Requiem for a democracy: the European Union and Orbán’s Hungary

The Damocles sword of Article 7 action has shown some success in tempering the Polish government’s illiberal impulses. The EU should now consider dangling it over Hungary too

Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán secured his third consecutive mandate in office on 8 April. The campaign was dominated by Orbán’s ultra-nationalistic and conservative anti-immigration rhetoric and an opposition determined to take on the prime minister’s power but which nevertheless proved hapless in the face of stacked odds.

Orbán was re-elected with the help of a highly restricted media space and a deeply unfair electoral system. Despite only winning roughly 48 percent of the popular vote, Orbán’s party will enjoy 67 percent of seats in parliament, thanks to Hungary’s peculiar electoral system, the most disproportionate in Europe. More than 100,000 more Hungarians voted against Orbán on the party list vote than for his party, Fidesz. Yet he will now enjoy a supermajority in parliament, which will allow him to amend the constitution without cooperation from the opposition. 

Few believe the campaign was fair. An election monitoring team sent by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe concluded that: “a pervasive overlap between state and ruling party resources … intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric, media bias and opaque campaign financing constricted the space for genuine political debate.” 

These results are a testament to the dominant and invasive political apparatus Orbán has built since entering Hungarian politics. He has removed checks and balances, appointed loyalists to every major government institution, and used his friends to buy up opposition media outlets. But it is money that is the glue of his regime. In an economy that has come to resemble Russia’s, the market is dominated by oligarchs friendly to the prime minister; Orbán single-handedly picks winners and losers.

Orbán will now take steps to dismantle the remnants of checks and balances, clamp down on civil society, and further enrich his family and a close cadre of oligarchs


Supporters of Fidesz are lavished with public contracts, advertising money, and subsidies. Those friendly to Orbán amass fortunes, including his childhood friend Lőrinc Meszáros, a one-time pipe fitter who inexplicably became one of the richest people in Hungary after winning a string of government contracts. On the other side, opponents are targeted with special taxes, fines, and stifling regulations. 

Orbán has already announced his intention to expand his authoritarian political system in his fourth term and seek “moral, political, and legal amends” against the opposition. He will now take steps to dismantle the remnants of checks and balances, clamp down on civil society, and further enrich his family and a close cadre of oligarchs. Civil society activists are already looking for ways to safeguard themselves and their families.

As policymakers in Brussels and Washington contemplate how to prevent Orbán from further chipping away at Hungary’s democracy they should look at how to isolate the prime minister and weaken his grip on the country’s institutions.

This starts by targeting Orbán’s oligarchs and financial supporters. Brussels should use the upcoming negotiations on the European Union’s post-2020 tranche of aid to member states to incentivise Orbán to clean up his act. EU aid accounts for up to 6 percent of Hungarian GDP but predominantly benefits a small circle of oligarchs. An anti-corruption group found that 62 percent of EU-funded projects in Hungary from 2009-2015 were awarded without public consultation – that is, without competition, and often to businessmen tied to Orbán. The EU’s anti-corruption agency, OLAF, should double down on investigating the misuse of EU funds and publicise the results of its findings.  

Brussels should also more vigorously pursue Article 7 proceedings, the EU’s enforcement mechanism that, if approved by all member states, would strip Hungary of its voting rights. The European Commission’s threat of advancing Article 7 proceedings against Poland has moderated that government’s stance on the judiciary and could have a similar effect in Hungary. 

The United States, for its part, should step up its investigations into Hungarian officials tied to sanctioned businessmen and terrorist networks and enact individual sanctions on cronies of the Orbán regime as it began to do in 2014. Individual Sanctions against key government and business figures would go a long way in making it clear that Orbán cannot rule and steal with impunity.

This is not the time to abandon Hungarians. Most Hungarians voted to end Orbán’s corrupt regime and are determined to live in a prosperous, democratic, and free member of the EU. We must respond to their calls and take steps to safeguard what remains of the country’s eroding democracy and keep hope alive for genuine change. 

David Koranyi is a European Council on Foreign Relations council member and a senior fellow for energy diplomacy at the Atlantic Council. He formerly served as under-secretary of state and chief foreign policy and national security adviser to Hungarian prime minister Gordon Bajnai.

Chris Maroshegyi is a director at Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business strategy firm. He was a Fulbright scholar in Budapest, Hungary. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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