Thu, Apr 19, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Orban is the most consequential leader in the autocratic spring

The Hungarian prime minister might rule the smallest state among authoritarian leaders, but the democratic West should be wary of the legitimately elected radical

By John Lloyd  /  Reuters

It has been a sweet spring for autocrats. Three of them — in power in China, Egypt and Russia — are outside of what is commonly thought of as the democratic West, but the fourth, in Hungary, is in the West and the EU.

That the newly re-elected Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban should fit into that company underscores the power of this authoritarian trend.

The greatest of this group, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), was acclaimed by the Chinese National People’s Congress as president for life in the second week of last month. The following week, Russian President Vladimir Putin received his fourth mandate as president, with a bigger vote than before.

Hardly had this month begun when it was announced that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi had won 97 percent of the votes to be re-elected, and last week, Orban won his third straight mandate for the leadership of Hungary, with a victory still more crushing over the other parties than before.

In China there was no opposition. Nor was there in Egypt, since the one other candidate was widely seen as someone pushed onto the ballot to give a veneer of choice.

In Russia, there was some opposition, including from a communist-backed mini-oligarch and a liberal young TV star who is the daughter of Putin’s former mentor. However, the radical opponent, Alexei Navalny, was disqualified even though he would not have won, since he was banned from the state-controlled media and is little known in much of the country.

Orban, by contrast, has some right to call himself democratically elected. There were real parties, to his left and right, who wanted to win and who believed they might at least substantially reduce his grip on parliament.

However, Orban’s Fidesz party won the two-thirds majority that allows it to carry on making regular changes to the constitution.

The opposition parties did not succeed in clipping the leader’s wings and several leaders resigned, unable to face Orban’s granite-like block on political change again.

Orban, 54, can be bracketed with the other autocrats for two reasons:

First, he has prepared the ground for the exercise of a power less trammeled than in other democracies, saying in 2014 that governments which were “not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies and perhaps not even democracies” could be most successful and competitive.

This frank embrace of systems which privilege success — however defined — over the rules of the democratic game opens up the vista for future Fidesz governments to reduce still further the narrowed scope of Hungarian democratic life and civil society in pursuit of further economic growth.

Second, as Hungarian political scientist Andras Biro-Nagy wrote after the election, Orban’s victory stems from three factors: “the systematic weakening of Hungary’s democratic system, the success of Orban’s anti-immigration platform and the fragmentation of the opposition.”

That weakening includes discrimination against opposition media, mainly by depriving them of state advertising and ensuring most TV channels are in the hands of the state or government allies.

After the election, monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that the polls had been “characterized by a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources, undermining contestants’ ability to compete on an equal basis.”

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