Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Hungary will mark a turning point in the country’s modern political history. Either the governing party of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will secure an unprecedented third consecutive majority and continue the construction of his particular brand of right-wing authoritarianism—an ugly mash of bigotry, fear-mongering, and corruption—or the scattered opposition and increasingly unhappy voters will surprise Orbán with an upset.
An upset is not being forecast, though it is worth noting that Orbán’s Fidesz party went from 53 percent of the vote in 2010 to 45 percent in 2014. Fidesz maintained its two-thirds majority nonetheless due to shameless gerrymandering, abetted by crafty laws that make it easier for (conservative-leaning) ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries to vote, while making it harder for (liberal-minded) young Hungarians studying or working in Western countries to vote. An additional feature this time is an astonishing government-led campaign to demonize George Soros so relentlessly that, as Charles Gati wrote last week, it has given rise to a new verb in Hungarian—sorosozni—which means to blame the Hungarian-American philanthropist for all the country’s problems, real and imagined.
Yet a few weeks ago in a mayoral race in Hodmezovasarhely, long a Fidesz party stronghold, a united opposition pulled off a stunning upset. To do so on a national scale will require unprecedented cooperation among the fractious and feckless opposition—and voters to choose change before they lose the chance to choose.
Long ago and far away, in March and April 1990, I was in Hungary as an official international election monitor for the historic parliamentary elections that brought an end to four decades of Soviet-backed communist rule. Former Vice President Walter Mondale led our multinational delegation, which I organized for the National Democratic Institute, in one of NDI’s early forays into the region.
It was a remarkable moment, one repeated across Central and Eastern Europe that spring and summer, as mostly peaceful negotiations and elections brought an orderly end to dark chapters. Hungarians, characteristically, were not so much buoyant as purposeful; the voters would send six parties to parliament, ranging from Left to Right, old parties and new formations alike. Leaders were gaming the forthcoming coalition negotiations as if they had been doing it for years. We were part of the wider world that had arrived to celebrate.
Hungary emerged from the collapse of European communism as the poster child for seamless transitions, and many of us thought we could take this show on the road—and we did, bringing Hungarians to share the keys to their transition success with newer transitioning countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Yet today, a quarter century later, the future of Hungary looks more than a little like its pre-communist past, with more than a whiff of 1930s redux.
As Kristóf Szombati writes in Axios:
Consolidation of power has been a core element of the System of National Cooperation, the name Orbán gave his regime after Fidesz’s 2010 victory, which he hailed as a “revolution” comparable to the fall of communism.
It is sad that Hungary has now come to a place where an Orwellian-sounding slogan, “System of National Cooperation,” redolent of Mussolini’s rhetoric, is the official governing philosophy; where the premier can brag that he is building an alternative to western liberal democracy; and, where Orbán, having in his youth led the call for Soviet occupation forces to exit the country, now acts as one of Vladimir Putin’s best advocates inside NATO and the European Union.
So sad, in fact, that I have found myself this week signing on to a “Statement of Principles” drawn up by an impromptu gathering, convened at the Bipartisan Policy Center, including former legislators and government officials, Republicans and Democrats and independents, scholars, journalists, and activists who care about the fate of democracy in Europe. As the statement makes clear, we “come together out of alarm that the erosion of democratic principles and weakening of democratic institutions among some of our European allies is putting at risk U.S. peace, security, and prosperity.” We also call on the U.S. Congress to convene hearings on the issue and to work with the Administration “to put in place a comprehensive strategy that dramatically increases diplomatic engagement, development assistance, and security cooperation in support of democracy in transatlantic and NATO countries.”
For such a strategy to succeed, of course, the people of Hungary have to want to get their country back on track toward democratic consolidation. International support can provide useful information, learning and incentives, but we cannot want their democracy more than they do. Elections provide opportunities for a nation to speak to this desire. Let’s see what Hungary says.