Central European Democratorship

Tens of thousands of protestors went to the streets of Budapest last Sunday marking the biggest demonstration current government has faced so far. It’s time to…

Edit Zgut, Wojciech Przybylski
11 April 2017

It’s time to accept that recent developments in Hungary and Poland, along with the alarming reports on democratic standards in the region, are not just temporary turbulence but a new type of political regime in the making.

The new Hungarian law signed yesterday by President János Áder has been branded Lex-CEU. This new legislation allowing the government to expel the Central European University (CEU) from Hungary is like an X-ray image of a hybrid regime – a democracy drifting towards authoritarianism. Moreover, it is not an isolated case but already a regional trend.

The alarming Nations in Transit 2017 report by Freedom House found that, with regards to democratic institutions and values, more countries were on the decline rather than an upswing. Shockingly, 18 countries dropped in the ranking. ‘This is the second biggest decline in the survey’s history, almost as large as the drop following the 2008 global financial crisis’ wrote the authors.

At the end of the day, it is not so new to observe a democratic decline. But it is surprising to find that the most prominent success stories of the democratic transition – Hungary and Poland – are turning their back on their past achievements and moving towards a hybrid regime.

Lex-CEU case

CEU is perhaps the only university in the region highly ranked in numerous world and European university reviews. It was founded by George Soros who registered it in New York and first accredited it in Prague in 1991, and shortly after, moved the institution to Hungary.

It appears Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was not joking when he described 2017 as “the year of repulsing” George Soros. Besides “sweeping clean” many civil society organisations receiving funding from the Open Society Institute, he has started to make it impossible for CEU, labelled as “Soros University”, to operate in Hungary.

Dozens of Nobel-prize winners, hundreds of research institutes and even the German president decided to speak out against Lex-CEU. Yet, the law was adopted just five days after initiating the legislative proposal – only one amendment was attached which allowed for a special arrangement for the CEU providing it is agreed upon by both hosting governments, the USA and Hungary.

Attacking one of the best higher education institutions in Central Europe carries more significance than the fact of the attack itself; it is a real portrait of the nature of a hybrid regime that tolerates less and less open debate and free inquiry.

A page from Putin’s playbook

It might have been just a coincidence that just a week prior to Lex-CEU Russia revoked the license of the European University at St. Petersburg. Perhaps it is also a fluke that, parallel to the Lex-CEU, Hungary has also drafted a “foreign agent law” which strongly resembles another of Mr. Putin’s pieces of legislation.

This new law labels NGOs – receiving non-domestic financial support over HUF 7.2 million (approximately EUR 24,000) – as a national security threat and forces them to register themselves with the authorities.

This is not only about Mr. Orbán willingly copying Mr. Putin’s political methods. It is about eroding the system of checks and balances, restricting horizontal accountability and strengthening corruption. Moreover, the two systems promote a similar anti-Western revisionist ideology that fosters resentment for loss of a supposedly glorious past (Imperial Russia or “great Hungary” from before the 2nd world war). Yet, contrary to Russia, Hungary is in the middle of the Western democratic family – member both of EU and NATO.

Nature of a hybrid regime

Viktor Orbán’s post-2010 regime can be categorised into the group of so-called hybrid regimes where leaders do not completely dissolve democratic institutions and the rule of law, but they strive to empty them of content and restrict their operation.

Democratic institutions do exist in Hungary, but they barely work. Their role as a check on those in power has been gradually restricted since 2010, and this tendency has not been reversed after the governing parties lost their supermajority in the National Assembly (Hungarian parliament) in February 2015.

The National Assembly operates as a government-dominated law factory, more than two-thirds of legislative proposals are submitted by the government, while the opposition’s say in the process has been reduced to the bare minimum.

The national government has either weakened autonomy or taken control of every institution that could in some way keep its power in check. Among these, the most significant was the strongest institution balancing the power of the government before 2010, the Constitutional Court. Now, it has completely submitted to the will of the ruling party Fidesz. Its competences were curbed on several occasions and its composition reshuffled.

The Constitutional Court rarely even has a chance to investigate legislative and state organisation-related issues due to a lack of motions for it to do so. The process of liquidating the independent press was accelerated during 2015 and 2016 partly by administrative tools and partly by acquisitions.

Parallel to this process, the government restricted journalists’ free access to parliamentary buildings, and, on several occasions, banned certain media outlets critical of the government from the National Assembly. As the opposition parties are much smaller and divided, they do not stand a chance to pressure the government on electoral issues. This leaves space for either a take-over or the outright closing of the remaining media outlets which have been critical of the government (e.g., the dissolution of Népszabadság autumn 2016) and for attacks on civil society.

On a crash course with Europe

One of the basic requirements of a modern democracy is that political and civil rights, including the freedom of education and the right to criticise the government without any sanctions, must be protected comprehensively.

However, the goal of the Fidesz government is to eliminate any existing checks on its power with the continuous restriction of democracy. The institutional environment of the regime makes real competition possible; however, it cannot be called fair.

The hybrid regime in Hungary can be categorised as a kind of competitive authoritarianism that was researched by Steven Levitsky and Lucan A. Way, which only maintains the illusion of democratic competition.

In December 2016, Mr. Orbán expressed hope that 2017 would be the year of rebellion against global capital, open society, global government and global liberal media referring to the paradigm change in the United States brought about by the election of Donald Trump.

The miscalculation he made was the strongly anti-American tone of Lex-CEU that goes against the core national interests of the USA. He threw it in front of the world disrespectfully, which is seemingly not tolerated in Washington, which is still ruled by law, procedures and the U.S. Constitution.

Even in Berlin there is no political will to pressure Hungary or Poland. Mrs. Merkel is aware that in case she intervenes with some for of sanctions there could be a backlash for the German economy, but also such actions might not be welcome in the Hungarian society as Mr. Orban is relatively popular in his country.

In theory, the EU could intervene by launching rule of law mechanisms, but facing tough Brexit negotiations, Brussels has never been so cautious with ‘enfant terrible’ countries. Moreover, this procedure is not appropriate for effective intervention, just like we have seen it in the case of Poland.

So maybe it is time for the European People’s party to finally push Fidesz into a moral quarantine by excluding it from the caucus. Otherwise, tolerating a hybrid regime could lead to an even more dangerous precedent in the CEE region that is already overshadowed by backsliding democracies.

Edit Zgut is foreign policy analyst at Political Capital

Wojciech Przybylski is editor-in chief of Visegrad Insight and chairman of Res Publica Foundation