The discussion of hybrid regimes has again become a key element of international and Hungarian discourse in recent years. To put it simply, these are the regimes that tend to demonstrate both democratic and authoritarian elements in the manner they exercise their power.
This concept was mostly popularized in the Hungarian political discourse through Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s landmark book (Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War), in which the authors introduced the notion of the “competitive authoritarian regime”.
Regime debates in Hungary
It is important to note that there is no consensus in Hungary in terms of how the Orbán regime should be described. The representatives of the hybrid regime concept analyze the Hungarian political system from the aspect of liberal democracy.
Since they conceive of democracy as an exclusively “liberal” idea, we agree with internationally acclaimed Hungarian political scientist András Körösényi when he says this concept mostly just helps us understand what the Orbán regime is not like. It is less likely to help us understand what the regime is like.
Of course, this does not make the description of the hybrid regime any less relevant. It only means, as Hungarian political scientist Zoltán Gábor Szűcs points out, that the regime debate is not simply a matter of description; it is also a question of value choices.
The nature of hybrid regimes
One of the key issues about hybrid regimes is their stability and/or their potential shift towards democratisation or taking an authoritarian turn.
Ever since the 2000s, an increasing number of social scientists have been arguing that hybrid regimes do not achieve their desired solidified power structures in spite of their quasi-democratic institutions but rather partly “with the help” of such institutions.
On the other hand, as Nikolay Petrov, Maria Lipman and Henry E. Hale wrote in their study published in Post-Soviet Affairs in 2013, elections always raise a dilemma for hybrid regime leaders as the result of a vote may jeopardize their power but a landslide victory may also provide additional legitimacy for their governance.
Petrov also mentioned that although certain regimes undoubtedly demonstrate strong leadership, excessive centralisation may undermine public policy making, which can lead to an inadequate identification of problems, which in turn may entail social discontent and, eventually, a growing instability.
The crisis may be further exacerbated by the fact that hybrid regimes, by nature, lack the consultation mechanisms and institutionalised procedures that would allow stakeholders to be involved in a transparent management of affairs. As shown by the Hungarian practices, such state of affairs may even lead to street protests but this factor is not calculable, either.
Levitsky and Way’s research also suggests that competitive authoritarian regimes do not actually demonstrate true stability. Most of the countries they analysed have either democratised or become a purely authoritarian system by now – only a few hybrid regimes have been able to retain their idiosyncratic model of operation.
How stable are hybrid regimes
Carrying this idea further in his study published in the Journal of Democracy in the fall of 2018, Christopher Carothers concluded that the stability of competitive authoritarian regimes tends to erode in the mid- and long-term because they are relatively open in the political sense and, unlike purely authoritarian regimes, they contain the element of competition.