The Rule of Law in Hungary and The Rise of “Soft Authoritarianism”  

Marcell Balogh, Publications Executive of UCL JLAP

The European Union often asserts itself as the leader of a global system for human rights and the rule of law. As one of the largest donors of humanitarian aid and one of the most democratic regions in the world, this view is perhaps justified at first glance. There are, however, significant threats to the international credibility of the European Union as a global leader. As the popular maxim goes, ‘a chain is only as strong as its weakest link’. Similarly, the European Union requires a certain degree of socio-political cohesion in order to achieve its regional and global objectives. This unity, however, is threatened by the increasingly autocratic government of Hungary displaying bold violations of the rule of law and the protection of human rights within Europe. If not adequately addressed, this could have a detrimental impact on the rule of law both within the EU and on a global scale.  

As a former Eastern Bloc country, Hungary joined the EU one and a half decades after the fall of the Soviet Union in the biggest expansion of the EU to-date. This expansion, once hailed as the miracle of freedom, is tainted by the rise of ‘soft authoritarianism’ in Hungary which may be considered the greatest failure of European politics in the 21st century.  

Since the right-wing party Fidesz under Orbán Viktor won a two-thirds majority in the 2010 Hungarian parliamentary elections in the wake of a corruption scandal in the government, any political opposition has been limited by altering the constitution. Alongside what some have regarded as the destruction of the foundations of democracy, the government has pursued a legislative agenda that disregarded the rule of law and the protection of human rights and has been under criticism for its uncanny resemblance to fascist policies. This bold display of authoritarian governance in the heart of Europe was further enabled by the lacklustre, ‘hands-off’ approach of the European Commission to the enforcement of the rule of law in Hungary.  

The lack of political constraints on Orbán allowed the government to end legal gender recognition for transgender and intersex people and to amend Hungary’s constitution to define marriage as a heterosexual union and to functionally prohibit same-sex adoption. The government’s utter disdain for the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals became even more evident when the Hungarian legislature passed legislation criminalising any content that portrays or promotes gender change or homosexuality to children, which was accused by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) as conflating LGBTQ+ rights with paedophilia. The de facto censorship of LGBTQ+ rights under this law means that a children’s book depicting LGBTQ+ characters was required to be sold in ‘closed wrapping’. Furthermore, in a move that the HRW described as a “leap backwards in protecting women”, the ruling party blocked the ratification of a regional treaty on violence against women, which government ministers have argued undermines ‘traditional family values’.  

These direct attacks on human rights were enabled by the governing parties two-thirds supermajority in Parliament. Although a reasonable observer may, prima facie, conclude that the Hungarian government must be popular amongst voters, the reality of the situation is far more sinister. The ruling party’s popularity is the result of extensive gerrymandering, voter buying and suppression, near absolute media control and serious amendments to the constitution that enable the biggest party to win ever bigger.  

While the 2018 Hungarian general elections were argued by Gábor Tóka, an election expert at the Central European University in Budapest, to have exhibited “a string of anomalies in the Hungarian election which, put together, call into question the supermajority it gave to Fidesz [the ruling party],” this careful rhetoric was largely abandoned by 2022. After the Hungarian general elections this year, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has essentially confirmed that the elections “fell short of international standards in key aspects”.  

Orbán’s extensive control over Hungary’s media landscape highlights the extent of these shortcomings. Major broadcasting outlets continuously provided a platform for the government’s campaign, while the opposing coalition’s campaign was limited to five minutes on public television. This means that the political ‘playing field’ is severely tilted against opposition parties, who also did not have access to the extensive government funds that the ruling party could utilise. Albeit in unconfirmed reports, polling station officials and opposition delegates have claimed that, in some parts of the country, people’s votes were bought by the ruling party, while in other regions certain minorities were instructed to vote for the ruling party in order to keep their welfare benefits. 

The government has also violated international standards by conducting extensive gerrymandering in the last decade, i.e., redrawing the boundaries of voter constituencies to gain an advantage in elections, and amending the constitution to transfer “any vote not strictly needed to elect a candidate in a constituency” (Scheppele, 2022) to the winning party list, making the system more favourable towards the already popular ruling party.  

In a move that marks a significant shift in the European Commission’s stance on the rule of law abuses in Hungary, the European Commission has now referred Hungary to the Court of Justice of the EU amid concerns that the censorship laws on LGBTQ+ content violate multiple principles under the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union (CFR). While the impact of these efforts remains to be seen, it is arguably a sizeable leap in the right direction.  

In relation to the rule of law violations in Hungary, it is particularly difficult to imagine how the European Commission stood idly by and allowed the inception of soft authoritarianism in Europe. This “fail[ure] to realize the strategic challenge posed by autocratizing member states to the internal integrity and external perception of the EU” (Hegedus, 2022) is a massive threat to international law and has been described as “a mockery of the bloc’s commitment to democracy, human rights, and the rule of law” (Islam, 2022). 

If the European Union aims to be seen as the global leader in the protection of democracy and human rights, it cannot allow its credibility to be undermined by the failure to address the rule of law violations within its borders. As such, it is a welcome development that the European Commission is planning to freeze €13bn in funding to Hungary over this democratic deficit, as Orbán relies on these funds for much of his political survival in the wake of the Covid pandemic and the financial crisis that decimated much of Hungary’s economy. Only time will tell whether this measure will impose practical constraints on the Hungarian government, but as leveraging EU funding may be the best tool available in this attempt to limit the advancement of soft authoritarianism and human rights violations in Hungary, it is perhaps time to weaponize it to ensure the integrity of the European Union.  

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