As liberals and others lament Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s election to a fourth term in April, we must remember one thing: Liberal democracy has never existed in Hungary. And now, as an ever more virulent wave of right-wing populism sweeps over Europe, Mr. Orban is in position to further consolidate his hold on power.
To understand what the future holds for Hungary and for other countries facing similar challenges requires an appreciation of both local history and global tendencies.
For centuries Hungary has been subject to monarchic, autocratic, despotic and totalitarian governments that were occasionally disrupted by revolutions, only to find relative stability in 1989. The fall of communism ushered in an era of liberty throughout Europe. Yet this liberty came in the shape of what has become known as a “system change” — an event extraneous to the will of people, akin to a gift from the heavens.
Apart from a handful of dissident intellectuals, no one worked, fought or did anything to earn this liberty. Many people did not value it, or even fully take note of the change. The new political elite had no experience, nor did they understand the people they supposedly represented.
Their own conception of politics determined how the government was run. They failed in enabling people to practice their own powers. The people, conditioned by centuries of turmoil, were thus ripe for the plucking by an unscrupulous politician who understood and exploited their traditional need for an authoritative center, their habit to allow leaders to think for them.
But for right-wing populism to thrive, Hungary’s historical penchant for servility required another condition, one that is now a global phenomenon: the transformation of class to a mass society. In a class society, by and large, a despot cannot permanently snuff out various groups’ interests without some kind of violent suppression or confrontation. But in a mass society, where traditional class interests have dissipated, a tyrant-in-the-making such as Mr. Orban does not need to seize power — his rule can be cemented by the nominally democratic institution of the popular vote.
Modern-day dictators and autocrats impose their anti-liberal and antidemocratic rule by securing a majority of votes in general elections. They legitimize their illegitimate power through the ballot box.
Think of President Vladimir Putin of Russia, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. Electoral gerrymandering, curtailing press freedoms and fearmongering create a toxic mix to consolidate rule over the people.
Although doctrines that promote freedom still appeal to people in states where liberal democracy has deep roots, the most seductive ideology in Europe remains nationalism. Since World War I, identification with one’s own nation has trumped all other groups, religious, ethnic, professional or otherwise.
To date, the European Union has not been able to create a European identity to replace or marginalize national identity. In contrast, the so-called populist parties — who in reality serve the narrow interests of an ego-driven, nationalistic oligarchy, as opposed to the masses — fight a war against European integration.
In traditional liberal democracies, these populists are a minority. As such, many in the European Union do not understand their surge to power in Eastern Europe. They would argue that because Mr. Orban’s party won two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian Parliament, he surely cannot be a tyrant.
But, in fact, he is.
Nothing can happen in Hungary unless Mr. Orban decides it should, and everything he decides happens. There is no counterpower, not even in his own party. His will cannot be challenged, his decisions are final, non-appealable, implemented by loyal bureaucrats.
Mr. Orban calls Hungary an “illiberal democracy.” In some ways, he’s telling the truth. But that means traditional checks and balances have eroded. The legislative branch has been subsumed by the executive. Judicial independence has been significantly curtailed. Constitutional protections are weakened. Nongovernmental organizations are bullied. The independent press has all but been eliminated, and electronic media are monopolized, with news and debates replaced by propaganda. Loyalty is rewarded by institutionalized corruption, with the political elite creating and rewarding their own oligarchy.
A system of functional feudalism dressed in the formal attire of the democratic processes — this is Mr. Orban’s so-called illiberal democracy.
April’s general election brought Mr. Orban’s propaganda machinery out in full force. The dual focus on migrants and their supposed secret benefactor delivered a stark message: Millions of criminal migrants are ready to pounce, to rape and pillage our women, crush Christianity and implant Islam instead, destroy our way of life and even our cuisine — aided and abetted by the European Union, manipulated by the dark lord of liberalism himself, George Soros.
And the election delivered exactly what illiberal democracy requires. More votes were cast against the ruling coalition than for it, but a faceless, indistinct mass society and fragmented opposition parties provided no real barrier against the focused hate of Hungary’s populists.
Perhaps the opposition can recover from its defeat and begin to organize again, but that may be up to the greatest historical power of all — chance. Until then, Mr. Orban’s position and his party’s majority give him carte blanche to continue reshaping the constitution in his image.