Updated Mar 29, 2018
Expert Voices

Hungarian election a hobbled referendum on authoritarianism

A poster featuring Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban hangs prior to the upcoming Hungarian parliamentary elections on April 8, on March 17, 2018 in Budapest, Hungary.

A poster in Budapest featuring Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photo: Adam Berry via Getty Images

Hungary will hold parliamentary elections on April 8. If Fidesz, the ruling party, wins as expected, it would be the first time since the country's transition to liberal democracy in 1989 that a party received a third governmental mandate.

Why it matters: Since Prime Minister Viktor Orbán came to power in 2010, Hungary has moved progressively toward authoritarian rule. A decisive victory would embolden his party to commandeer the remaining independent branches of government — the judiciary and local municipalities — and to further clamp down on the civic and political opposition.

The background: Consolidation of power has been a core element of the System of National Cooperation, the name Orbán gave his regime after Fidesz’s 2010 victory, which he hailed as a "revolution" comparable to the fall of communism.

Fidesz has since seized control of political institutions, strengthened the economic positions of servile oligarchs, led a culture war against putative internal and external enemies and undermined basic civic rights. The party has also engaged in electoral foul play, deploying the secret services to gather information on civic activists, imposing financial penalties on opposition parties, refusing policy debates and portraying all of its opponents as puppets of George Soros.

Because of the intricacies of Hungary's electoral system, an opposition victory is nearly impossible without cooperation between rival parties. In the absence of a coordinated effort to withdraw candidates — an unlikely prospect — only a high turnout (around 70%) could ensure a weak Fidesz victory, which in turn could galvanize support for an opposition challenge in 2022.

The bottom line: Although Fidesz is expected to win, a strong showing by its opponents could begin to stem the tide of authoritarianism in Hungary.

Kristóf Szombati is the Istvan Deak Visiting Professor of Political Science at Columbia University.

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