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Popularity =/= Democracy | Insight

Viktor Orban “won” another election in Hungary, but that doesn’t erase the damage he’s done to democracy.

The Briefing: Hungarian national elections.

  • The united opposition fails
    • Viktor Orbán and his right-populist Fidesz Party have secured a fourth term in power in elections that took place on April 2nd
    • That's despite the left, liberals, and center-right joining forces in opposition
    • The opposition leader even lost the seat he was running for
  • Breakdown of the results
    • Fidesz won 54% of the popular vote but 68% of parliamentary seats
    • It's the fourth time in a row that Fidesz has won a legislative supermajority—despite never winning more than 54% of the popular vote
  • The international reaction
    • Orbán has studiously avoided taking a side regarding the war in Ukraine
    • As usual, that's led to frustration for EU member states with the frequently-contrarian leadership in Budapest
    • Liberals in the United States call Orbán a pseudo-dictator and his election victory an unfair sham
    • Conservatives claim that Orbán's clear popular support vindicates the win

The Big Question: Was Hungary’s election illegitimate?

As Michael Brendan Dougherty correctly notes in a column for the conservative National Review, politics in Hungary have become a kind of proxy for political conflicts between liberals and conservatives in the United States. Liberals look at Hungary under Viktor Orbán and see a political system in which the electoral rules are written in favor of the ruling party and the independent press is dwindling in the face of increasingly state-controlled or -aligned media. They see anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ policies and argue that fundamental liberal and human rights are being trampled upon. Conservatives, by contrast, see Hungarian social policies as in line with their own visions, and tend to skate over the tendencies liberals see as anti-democratic.

One problem for the liberal accusation that Hungary is anti-democratic is that Orbán both won a majority of the popular vote and saw his support increase in the 2022 elections. There’s no evidence that there was ballot-tampering or any other kind of fraud, and it’s not expected that any such evidence will emerge. In other words, it’s likely that 54% of Hungarian voters did indeed check the box for Fidesz last week.

But even though Orbán won a comfortable popular majority, and did so without any kind of vote-rigging or same-day fraud, does that mean that the results of the election were truly democratic?

The Theory: Back to basics.

There are a few basic tests that we can apply to see if, having won a genuine majority of the vote, the Hungarian elections fall under the categories of “free” and “fair.” Here I’m drawing on some foundational democratic theory, namely that of the political scientist Robert Dahl in his books Polyarchy and A Preface to Democratic Theory.

In both books, Dahl argues that voters in a country need to have access to quality information in order to make properly informed decisions about which person or party to vote for in order for that country to qualify as a democracy (or a polyarchy, as Dahl calls it). If, for example, the ruling party controls the flow of information, a majority of voters could well be duped rather than consenting.

Very quickly we can say that Hungary under Fidesz fails this test. The party-controlled state, along with its close allies in the business community, have gobbled up most independent media. The state has purchased advertisements on pro-government outlets, flushing them with cash and showing transparent favoritism, while starving critical ones. An organization of European journalists cites research claiming that “80 percent of the market for political and public affairs news is ‘financed by sources decided by the ruling party’.”

Another test that Dahl’s work offers us is whether or not citizens expressing their preferences are considered equals. That’s another way of articulating the classic democratic phrase “one person, one vote.” Hungary’s electoral system again reveals an obvious failure of this test. Because half of the parliament is selected through winner-take-all electoral districts, the results can be wildly disproportionate. Fidesz won nearly 90% of the district seats, despite winning just over half of the popular vote. It would be a major stretch of Dahl’s standard to claim that the citizens who voted for the opposition coalition in those districts had their voices considered equally, especially because the districts are drawn to favor Fidesz.

Finally, we can use a concept of Dahl’s called “interchangeability”—not just whether an individual or party got majority support but whether it would still win an election even with minority support. One Hungarian political scientist claimed that the opposition coalition would have needed to win by at least three percent of the popular vote to get a majority of parliamentary seats. In other words, even if Fidesz didn’t secure a majority of the vote, Hungary’s institutions would favor them to hold onto power.

When you add it all up, Orbán’s defenders come away looking a bit silly. Anytime there’s a massively distorted media environment, citizens can’t freely decide who to vote for. That alone should be enough to say that the election wasn’t fully free or fair. But the disproportionate parliamentary result, which allows Fidesz to manipulate the Hungarian constitution at will, lacks a proportionate popular mandate. This has been the case for the entire twelve years of Fidesz rule, and this is why one could argue that not a single one of Fidesz’s constitutional amendments has actual democratic legitimacy.

But it’s also fair to acknowledge, as Dougherty does, that Hungary is indeed a conservative country. All of the major prime ministerial candidates were some flavor of right-wing, including the leader of the coalition. A referendum containing four questions on LGBTQ issues received north of 90% support for conservative positions, although due to rules about the proportion of registered voters required to render a referendum “valid,” all four questions failed.

In other words, Orbán, who has pursued an aggressively conservative agenda, isn’t popular merely because he exercises undue influence on state media, or because of the structure of Hungary’s electoral system. What that means is that foreign liberal critics need to be nuanced in their critiques of the Hungarian political system. Authoritarians can indeed be popular, even if the conditions that lead to their popularity violate basic liberal and democratic principles. Being able to analyze and disentangle how authoritarianism can coexist with voter approval—even if it is ultimately the result of deliberate distortions by the ruling party—is an absolute necessity in understanding why, how, and when democracies like Hungary fail.

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Check out the rest of our coverage of Hungary:

Mr. Carlson Goes to Budapest | Insight
Tucker Carlson tries to pass off Viktor Orbán’s pernicious dismantling of Hungarian democracy as an epitome of freedom worth imitating.
Backsliding in Budapest | Bird’s Eye
Join the editors as they discuss backsliding in Hungary. What are the precise mechanism’s used to undermine rule of law and popular government?

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