of an Abusive Relationship.” (Please see my exchange with Judy Young Drache at the end of that piece, which is as fine an example of the mutually reinforcing relationship as any.) Or read my piece: “Orbán and the Jews”, a few years back. The Orbán regime can continue abusing the rule of law, because of its affinity fraud at home and because among others, the Attorney General of the USA, Jeff Session s considers his regime a “model for America”, as does Peter Munk, the “Phoenix” of Bay Street. Were it not for people like János Boris, and the HFP, all would be “Quiet on the Western Front.” Keep up the good work Mr. Boris. At least, you are keeping the spirit of democracy alive.

  3. Mr.Gollner has again missed the boat, so to speak.
    As the Trump administration highly criticized and condemned the Humgarian government’s action against the NGOs.
    Orban himself rejected that claim. That was yesterday morning’s freshest news.

  4. There appeared a similar article just two days ago. That accused Orban of being a “dictator”.
    But the article also carried a photo by “444” of Orban’s portrait on a poster by the road in Hungary
    that actually slandered Orban.
    Uet, there was no record of any type of retaliation by the “dictatorship” whatsoever.
    Just wonder, would that be evidence of ‘free expression” or “dictatorship”?

    NO,NO Gollner, do NOT start again that BS, that with my question I ‘attempt to clean Orban’s dirty laundry’ !
    I just wonder in case the allegations are true and corrext, just what the hell is the Parlamentary opposition is doing ?
    There is a healthy opposition to Orban’s party right in the Parlament.

    Likely Mr. Gollner also missed what happened in the Romanian Parlament jut two days ago. Hm?

    May be those brave Hungarian oppositions need to learn from Romania, like a KMH article advocated last week.

  5. Like I stated before here on HFP; that ‘ Power corrupts, absolute power absolutely corrupts”.

    Could any one name a ruling regime of Hungary that was not, or has not been corrupt to the bone ?

    Yes, your beloved commerades has lead the way !

  6. In the past, I have asked not just the authors of the articles that appeared here, but also all the commenters.

    That was, that just what do, or would suggest, or would like to see to happen to alter all that being condemned here by these articles and comments.

    Just what it is that any one wants to see be done?
    Never a single answer, evidently no one has any idea of what they want. Beside the endless bitching.

    All the previous meaningless Constitutions are gone away with, yet the present so called Alaptorveny is an even bigger joke.
    But the ONLY legal basis of the present system, as well of any possible change by legal means.

    So ,just what the hell all of you want , and willing to do, to bring about a true and genuine change in the country’s governance ?

    Under the circumstances, I must assume that everybody is just a big-mouth brainless empty coward !

  7. I find it odd that Janos Boris is critical of an elected Hungarian government. If Hungary was a dictatorship,this article would not have been published and the author would be in jail.

    The only dictatorship that is in evidence is Brussels.

  8. As anyone who has ever committed a single word to any medium for others to read will attest, some people hardly even bother to read your stuff, or read it very carelessly before attacking you head on for things you never said but exist in their minds only. For one thing, I never called the Orbán regime a “dictatorship” but said it was a hybrid regime of autocratic character combining elements of dictatorship with vestiges of democracy, the latter largely for show. I stand by my claim even though I am still at large and not in prison. Ever since Juan Perón in Argentina in the 1940s, modern autocrats and dictators have been well aware that it is absolutely unnecessary to put dissenting intellectuals to prison. It is enough to push them into an intellectual ghetto of their own. They can have lively arguments between themselves there. Who cares? It is also a good thing to leave borders open so all the talent that is vital to having a strong opposition can conveniently leave the country. In any case, Ms (?) martaburka, if, in your view, the main characteristic of a dictatorship is that it sends its opposition to prison, then your claim that “Brussels” (which, I presume, must mean the EU leadership) is “the only dictatorship in evidence” is not only absurd but also ridiculous. Would you be so kind as to give me the long list of people languishing in prison on the orders of “Brussels”?

  9. Karl Pfeifer says:

    Thank you Janos Boris for this brilliant summary.
    It is interesting to note, that Hungary is not anymore a classical democracy but a post-communist maffia-state with some sprinkling of fasistoid policies. Most important development, justice is not anymore impartial.
    And looking on the figures of Eurostat and Human Development Report 2016 one can see, Hungary is not a very successful country. Despite the Hungarian Government propaganda.

  10. I couldn’t agree more…but who cares because I am a United Statean emigrating to Uruguay to get as far far from the madness as possible.
    This earth has quite literally become sickened by greed…I feel that the closer I can get to Antarctica, the better off I’ll be.

  11. Response to Boris Janos’ statements.

    In case Brussel is not dictatorial in the sense as you described, than how can the Orban regime be one ?

    Since PM Orban was elected by the population at the balott boxes, yet can not claim the same for the the government of the EU.
    The EU is most un-democratic institution. Government by commitees, who are not elected by the population of the member states.
    Answerable to no-one.
    Have NO Constitution to set the basic function and structure of the government.
    It is politicians and managers that dictate to popularly elected leaders of member nations.

    It is dictatorial as it has the power to dictate member nations to follow what their population has NOT consented to.
    And how is individual freedom garanteed without control and restrictions over the functions of the government ?

    That is dictatorship even being thrown into prisons!

    Has any answer?

  12. János Boris

    Your piece is clear, concise and gets to the essence. It shows the true face of the arrogant power, the affinity fraud, that’s on parade in Hungary for the entire world to see. We welcome all, who are brave and articulate to speak up against the Orbán regime’s abuse of the Rule of Law, and human rights. Please raise your voice here more often and don’t be discouraged by the trolls.

    Bendeguz and Martaburka are two regular Orbán trolls, probably members of the local embassy staff, who like to come down here into the basement and empty their bladders. Best not to pay much attention to them. Mr. Adam covered the floor with porous material, that deodorizes, so the stench does not float up, where the serious scholarship takes place. The two trolls react best, when you kick sand into their faces – especially Belzebub, who really suffers from a serious case of bladder control. Please don’t pay any serious attention to any of their objections. Just pour a bucket of water over the waste they leave behind.

  13. The Fidesz trolls got going since Mr. Boris wrote a excellent article re. the
    “Demokratura” of the Orban regime. (Incidentally: “Bendeguz” take some English grammar lessons)

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