Hungary, Europe, and the shape of things to come

11 April 2018
Main PHOTO/European People's Party
Europe's existential crisis has finally started to TAKE FORM

If Europe dodged a bullet with German elections, it was hit by its ricochet this weekend with Hungarian elections. Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party—along with their particular brand of “illiberal democracy”—won big, handing Orban a two-thirds supermajority in Hungary's parliament. With that supermajority (Fidesz's third consecutive), Orban is free to rewrite the country's constitution in his own image. While an Orban victory was never in doubt, there was an 11th-hour hope that opposition groups would be able to cobble together enough support to deny Orban that all-important supermajority—they failed. Now comes the hard part.
Orban rode to victory this time around on the back of rural voters, who helped contribute to a record 69 percent voter turnout. Given the vitriol that accompanied this campaign season—complete with attacks on the free press, anti-Muslim/anti-immigrant rallying cries and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—the record turnout makes sense. Love him or hate him, Orban is an animating figure that drives people to the polls. But this is no cult of personality—Hungary's shift to the right is real, with the even-further right Jobbik party coming in second place. If the constellation of more-liberal Hungarian opposition parties were fragmented going into this weekend's elections, they're in complete shambles now, with no clear path forward. Orban is free to rule without even the pretense of checks and balances; expect his assault on the independent judiciary to grow more ferocious, as will his attacks on any other independent bodies in the Hungarian government operating outside his direct control. The free press will be less free going forward; civic organizations and NGOs will be hollowed out and suppressed accordingly. Maybe most concerning of all, Fidesz has the power to set the rules of Hungarian politics to the point where every election going forward will be theirs to lose. This is not a temporary setback for Hungarian democracy—it's a generational one.
All this is bad news for the Hungarian people, no matter their personal political orientation. It's also bad news for all the migrants that continue to flee violence from the Middle East and North Africa. But it may be worst news of all for Brussels. While Brexit is sucking up all the headline space, the reality is that it's a much bigger worry for the British than anyone else. As far as Brussels is concerned, there's an orderly process in place, and no matter what happens, the saga is finished by March 29, 2019. Hungary, and the illiberal democracy it represents, is only just starting. Like their Polish counterparts, Hungarian politicians have spent the last few years openly flouting Brussels directives to much political success at home, all while continuing to accept billions in EU funds. There's no reason for them to reverse course—their antagonism has yielded political success at home, and the only real weapon Brussels has to fight this creeping illiberalism is Article 7, leveling sanctions against Hungary and denying them their voting rights. The catch is that the vote has to be unanimous among the EU's remaining members, and Poland will surely veto the move. And as more and more populists come to power across Europe, it becomes harder for Brussels to hold the liberal democratic line.
All of which means that Europe's existential crisis has finally started to take shape. It's not Brexit, it's not a financial crisis, it's not a sclerotic bureaucracy—it's the growing illiberalism within its own borders, protected by the very systems put in place to foster consensus. As anti-establishment politicians across the world have realized, seizing on a host of current problems—legitimate as some of them are—and blaming them ALL on the establishment forces that be is the quickest route to electoral success.
Democracy, by its very nature, is self-correcting: the definition of who is “establishment” changes with whoever happens to be in power. But in order for that to happen, democracy needs time to go through its cycles. It looks like time has finally run out for Hungarian democracy.
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Leon Levy is an analyst in both the Global Macro practice and the Office of the President, where he works directly with Ian Bremmer and Willis Sparks on a variety of global projects.
Leon Levy is an analyst in both the Global Macro practice and the Office of the President, where he works directly with Ian Bremmer and Willis Sparks on a variety of global projects.