However, the truth is: Hungary is a fully fledged democracy, and the EU and thousands of volunteers from NGOs and elsewhere will be observing the upcoming elections of April 3th. Most likely, these elections will be the most closely observed elections in the EU! Hungarians will also vote on a referendum on what in the Western European press has widely been labelled as an anti-gay law. Hardly any news outlet was willing to dive into this issue, read the law carefully or try to understand the context. No! It was an anti-gay law, intended to suppress the LHBTI-minority. That the basic issue is whether sexual identity education should be decided by parents instead of schools was not important for most mainstream news outlets in the West. It’s a very relevant question on a highly contested issue among experts from different academic disciplines that needs careful observation by societies.
Indeed, Hungary does have the referendum as an instrument of direct democracy. A country such as The Netherlands, which a politically correct mainstream considers very democratic, does not have such an instrument. Although it was implemented a number of years ago, it resulted a number of times in outcomes that the ruling government parties did not like. So it was cancelled. For example, a significant majority of the Dutch voted against an EU association treaty with Ukraine in 2016. Even the social-liberal party D(emocrats)’66, which was established in 1966 for democratic renewal, was in favour of cancelling the referendum instrument.
It would take too much space here to explain the Hungarian election system, but perhaps the easiest way to understand it is that it is closest to the British system. A small majority victory in the voting may result in a large majority of seats in the parliament. From a classic democracy perspective, such a system allows the winning party to form a stable government that can implement the agenda for which it was elected. In the next election, it is then easy for voters to approve or to vote for the opposition. This system is the reason why Boris Johnson is still the prime minister. Despite the scandals, his own party still keeps him in the saddle. One could call Boris Johnson an autocrat who has totally ignored the majority of Brits who believe that he should have stepped down many times already. Perhaps it would be wise to have the next UK election, which the ruling party can call themselves at the right moment as long as it is within five years, observed by a couple of thousand international observers.
Currently, the EU parliament is holding back EU recovery funds from Hungary since the EU Commission finds that Hungary should do more against corruption. Fighting corruption is a tough game. If we look at the corruption index of Transparency International, we do not see any improvement in for example Italy, an EU country that ranks 42nd(number one of the index is the least corrupt country). Should the EU commission finally start to act and force Italy to fight corruption before it can get any EU recovery funds?
Corruption was everywhere in the pre-Fidezs era, the times that the social-democrats were ruling in Hungary. The current Orbán government has tried to fight that, and this takes time. Under the social-democrats, public procurement was not an open and fair system at all, but a friends-serve-friends system. Not less than it perhaps still is. Now, these same social-democrats are part of an opposition coalition that is trying to oust Fidesz. And they say that they want to fight corruption. Even a former anti-semitic party, Jobbik, is part of that opposition coalition. Okay, everybody deserves a second chance, right?
Election and party funding form another disputed issue between Hungary and the West and the EU Commission. Rightly so in my view, but again, it takes time to improve the situation. Party funding of Fidesz is not worse (in terms of conflicts of interests and corporate sponsoring) than the funding of the opposition coalition.
The upcoming elections may be a close call between Fidesz and this opposition coalition, but they will be fair. And yes, the opposition coalition claims that the current system favours Fidesz. But pre-2012 (the year of electoral system reform), the system favoured the social-democrats. The social-democrats obtained a narrow electoral majority but a large parliamentary majority as a result. No Western European country complained in those days that the system resulted in such a skewed parliament.
Instead of Hungary bashing, it is perhaps more interesting to understand the Hungarian society, its development from a country that was under Soviet rule towards a stable democracy. Indeed, Viktor Orbán does not call it a liberal democracy, and he clearly knows why. The term liberal democracy is associated with the chaos in the years following the fall of the Soviet Union. Western European countries thought then that implementing a liberal agenda would be the best thing to do. In practice, it meant that a group of smart people, among them former communists, got rich quickly while most Hungarians, not yet familiar with the rules of neo-liberal capitalism, only experienced uncertainty and higher prices. On top of this, the Western European-dominated EU of the early 1990s pushed a social liberal agenda, too. Central and Eastern European countries were not so familiar with social liberalism. The negative association with liberal democracy can be identified in other former Soviet-ruled countries, too. As a Western European myself, I could of course easily apply a superior view and think that Hungary and other former Soviet-ruled countries are undergoing a backlash. But as an academic and curious and open-minded, politically interested scholar, I know that such a view would be totally misplaced. Hungary and the current Fidesz government know that there is a ways to go to develop its economy. But it also knows that it is important to nurture its national identity, to work on social cohesion, to invest in family-friendly policies rather than to rely on mass immigration.
These are issues that many governments of Western European countries find ‘dangerous’, right-wing, extreme, ‘old-fashioned’. Fidesz invests in making Hungarians proud to be Hungarian, not to an extreme, but in a reasonable way. It invests in making young Hungarians want to stay rather than leave. Why do we not acknowledge that the EU’s liberal agenda caused a brain-drain for post-Soviet countries? Why do we not acknowledge that the EU’s liberal agenda meant that Western European companies were taking over in post-Soviet countries rather than allowing the national small and medium-sized firms to flourish first? Why do we not acknowledge that the EU’s liberal agenda meant that social-cultural norms and values of central European countries were more or less forcefully put aside? Why do we not acknowledge that the EU’s slogan ‘united in diversity’ will be best served by acknowledging mistakes and that besides liberal democracy, there is something like conservative democracy? And that this could be a guiding light for Western European countries?
The Hungarians know what autocracy means, they have experienced it. If Hungarians think that their country has turned into an autocracy again, they will take it to the streets, I am sure. Until that time, Hungary could perhaps be very helpful as a bridge between West and East. Hungary is open to learning how to develop economically, perhaps the West should be open to learning how to develop their ‘dissolving’ extreme individualistic societies.