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The reelection of Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary in April 2018 has entrenched a hybrid regime within the European Union. This article discusses some of the most crucial factors that have led to Hungary’s democratic backsliding and supplied the institutional and cultural bases of Fidesz’s rule. The authors particularly focus on phenomena that contributed to the party’s third landslide electoral victory, including the rhetoric of identity politics, conspiracy theories, and the fake news industry. While an idiosyncratic sequence of particular events led to the ascendance of illiberal rule in Hungary, the causal factors involved are virtually omnipresent and could therefore lead to similar outcomes elsewhere.
July 2018, Volume 29, Number 3 $14.00
Explaining Eastern Europe
Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes Jiri Pehe Jacques Rupnik
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi Venelin Ganev
Wojciech Przybylski Grigorij Mesežnikov and O¾ga Gyárfášová
Islam and Democracy in Tunisia
Rached Ghannouchi
Authoritarianism and Modernization
Roberto Stefan Foa
Benjamin Spatz and Kai Thaler on Liberia
Aurel Croissant et al. on Mass Protests and the Military
Sumit Ganguly on the Making of Indian Democracy
What Is Sharp Power?
Christopher Walker
OrbÁns LabOratOry
Of ILLIberaLIsm
Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi
Péter Krekó is director of the Political Capital Institute and assistant
professor of political science at ELTE University in Budapest. Zsolt
Enyedi is professor of political science at the Central European Uni-
versity in Budapest.
Three days after the 8 April 2018 election that gave his ruling Fidesz
party another two-thirds majority in Hungary’s unicameral 199-seat Na-
tional Assembly, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán released a short video. It
showed what he saw as the campaign’s funniest moments. In the first
scene, he is strolling down a hallway with András Patyi, the head of the
national election-oversight authority. “I read in the papers that Patyi
fined me,” says a puckish Orbán—referring to a ruling that he had used
children for campaign purposes without their parents’ consent. “I feel
really sorry, Mister Prime Minister,” deadpans Patyi in response. Orbán
brings up the matter twice more, each time chuckling about it.
This scene captures Hungarian politics and public life in the age of
Orbán: The procedures that were originally designed to limit executive
power survive, but only as a joke, and nearly all the country’s decision
makers belong to the prime minister’s personal clientelist network. Ac-
cording to widely known rating agencies such as Freedom House, the
Bertelsmann Foundation, the World Bank, and the Economist Intelli-
gence Unit, Hungary is Exhibit A in the annals of democratic backslid-
ing. As Freedom House recently concluded, “Hungary has registered the
largest cumulative decline in Nations in Transit history, after its score
has fallen for 10 consecutive years.”1
Arguably, the political changes of the last decade have resulted in the
establishment of a hybrid political system, in which the degree of power
concentration is exceptional—at least in European terms.2 Orbán and his
party not only keep a firm grip on the legislative and executive branches,
but also dominate virtually all spheres of social life, including commerce,
education, the arts, churches, and even sports. The regime’s “hybridness”
Journal of Democracy Volume 29, Number 3 July 2018
© 2018 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press
Explaining Eastern Europe
40 Journal of Democracy
reflects the uneven development of nondemocratic practices across vari-
ous sectors of society. Certain subsystems—the courts, for instance—still
operate with a large degree of independence, though the executive has
been putting them under growing pressure. Other institutions, such as the
prosecutors’ offices and the state media, function as ruling-party outposts.
The foundations of the current Orbán regime go back to the period
just after Fidesz’s 2010 electoral landslide, and were consolidated when
parliament adopted a new constitution that came into effect on the first
day of 2012. Still, the 2018 election was widely seen as a crucial test.
As Assembly Speaker László Kövér said before the 2018 voting, “We
have rebuilt the country from the cellar to the roof. . . . If we are able to
govern successfully for four more years, many of our changes will be-
come irreversible not only in Hungary but, through our example, across
Indeed, helped by gerrymandering and a divided opposition, Orbán
won his third straight two-thirds majority with a whopping 133 seats.
Fidesz improved on its 2014 vote share by four points, going from 45 to
49 percent. The party won 91 of the 133 seats elected by plurality rule in
single-member districts (SMDs). With turnout an impressive 70 percent,
the opposition could not repeat its custom of blaming its loss on voter
apathy. Fidesz managed to bring almost half a million new voters to the
polls—an enormous number in a country of ten-million people—and
achieved its second-best electoral result ever.
Jobbik, a party that had begun moving from the far right toward the
center in recent years, held onto its base with 19 percent of the vote and
26 seats. Yet its leader, Gábor Vona, had promised victory. Following
the disappointing result, he resigned. The new leader, Tamás Sneider,
officially follows Vona’s “moderate” line, but himself is an ex-skinhead
and retains ties with extremist groups, illustrating how relative the term
“extreme” can be.
The divided leftist and liberal parties were unable to increase their
share of votes. The coalition formed by the Socialists (who had led the
government in 1994–98 and 2002–10) and Dialogue for Hungary (a
small green party) gained only 12 percent, with a pair of other green
and liberal parties picking up an additional 12 percent between them.
All told, the left’s vote share was only around 30 percent, showing the
huge imbalance that has characterized Hungarian politics for almost a
Fidesz did an excellent job of mobilizing its large voter base, but
this happened with the help of significant state support. As they had in
2014, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation
in Europe noted that the state apparatus and the governing party had
campaigned in tandem. The elections were free, but not fair. Also am-
plifying the Fidesz advantage were a media establishment that purveyed
blatantly false news regarding migration and terrorism; a State Audit
Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi
Office that handed stiff fines to opposition parties; and an Office of the
Prosecutor-General that refused to investigate major corruption cases
involving Fidesz loyalists.
The Fidesz regime’s stability rests on more than a tilted electoral
playing field, however. It does have some genuine support from the peo-
ple. For more than a dozen years, the ruling party has regularly led its
closest competitor in opinion polls by fifteen to twenty points. Hungar-
ians rose up against communist rule in 1956 and embraced democratic
reforms in 1989. They enjoy the secret ballot, face no threat of violence,
live in a country belonging to that club of democracies called the Euro-
pean Union, and get news from journalists who need fear no jail time.
Yet these same Hungarians tolerate and indeed vote for an increasingly
autocratic regime.
Wider Trends and Country-Specific Factors
Although the Hungarian populists’ ideology has paternalist features
that set them apart from other populist parties, Hungary’s case is part
of a larger trend. The nationalistic turn in Hungary has undoubtedly
drawn legitimization from the Western world’s larger shift toward
identity politics. The general backlash against political correctness
and “gender ideology” led the Hungarian leaders to realize that there is
nothing inevitable about the growing influence of progressive-liberal
These global changes have re-amplified the authoritarian characteris-
tics of Central and East European political culture, especially the prev-
alence of “hierarchy values” over the values of egalitarianism, intel-
lectual and affective autonomy, and mastery (ambition, daring, and the
like).4 Low social trust and disillusionment with democracy and capital-
ism have made it hard to build a civil society robust enough to defend
pluralism.5 The antiliberal climate engulfed even the region’s strongest
economic performers, such as the Czech Republic. There, Miloš Zeman
won reelection to the presidency in January 2018 by whipping up fear of
refugees in a country that hosts no refugees. In Poland, trends similar to
those in Hungary are apparent as well.
At the same time, the region is not monolithic. In Slovakia, even
strongman Robert Fico had to step down as premier when March 2018
protests over the murder of an investigative journalist became more than
he could handle. In Romania, demonstrators have triggered a number
of changes of government in recent years, and the Baltic states have
bounced back from a devastating financial crisis without abandoning
liberal democracy. We cannot blame Hungary’s declining democracy
scores on the international context.
In the building of Hungary’s illiberal regime, three factors proved
especially prominent. The first of these was the electoral system, with
42 Journal of Democracy
its strong majoritarian element dating to the time of the postcommu-
nist transition. Unlike its Eastern Bloc neighbors, Hungary chose not to
adopt a new constitution after communism fell, but instead amended its
1949 basic law. The remodeled constitutional order, although it featured
a significant separation of powers, nonetheless allowed a two-thirds ma-
jority of parliament to make major institutional changes. The framers
had assumed that no single party would ever win such a majority. They
turned out to be wrong.
In the 2010 election, their mistaken assumption had massive conse-
quences. Although Fidesz won only 53 percent of the popular vote, this
was enough to give it a 68 percent majority in parliament. At that time,
the National Assembly had 386 seats, and Fidesz won 263 of these.
This supermajoritarian outcome built on a modest popular-vote majority
came about because Fidesz swept parliament’s 176 SMD seats, winning
all but one of them. The framers’ “will never happen” had happened.
Fidesz exploited its legislative dominance by unilaterally changing
the constitution and replacing key officials in every politically rel-
evant institution. Checks and balances were erased as the staffs and
workings of the once semi-autonomous Prosecutor-General’s Office,
Electoral Commission, State Audit Office, Fiscal Council, state media,
and Constitutional Court were radically transformed. All fifteen of the
Court’s current members bear appointments that postdate Fidesz’s rise
to power, and nearly all are loyal to Fidesz. Public broadcasting and
the national news agency were subsumed under the authority of a new
government-dominated body. It was the “seat-bonus” giving Fidesz a
68 percent “constitutional majority” in parliament that made all this
Fidesz also used its dominant position to make the electoral system
even more majoritarian. Although in both the 2014 and the 2018 elec-
tions Fidesz failed to win more than 50 percent of all votes cast, it both
times secured a two-thirds parliamentary majority.
The second factor was the raw, disheartening memory of the turbu-
lence that had roiled the country between 2006 and 2010. In May 2006,
incumbent Socialist premier Ferenc Gyurcsány told a party gathering
that the government he was heading had accomplished nothing despite
four years in power, and had been lying to voters about it. When an au-
dio recording of the speech became public in September, a crisis erupt-
ed. There were demonstrations marred by violence, some of it caused
by demonstrators and some by police. Then in 2008 came the world
economic crisis, triggering IMF-imposed austerity measures. Just be-
fore the April 2010 election, one polling expert observed that “even in a
region where disillusionment [with democracy] is common, Hungarians
stand out” for their level of distrust.6 Orbán and Fidesz capitalized on
the discontent, promising more justice, efficiency, and democracy while
vowing to remove ex-communist elites from state institutions. In the
Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi
eyes of many Hungarians, Fidesz and Orbán—like Vladimir Putin after
the Boris Yeltsin years in Russia—offered the best hope for security and
stability following chaotic times.
The third prominent factor was and is the presence of a charismatic
political leader. It is not too much to say that the post-2010 regime draws
its legitimacy from the personal authority of Viktor Orbán. Born in 1963
and raised in a small town in west-central Hungary, Orbán began as a
student activist fighting for democracy. He has been on the political
front lines since 1988, repeatedly demonstrating his skills as an orator,
manager, strategist, and intriguer. Coming from a modest background
and earning a law degree from a prestigious Budapest university (he
also did a brief stint studying at Pembroke College, Oxford); befriend-
ing worthies such as the German politicians Otto Graf von Lambsdorff
and Helmut Kohl; and winning early fame as a 35-year-old prime min-
ister in 1998, Orbán embodies the aspirations of many Hungarians. For
a large segment of society, his story is the nation’s story, and the barbs
launched against him by foreign critics simply mark yet another chapter
in the old tale of Hungary’s long, lonely walk through history. As Mar-
tin Fletcher has put it, “Orbán’s unashamed nationalism, blunt speaking
and brazen defiance of Brussels resonate in a country for which the 20th
century was a litany of humiliations.”7
What Does Orbán Want?
Although some liken him to a real dictator, the truth is that Orbán’s
political character cannot be understood apart from the logic of competi-
tive electoral politics. Unlike many authoritarian leaders, Orbán does
not aspire to be the “father of the nation.” His goal is to polarize and
divide the electorate while retaining the support of the biggest and best-
organized group within it. His means are often nondemocratic, but the
logic of his behavior is quintessentially competitive. His unparalleled
ability to mobilize supporters is Fidesz’s top electoral asset.
Orbán is no Vladimir Putin, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, or Hugo Chávez,
none of whom could fill any conceivable political role aside from that of
ruler. Instead, Orbán and other past and present leaders like him in the
region are party chiefs (and often party founders) who feel at home with
democratic electoral contests. The others include Macedonia’s Nikola
Gruevski, Montenegro’s Milo Ðjukanoviæ, Poland’s Jaros³aw Kaczyñs-
ki, Slovakia’s Robert Fico, and Slovenia’s Janez Janša. In early June
2018, Orbán and his state-run media gave Janša a huge boost in snap
elections, making his party the Slovenian parliament’s largest and put-
ting him in position to form a coalition government.
The personal skills and ambitions of these leaders fuel their urge
to push for an executive-dominated, delegative form of governance.
Meanwhile, it cannot be denied that this push meets a certain level of
44 Journal of Democracy
demand for strongman rule that exists among their respective national
electorates. The longing for strong states and (re)established national
sovereignty lends an air of respectability to the personal ambitions of
these political entrepreneurs. Their supporters see their fights for uncon-
strained leadership as quests to reclaim past national glories.
Once it secured power, Fidesz could rely on certain institutional
mechanisms and political configurations to help it maintain sufficient
popular support. The most important of these is one that has been “pres-
ent” by its absence: Serious cases of high-level corruption have had no
legal impact. Measures such as Transparency International’s Corruption
Perceptions Index suggest that corruption has become systemic in Hun-
gary since 2010—indeed, the regime’s engine is nepotistic corruption.
At the same time, however, the number of high-profile corruption pros-
ecutions has dropped to almost zero. Much of the judiciary retains its
autonomy, but some judges have been forced into early retirement while
the power of the new National Judiciary Office (run by the wife of the
Fidesz politician who wrote most of the 2011 Constitution) continues
to grow.
The opposition, meanwhile, remains haunted by its own past corrup-
tion scandals. Law-enforcement agencies periodically investigate and
interrogate opposition figures in ways designed to draw maximum pub-
licity. The public has come to see corruption charges as ritualistic parts
of party politics, even if nobody noteworthy ever seems to go to jail for
corrupt dealings.
The opposition’s chief trouble is that it is so divided. Fidesz man-
aged to firm up the loyalty of its voter base before the 1990s were over,
and has never lost it. The rest of the party system, by contrast, has long
been fragmented—a crucial liability in a majoritarian electoral system.
Willingness to attempt cross-party coordination rose somewhat between
2014 and 2018, but each of the elections bookending that period saw
multiple opposition candidates vying against one another in numerous
Orbán also has benefited from a favorable economic environment,
aided by an ample flow of money from the EU. By 2017, the Fidesz
government could point to 4 percent annual growth; a stabilized budget
and national debt load; a repaid IMF loan; a rise in real income of more
than 10 percent per year across 2016 and 2017; and both lower inflation
and lower unemployment.
There are also downsides to Orbán’s economic record, however.
The government achieved stabilization by nationalizing private pension
funds (worth about 8 percent of GDP); cutting welfare spending for the
poor; depleting research and education budgets; and levying taxes (on
banking and other service sectors) that drove away foreign investment.
The current 4 percent growth is in fact smaller than the value of EU
transfers, which total 6 to 7 percent of GDP. Experts looking at these
Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi
downsides remain unenthusiastic about the government’s economic
strategy, but so far voters have been relatively content.
Another edge for Orbán has been the toothlessness of the Western
institutions that have been critical of him. Some political scientists call
Orbán’s rule an “externally constrained hybrid regime,”8 but the exter-
nal constraints are weak. The European People’s Party—the mainstream
center-right group in the European Parliament—continues to recognize
Fidesz as a member in good standing despite the sharp decline in the
quality of Hungarian democracy. While Orbán’s rule in many ways re-
sembles that of past East European leaders such as Slovakia’s Vladi-
mir Meèiar, Romania’s Ion Iliescu, and Macedonia’s Nikola Gruevski,
his governance—unlike theirs—seems to be compatible with continu-
ing EU membership, and therefore can claim a prestige that they never
could have achieved. Europe is trapped in a form of “authoritarian equi-
librium”9 where the political and economic advantages of keeping an
increasingly authoritarian regime within the EU still exceed its disad-
Brussels finds itself in an awkward position. It is sending money to an
illiberal, Euroskeptic government in Budapest that makes political hay
by denouncing the EU while happily watching EU funds flow in. And if
some of this EU largesse ends up in the pockets of Hungarian oligarchs
and members of the prime minister’s personal network (including his
son-in-law), Brussels seems able to do little about it.10 Orbán’s reputa-
tion among mainstream European politicians has deteriorated over the
last decade, but he is more pragmatic than, say, Kaczyñski in Poland,
and has a sense of when and how to compromise that has fended off ef-
fective sanctions.
The Fidesz regime benefits not only from the EU’s carrots, but from
its sticks as well. Penalties and admonitions from Brussels allow Or-
bán’s government to present itself as the shield of Hungarian national
sovereignty while rallying citizens around the flag. Having a direct po-
litical mandate from the people, the government can easily question the
legitimacy of foreign politicians and EU bureaucrats and paint them as
hostile agents against whom the country needs a shield.
A Cultural Counter-Revolution
Fidesz has overseen a well-funded effort to change the hearts and
minds of Hungarians. Since 2015, the government has spent more than
100 million euros to convince voters that a hidden network led by
George Soros, the Hungarian-American investor and philanthropist, is
working to bring millions of Asian and African immigrants to Europe.11
The goal of the anti-Soros campaign has been to promote what Orbán
and Kaczyñski in 2016 called a “cultural counter-revolution.”12
In order to help promote such propaganda, Fidesz has built a media
46 Journal of Democracy
empire of its own. As of 2017, the Fidesz media juggernaut included all
of Hungary’s regional newspapers; its second-largest commercial televi-
sion company and second most popular news website; its sole national
commercial radio network; its only
sports daily; its only news agency; and
a large number of papers that purvey
what can only be called yellow jour-
nalism. Lavish state funding ensures
that the juggernaut can grind on with-
out regard to what actual consumers
are willing to pay for. Copies of news-
papers are often made available free
of charge at train stations and other
public places, and the regime’s radio
and television outlets reach nearly ev-
ery household. Their advertisers are
frequently government-owned com-
panies or government agencies.
Hungarian governments have always directed ad spending toward
ideologically friendly media organs, but what has been in evidence since
2010 has no precedent. A typical example of the propaganda apparatus
is the weekly Figyelõ (Observer). Its owner is a government consultant,
and it receives about 70 percent of its advertising revenue from the state.
These outlets not only play a role in shaping the political climate, but
also function as disciplinary instruments. Figyelõ, for example, pub-
lished a list of more than two-hundred people (mainly academics and
human-rights activists) whom it called “mercenaries” hired by Soros.13
Government ad placement of course also suggests to businesspeople ea-
ger for state contracts where they should spend their own ad budgets.
The upshot is a “government-organized media”—some of it state-owned
and some private, but all under the control of Fidesz and its allied oli-
The state’s overt “information campaigns” also shape the commu-
nications environment. In 2017 alone, about US$250 million went to
pay for billboards, leaflets, television ads, and mass mailings by means
of which Orbán attacked Hungary’s “enemies” such as Brussels and
George Soros.14 This sum was several times the official amount that
went to pay for the Leave campaign the year before in the United King-
dom.15 Advertising content and Fidesz campaign slogans often literally
match, but parties’ formal campaign spending is capped while govern-
ment ad budgets are not. Anti-immigrant and anti-Brussels appeals re-
ceived approximately $50 million from the state budget in 2017.16 Post-
ers denouncing refugees began appearing in June 2015, after the first
wave of them arrived.17
The government-organized Hungarian press paints the West as an
The government-organized
Hungarian press paints
the West as an apocalyptic
place where immigrants
pose constant threats, the
rule of law has collapsed,
and a miasma of political
correctness smothers free
Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi
apocalyptic place where immigrants pose constant threats, the rule of
law has collapsed, and a miasma of political correctness smothers free
speech. Between 2014 and 2015, Hungary saw an increase in anti-for-
eigner sentiment that was, according to some studies, the highest in Eu-
rope.18 The proportion of Hungarians who would allow an immigrant to
enter the country fell to less than 10 percent, the lowest level in Europe.19
Fidesz propaganda has strengthened anti-Western and pro-Russian
foreign-policy attitudes. Pro-Western opinion remains strong, but a shift
in the opposite direction is taking place. In one recent survey, 51 percent
of Fidesz voters said that in choosing a strategic partner for Hungary,
they would prefer Russia to the United States.20 Among Hungarians,
Vladimir Putin is more popular than Angela Merkel or Donald Trump.21
Hungarians today fear Russia less than they fear Brussels and George
Before the government’s media campaign against Soros began a
few years ago, the Hungarian public had scarcely heard of him. Then
the Fidesz spin doctors seized on the Hungarian-born billionaire’s po-
tential as a handy enemy figure. They began depicting him as the head
of a vast conspiracy uniting NGOs, the opposition parties, critical me-
dia, and international organizations. In a number of countries (includ-
ing some in the post-Soviet space), Soros has been treated as a symbol
of destructive liberalism, but nowhere outside Hungary has he become
an official obsession and the target of a years-long smear campaign.
It is not hard to see how Soros’s promotion of “open society” ideals
and his funding for rights, transparency, and pro-minority groups might
vex an increasingly authoritarian government, but in the Hungarian case
there may also be something personal at work. Soros was one of Orbán’s
first mentors (a Soros-funded scholarship paid for his sojourn at Ox-
ford), and Soros’s active presence is a reminder of Orbán’s ideological
U-turn. During the 2018 campaign, any organization with even remote
ties to Soros became subject to attacks not only in the media but also
through legislative initiatives. The government went so far as to call
its bills aimed at constraining civil society the “stop Soros package.”
After the 2018 election, the Soros-supported Open Society Foundations
moved their regional office from Budapest to Berlin in order to escape
the Orbán government’s hostility.
Observers often call the anti-Soros campaign an instance of anti-
Semitism. No doubt the image of a Jewish financier running a world-
wide conspiracy is a familiar anti-Semitic trope, and the designers of
the campaign were fully aware of the popular reactions triggered by
billboards across the country saying, “We shall not let Soros have the
last laugh.” It would be wrong, however, to interpret the state’s propa-
ganda in ethnic or racial terms. Relations between Hungary and Israel
have never been stronger, and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netan-
yahu—another well-known Soros foe—has supported the campaign.
48 Journal of Democracy
In parallel with it, Orbán began speaking more about the need to fight
anti-Semitism, and justifying his policies against refugees in part by
invoking the need to protect Hungarian Jews from attacks by Muslim
immigrants. The main advantage of the campaign against Soros is not
that he is Jewish, but that he can be built up as an “umbrella enemy”—
the puppet master allegedly pulling the strings of all the government’s
foes, including the NGOs, the critical media, the opposition parties,
and the EU. This recipe recently worked in Slovenia, too, where the
anti-Soros, anti-refugee narrative exported by Orbán helped Janša to
his abovementioned showing.
The refugee and migration question was central in the 2018 electoral
campaign. Unlike in 2014, economic issues hardly figured. Baldly put,
the central Fidesz claim was that Brussels and Soros were scheming to
flood Europe with Muslim migrants, and that a Fidesz loss would mean
the doom of white, Christian Hungary. Could such a campaign have
worked outside of good economic times? It is hard to say. What we do
know is that in 2018 this campaign strongly succeeded. Before the refu-
gee crisis, Fidesz’s popularity was on the decline. After it, Fidesz not only
recovered but added half a million new voters.
The economic factors converged neatly with the cultural arguments.
Inequalities have continued to widen in Hungary under the Fidesz govern-
ment, and leading figures in and around Fidesz policies are not so mod-
estly building their wealth. A symbol of this latter phenomenon is Lõrinc
Mészáros, an old friend of Orbán and a onetime pipefitter who is now
miraculously one of the country’s richest people, with a net worth that
Forbes in late 2017 estimated at close to $400 million.22 Despite income
disparities, Orbán increased his popularity among the poor, largely by
exploiting their identity-based fears. At the same time, many poor people
received access to employment (though only through public-works pro-
grams) while their children received free hot meals in the schools and
kindergartens. As the parliament elected in 2014 neared the end of its
term, moreover, the poverty rate started to fall. Citizens who were other-
wise victims of Fidesz’s policy shift to a flat tax were grateful for these
developments, and they worried that a change of government could de-
prive them of state protection. Many citizens, especially in smaller towns,
also feared that if they voted for the opposition this might become known
and cost them their jobs and subsidies. Finally, they were worried that
if asylum seekers were let in, state support would be redistributed to the
What Comes Next?
Hungary’s democratic backsliding is the product of many factors,
few of which are unique to Hungary. This is not a comforting thought:
What happened in Hungary could happen elsewhere too. Given a ruling
Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi
party willing to bend the rules in its own favor and a weak, fractured op-
position, it is hard to see where political change can come from. There
are NGOs that have been surprisingly efficient at organizing large ral-
lies, but the government’s legal and propaganda campaigns against them
have rendered their position very fragile.
Can the opposition parties learn to pull together? They do seem to re-
alize more keenly than before that the “narcissism of small differences”
among them has been a pillar of the Fidesz supermajority. In February
2018, all the opposition parties rallied behind a single mayoral candidate
in a southern town known to be a Fidesz stronghold. The win scored by
this candidate, an independent local entrepreneur with strong conserva-
tive credentials, suggested a winning formula. In general, however, the
opposition remains too much a Budapest phenomenon, without the local
structures outside the capital that it will take to challenge the ruling party.
That party, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly successful at controlling
the parliamentary opposition, which is coming to resemble the sham “op-
position” to Putin’s United Russia party in the Russian State Duma.
In foreign affairs, Orbán will most likely keep up his East-West bal-
ancing act, trying to make the most of EU and NATO membership while
cementing his hybrid regime ever more firmly into place. Russian, Chi-
nese, Turkish, and Azerbaijani leaders will continue to find receptive
partners in Hungary. In January 2018, Orbán said that an EU funding
cutoff would turn him toward China.23 Three months later, Hungary be-
came the only EU country that refused to sign a statement criticizing
China’s Belt and Road Initiative.24
Orbán’s illiberal model has been having a major impact not only in
Central and Eastern Europe, but in the Western Balkans as well. In an
increasing “soft power” attempt, Orbán is reaching out to countries in
the Western Balkans, and, mostly successfully, supporting local (mainly
right-wing) strongmen in Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and
(as we have seen) Slovenia. Along with Hungary’s government-organized
media, Hungarian energy companies have been expanding their Western
Balkan presence. Orbán, as a model politician of the broader region, has
been spreading his ideology and working on creating a “sphere of influ-
ence” among nearby countries, both those that already belong to the EU
and some that aspire to join.
Hungary has become a successful laboratory of illiberal governance.
Fidesz has remodeled the country’s institutions to suit ruling-party pur-
poses. Identity politics and conspiracy theories abound, as state-funded
media churn out fake news. Given the positive voter feedback regarding
all this, we should expect it to continue.25
Can pressures from outside change that? Budapest’s relations with
both Brussels and Washington are at a low point. In early 2017, the Eu-
ropean Parliament began proceedings that could take away Hungary’s
voting rights, though this is not a likely outcome. A more realistic sce-
50 Journal of Democracy
nario envisions the European People’s Party moving to strip Fidesz of
its membership, which would weaken it domestically. Orbán has had to
work constantly to strike the right balance between advantageous provo-
cations and necessary concessions. Until now, when forced to choose
between the East and the West, he has always chosen the latter. Yet the
West has never succeeded in forcing him to compromise on his drive to
centralize power.
1. See “Nations in Transit 2018: Confronting Illiberalism” Freedom House, https://
2. András Bozóki and Dániel Hegedûs, “An Externally Constrained Hybrid Regime:
Hungary in the European Union,” Democratization, forthcoming in print, online 13 April
3. Kövér is quoted at
ekasztal-beszelgetesen/bgbjrvq. All translations from Hungarian are by the authors of this
4. Shalom H. Schwartz, Anat Bardi, and Gabriel Bianchi, “Value Adaptation to the
Imposition and Collapse of Communist Regimes in East-Central Europe,” in Stanley A.
Renshon and John Duckitt, eds., Political Psychology: Cultural and Crosscultural Foun-
dations (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), 217–37.
5. Péter Krekó et al., Trust Within Europe (Budapest: Political Capital, 2015).
6. Richard Wike, “Hungary Dissatisfied with Democracy, but Not Its Ideals,” Pew Re-
search Center, 7 April 2010,
7. Martin Fletcher, “Is Hungary the EU’s First Rogue State? Viktor Orban and the
Long March from Freedom,” New Statesman, 1 August 2017.
8. Bozóki and Hegedûs, “An Externally Constrained Hybrid Regime.”
9. R. Daniel Kelemen, “Europe’s Other Democratic Deficit: National Authoritarianism
in Europe’s Democratic Union,” Government and Opposition 52, no. 2 (2017): 211–38.
10. Laurence Norman and Anita Komuves, “EU Fraud Office Finds Irregularities in
Projects Linked to Hungarian Leader’s Son-in-Law,” Wall Street Journal, 12 January
11. Tom Kington, “Viktor Orban ‘Spent 100 Million of State Cash on Lies About
George Soros,’” Times, 15 May 2018.
12. Henry Foy and Neil Buckley, “Orban and Kaczynski Vow ‘Cultural Counter-Rev-
olution’ to Reform EU,” Financial Times, 7 September 2016.
13. “Hungary: Pro-Government Weekly Prints List of ‘Soros Mercenaries,’” Associ-
ated Press, 12 April 2018.
14. See
Péter Krekó and Zsolt Enyedi
15. For donations and loans reported by Brexit campaigners, see www.electoralcom-
16. See Tavaly 12 milliárdot költött sorosozós reklámkampányokra a kormány [Last
year, 12 billion spent on serial advertising campaigns by the government], Atlatszo, 2
February 2018,
17. Nick Thorpe, “Hungary’s Poster War on Immigration,” BBC News, 14 June 2015,
18. Attila Juhász and Molnár Csaba, “Magyarország sajátos helyzete az európai
menekültválságban” [Hungary’s special situation in the European refugee crisis], in
Tamás Kolosi and István György Tóth, eds., Társadalmi Riport 2016 (Budapest: Tárki,
2016), 263–85.
19. “Special Eurobarometer 469: Integration of Immigrants in the European Union,”
April 2018, 7,
20. See Péter Magyari, “A fideszesek nagyon megszerették Putyint és Oroszországot”
[Fidesz supporters very fond of Putin and Russia], 444, 14 March 2018, https://444.
21. “Globsec Trends 2018: Central Europe Moving in Different Directions,” 14 May
22. Benjamin Novak, “Forbes: Lõrinc Mészáros’ Personal Wealth Estimated to Be
HUF 105 Billion,” Budapest Beacon, 31 October 2017,
23. “Orbán: If EU Doesn’t Pay, Hungary Will Turn to China,” Budapest Business
Journal, 11 January 2018.
24. Keegan Elmer, “EU Presents (Nearly) United Front Against China’s ‘Unfair’ Belt
and Road Initiative,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 20 April 2018.
25. Maja Jovanovska, Tamas Bodoky, and Aubrey Belford, “Right-Wing Hungarian
Media Moves into the Balkans,” Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, 9
May 2018,
... Electoral systems have been described as 'the most specific manipulative instrument of politics' (Sartori, 1968: 273) and politicians try to improve their position by changing electoral systems when given the opportunity (Riker, 1986). Hence, it is unsurprising that the most important change for an illiberal swerving to become a full illiberal turn consists of electoral system reforms, together with constitutional amendments, aiming at a permanent weakening of the political opposition (Buštíková & Guasti, 2017;Krekó & Enyedi, 2018). Such an electoral system reform, among others, occurred in Hungary in the very first years after the sweeping triumph of Orbán's FIDESZ party in the 2010 parliamentary elections, when the disproportionate electoral system caused FIDESZ to gain 67.88% of the parliamentary seats with 52.73% of votes (see Bánkuti et al., 2012;Tóka, 2014;Pap, 2017). ...
... Finally, several authors pointed out the possible pro-FIDESZ bias of the new electoral law, meaning that FIDESZ changed the electoral system not only to strengthen the biggest party's parliamentary representation in general, but also to favour FIDESZ specifically (e.g., Tóka, 2014;Krekó & Enyedi, 2018). Although, given our knowledge, we are sympathetic to the argument about the intentionality of the electoral reform process, the approach taken here "only" enables us to study changes in electoral competition over time, not any partisan bias in the electoral system. ...
... First of all, it is necessary to mention that FIDESZ relies on some genuine and stable support from the people, regularly leading opinion polls by fifteen to twenty points, and that its charismatic leader Viktor Orbán likewise continues to enjoy significant public support, while the opposition is fragmented (especially its left wing), divided and polarized (as it is formed by left-wing politicians on one side and the extreme right-wing Jobbik on the other). Although there were some attempts at cross-party coordination against FIDESZ on the left wing, especially in the 2018 election, multiple opposition candidates eventually ran against one another in several SMDs (for more details, see Krekó & Enyedi, 2018). ...
This article tests the effects of a new electoral system in Hungary that was introduced by the governing FIDESZ party in 2011. We are especially concerned with the shape of single-member district (SMD) level electoral competition following a significant transformation that tends to be viewed as serving FIDESZ's goal of preserving its constitutional majority. The results show not only transformation of Hungarian electoral politics between 2010 and 2018 elections but also the fact that the return of bipolarization is far from reality in Hungarian electoral politics. On one hand, the reform resulted in an increased number of districts with clear dominance of the two strongest parties nationally, but on the other hand, this trend was connected to asymmetrical bipartism, with clear advantage of the FIDESZ. Furthermore, there was a persistently high number of SMDs where the competition took place between the FIDESZ and one of the third-place parties.
... Janša's party has been the party in power in the periods 2004-2008 and 2012-2013, the major party in opposition since 2013, and in March 2020 Janša formed his third ruling coalition. Krekó and Enyedi (2018) recognize that Janša's governing strategies fall under "Orbán's laboratory of illiberalism". In 2018, Orbán and his state-run media gave Janša a huge boost in snap elections, making his party the Slovenian parliament's largest and putting him in a position to form a coalition government (Krekó and Enyedi 2018, 43, 48). ...
... Not to maintain public health, though, but to display its own power. (Journalist 14, RTV SLO) Following its authoritarian logic, and modelling the Hungarian government (Krekó and Enyedi 2018), the Slovenian government did not consider the media as partners in fighting the crisis, but as its own tool and a means of disseminating its interpretation of the situation. Any critical reporting was denounced: ...
... The steps to build such regimes are well known by now: they include the weakening of independent institutions including the judiciary and the media; attacks against civil society; and the rewriting of electoral rules (Diamond 2019;Mounk 2018). Such steps are strengthened using identity politics, conspiracy theories, and the fake news industry especially during election time (Krekó and Enyedi 2018). ...
... Nationalism and identity politics have been the bedrock of the ideology of the Orbán regime since its beginning (Fukuyama 2018;Krekó and Enyedi 2018). For more than 20 years, the cornerstone of his discourse has been the national interest and the superiority of national sovereignty to any kind of multilateralism (Madlovics 2015). ...
While the literature on the definition, features, and establishment of hybrid regimes has been extensive, a gap exists about their internal dynamics. The article develops a four-stage model of the political cycle to trace changes in input and output legitimacy. Using Hungary as a case study, it shows a downward spiral of corruption and ideological degeneration due to the inherent contradictions between the initial promises and the real objectives of governance. These developments have undermined output and input legitimacy as shown by the changing composition of government supporters toward poorer, less educated, rural, older people and the increasing manipulation of the electoral process. Such dynamics imply significant vulnerabilities for the regime.
... The literature on institutions analyzes how the manipulation of the electoral system, legislature, judiciary, or the media can lead to the decay of democracy. Scholars have also examined support for regimes, populist attitudes, anti-immigrant attitudes, or political polarization in order to understand why citizens accept or even cherish illiberal politicians (Ekman 2009;Krekó and Enyedi 2018;Guriev and Treisman 2020b;Zagrebina 2020;Akboga and Sahin 2021). According to informational autocracy theory Treisman 2019, 2020a;Gehlbach and Sonin 2014), the media is the most important link between macro-level political institutions and micro-level political attitudes and behavior. ...
... Orbán has advanced an agenda of building an "illiberal state"-a formulation borrowed from one of his advisors, Gyula Tellér-within the European Union. He has referred to Singapore, China, Russia, and Turkey as evidence that economic growth does not need to follow the classic, Westerncentric liberal parliamentary model (Krekó and Enyedi 2018). Since then, he has regularly presented China and the so-called "Asian model" (more than Russia) as his main inspiration. ...
In our research, we examined the discursive framing of Trianon and the Holocaust in today’s Hungarian online media. Our corpus contained 26,519 articles connected to these two historical events published between September 2017 and September 2020. We used a mixed-method approach by combining computational text analysis, namely, LDA (Latent Dirichlet Allocation) topic models and qualitative methods. Our aim was not only to map the latent thematic structure and the discourses about Trianon and the Holocaust but also to identify the main differences in the rhetoric of the different sides of the political spectrum. Using Bull and Hansen’s categories, we found that the far-right and government media use the antagonistic, while the left-liberal media use the cosmopolitan mode of remembering. We identified many discursive differences between the rhetoric of the different political sides. Yet, the different relationship to emotions has the most far-reaching consequences. On the one hand, in antagonistic remembering, thus in the far-right and progovernment media, emotions play an essential role. On the other hand, cosmopolitan remembering, thus the rhetoric featured in the nongovernment media, detaches itself from emotions. This difference contributes significantly to the success of antagonistic remembering in Hungary. At the same time, the left-liberal side loses the opportunity to shape memory and identity politics.
The rise of Donald Trump has weakened the dominance of the “American exceptionalism” paradigm in analyses of U.S. politics, but the pivot to views of the United States as part of a global trend toward democratic backsliding ignores important, uniquely “American” cultural, historical, and institutional attributes that make the country more at risk for democratic erosion than most other established democracies. This short article puts Trump, and his Republican Party, into the broader comparative perspective of (European) far-right studies. I argue that Trump in many ways fits the “fourth wave” of postwar far-right politics, lay out the unique challenge that the United States is facing in terms of democratic erosion, and draw on the case of Viktor Orbán in Hungary to learn lessons for the United States. The article ends with some suggestions of how democrats (not just Democrats) should address the far-right Republican challenge to U.S. democracy.
Conventional wisdom suggests that populists thrive in times of crisis. However, for populist radical right parties in government, managing a genuine calamity is both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, crises provide the opportunity to project leadership and quell opposition to their rule. On the other hand, crisis response requires competence. Probably the most successful governing populist radical right party in the European Union, Viktor Orbán's Fidesz in Hungary, did not resolve this tension entirely adequately in the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the party consolidated its grip on power, the high human and economic costs of mismanaging the second and third waves of the pandemic started to erode its popular support. In ideational terms, the COVID-19 pandemic accentuated the populist, nativist and authoritarian tendencies that had long characterized the party.
Full-text available
We propose the new concept of Caesarean politics to explain democratic deconsolidation in Hungary and Poland. We argue the move towards illiberal democracy in both countries has been made possible by a shift towards Caesarean politics, in which radical changes are framed as “politics as usual”, while in fact these challenge the essence of liberal democracy. Focusing on the three pillars of Caesarean politics: (1) patronal politics, (2) state capture, and (3) identity politics, we show how both countries become cases of Caesarean politics, where, using discourses of “friends” and “enemies”, the leader coordinates vast patronal networks that capture the state.
Full-text available
Does the political system in a country influence the importance that its citizens ascribe to the broad range of basic human values? Surprisingly, there is little direct evidence that this is the case. We address this question through a comparative, crossnational study. For this purpose, we take advantage of the natural experiment in Central and Eastern Europe constituted by the imposition of communist regimes over 40 years and their subsequent collapse. We seek to identify if and how the experience of living under communist regimes affected the basic values of citizens in East and Central European countries. (For convenience we refer to this region collectively as East Europe).
The paper focuses on the unique, role model characteristics of the Hungarian hybrid regime, the Hungarian political system’s new incarnation forged in the past years’ democratic backsliding process. Following the short review of the main hybrid regime literature and the key analyses putting the democratic quality of the Hungarian political system under the microscope, the paper argues that Hungary’s European Union (EU) membership, the competencies of EU institutions, and the scope of EU law have played a crucial role in the development of the system’s unique characteristics. Based on this argument, the paper qualifies Hungary as an “externally constrained hybrid regime”. However, the EU does not only fulfil system constraining functions regarding the Hungarian regime, but performs system support and system legitimation functions as well. Ultimately, the changing scope of these functions, determined by the European integration’s internal dynamics, influences first and foremost the Hungarian power elite’s strategic considerations about the country’s future EU membership.
This article argues for a radical recasting of the European Union democratic deficit debate. Critics have long argued that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit and that growing EU power undermines national democracy. But recent backsliding on democracy and the rule of law in Hungary and Poland reminds us that grave democratic deficits can also exist at the national level in member states and that the EU may have a role in addressing them. This article will place the EU’s struggles with democratic deficits in its member states in comparative perspective, drawing on the experience of other democracies that have struggled with pockets of subnational authoritarianism. Comparative analysis suggests that considerations driven by partisan politics may allow local pockets of autocracy to persist within otherwise democratic political unions.
Hungary Dissatisfied with Democracy, but Not Its Ideals
  • Richard Wike
Richard Wike, "Hungary Dissatisfied with Democracy, but Not Its Ideals," Pew Research Center, 7 April 2010,
Is Hungary the EU's First Rogue State? Viktor Orban and the Long March from Freedom
  • Martin Fletcher
Martin Fletcher, "Is Hungary the EU's First Rogue State? Viktor Orban and the Long March from Freedom," New Statesman, 1 August 2017. 8. Bozóki and Hegedûs, "An Externally Constrained Hybrid Regime."
EU Fraud Office Finds Irregularities in Projects Linked to Hungarian Leader's Son-in-Law
  • Laurence Norman
  • Anita Komuves
Laurence Norman and Anita Komuves, "EU Fraud Office Finds Irregularities in Projects Linked to Hungarian Leader's Son-in-Law," Wall Street Journal, 12 January 2018,
Viktor Orban 'Spent €100 Million of State Cash on Lies About George Soros
  • Tom Kington
Tom Kington, "Viktor Orban 'Spent €100 Million of State Cash on Lies About George Soros,'" Times, 15 May 2018.
Hungary's Poster War on Immigration
  • Nick Thorpe
Nick Thorpe, "Hungary's Poster War on Immigration," BBC News, 14 June 2015,
Magyarország sajátos helyzete az európai menekültválságban
  • Attila Juhász
  • Molnár Csaba
Attila Juhász and Molnár Csaba, "Magyarország sajátos helyzete az európai menekültválságban" [Hungary's special situation in the European refugee crisis], in
A fideszesek nagyon megszerették Putyint és Oroszországot" [Fidesz supporters very fond of Putin and Russia
  • See Péter Magyari
See Péter Magyari, "A fideszesek nagyon megszerették Putyint és Oroszországot" [Fidesz supporters very fond of Putin and Russia], 444, 14 March 2018, https://444. hu/2018/03/14/a-fideszesek-nagyon-megszerettek-putyint-es-oroszorszagot. 21. "Globsec Trends 2018: Central Europe Moving in Different Directions," 14 May 2018,