With Hungary’s springtime elections, we might finally see the back of Viktor Orbán. But restoration-minded democrats need to tread carefully.
Will Viktor Orbán’s grip on political power in Hungary end with the parliamentary elections in the spring of 2022? Polling is conflicted and a lot can happen between now and April or May, when the elections are expected to take place. Yet Fidesz’s defeat, after more than a decade in government and in spite of considerable efforts at entrenching the party’s position, is now more than a remote possibility—thanks primarily to the decision of major opposition parties to agree on a joint list of candidates and on one leader, Péter Márki-Zay.
What will the change of government mean, however? If it succeeds in the election, the new governing coalition will be extremely broad, featuring anti-Fidesz forces from the once far-right Jobbik to the left-liberal Momentum. Under normal circumstances, such parties and their voters would have little in common. This time around, however, they share not only a desire to keep Orbán out of power but also to address his legacy of abusing democratic norms and principles of rule of law.
Will that be enough? And how exactly should such a reckoning look? For Márki-Zay the answer seems obvious. “We are talking about regime change,” he said about the opposition’s possible victory. “It’s like Nazi crimes cannot be prosecuted under Nazi laws.”
To see Godwin’s Law—the internet adage that posits that every discussion will eventually involve a mention of Hitler—kick in so early in what ought to be a nuanced conversation about Hungary’s future is hardly encouraging. Even if Márki-Zay’s point is not that Orbán is literally Hitler, the commitment to radical change based on the premise that the current regime is fundamentally illegitimate is troubling.
Take the most consequential among the United Opposition’s pledges: to write a new constitution to replace the Orbán-era Fundamental Law. The latter was adopted in 2011 along purely partisan lines and opened the way to Fidesz’s entrenchment and its dominance across public administration, from the prosecutor’s office to the country’s central bank, as well as in the parts of the country’s economy addicted to EU funds.
Even if constitutional reform is in order, Márki-Zay’s bloc cannot reasonably expect to secure a constitutional majority in the legislature to approve it. For obvious reasons, the United Opposition will not be able to rely on Fidesz to participate in good faith in constitutional reform.
Yet, because “everything that Fidesz did in the last 10 years to make his power irreplaceable, to make Orbán undefeatable is invalid,” Márki-Zay suggests approving the new constitution through essentially an extralegal route, by putting it to a referendum, instead of pursuing the normal, constitutionally prescribed procedure for amending the country’s main legal document. “It doesn’t have anything to do with 51% or 67%,” he says. “It’s a fact that [the existing order] is unconstitutional and of course we will have to come up with a new constitution, yes, and approve it by a referendum.”
The impulse to turn the tables on the patronage-based system of government built by Orbán for his own benefit is an understandable one. Even if Fidesz is voted out, numerous party loyalists will continue to enjoy secure appointments in public administration and a degree of control over public funds, while seeking to derail the new government and facilitate Orbán’s eventual return to power.
The opposition is also rightly worried about the risks of Fidesz’ manipulation of the upcoming election. In particular, under the new “voter tourism” legislation, it will be possible to register Hungarian nationals living abroad—particularly in countries such as Romania and Slovakia—to vote in critical swing districts. Likewise, Fidesz officials might intimidate local voters into voting for the party and providing proof (a ballot photo, for example) in order to access public services or keep their employment in the public sector.
There is a case to be made that regime changes require clean breaks, involving new constitutional settlements, as well as purges, “lustrations,” and other acts of “transitional justice.” However, regime changes typically involve a crumbling of legitimacy of the existing political institutions—as in 1989 across Eastern Europe—or a crushing military defeat, as in the case of the Nazis. Securing a narrow parliamentary majority against the background of a bitterly divided electorate does not quite rise to the same level, nor does it confer the requisite political mandate.
Especially if Fidesz’ underhanded practices do not reach the critical mass needed to affect the outcome of the election, and if the country instead sees a calm, orderly transfer of power, the opposition would do well to rethink its ambition to seize the upcoming election as a “regime change”—a framing that echoes Orbán’s own victory in 2010.
Seeking far-reaching constitutional changes instead of policies aimed at taking down the temperature and healing carries risks. First, it devalues the significance of the many violations of democratic norms during Orbán’s years. Those include the partisan nature of the 2011 constitutional reform, as well as the creation and the frequent abuse of “cardinal laws” (constitutional amendments that can be adopted without the previously required two-thirds parliamentary majority), the packing of courts, attacks on free media and on civil society, and Fidesz-friendly electoral reform.
Furthermore, even if driven by good intentions, adopting a new constitution via what seems like an extralegal route, over the heads of more than a third of the country’s electorate, would signal that norm violations are not ending with Orbán. Problematic as it was, the 2011 Fundamental Law came into being in an unimpeachably legal way. Eschewing parliamentary procedure in favor of a plebiscite on the country’s governing document would be an escalation over Orbán’s own power abuses. What arguments would the opposition have left if Fidesz returned to power in, say, 2026 and decided to retaliate with a constitutional referendum or some other brazen power move?
Even from a short-term political perspective, the talk of constitutional reform is a risky strategy. It signals to Fidesz and its voters that the political fight next year might be existential, helping the party coalesce around Orbán. On the side of the United Opposition, it raises the question of substantive agreement, or lack thereof, on what exactly the new constitution should look like.
More fundamentally, however, the opposition’s pledge reveals an illusion that is pervasive not only in Hungary but also in the United States: the notion that authoritarian populism, of which Orbán is a clear-cut and dangerous manifestation, is somehow an aberration that can be contained and kept out of power indefinitely by rewriting the rules of the democratic game. It is, in other words, the same illusion that plagues America’s Left, which has come to see a third of the country as beyond redemption, captured by a racist demagogue. If only new states were brought into the Union, if the Senate filibuster and the Electoral College were discarded, if tight federal controls were imposed on the states’ management of elections, the argument goes, then the country’s Democratic majority would become permanent.
To the contrary, attempts at drastically revising political and constitutional norms in highly polarized societies such as the United States and Hungary risk deepening existing divisions and turning already bitter political struggles into genuinely existential ones. Orbán’s voters, much like Trump’s in America, are not going anywhere; they cannot be treated as populations under foreign occupation, with no input into political rules that affect them.
Instead of upping the ante by creating unrealistic and possibly dangerous expectations, Hungary’s opposition must think about a pitch that is unifying, alongside a workable governing agenda that will bring the pandemic under control, clean up corruption, and stop Hungary’s brain drain. Only with a track record of delivering better policies than their predecessors can Márki-Zay and his colleagues hope to peel away enough voters from Fidesz to be in a position to undo, in a manner that will be seen as legitimate, the dark legacy of the Orbán years. Make no mistake: it is a difficult, and possibly hopeless, task. Yet, in democratic politics, much like in life, there are no shortcuts to any place worth going.
Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
Image: Icons made by Andrejs Kirma from www.flaticon.com
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