How Can 21st Century Autocrats Be Removed from Power? Lessons from Hungary

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (Photo by EPP | Flickr)


The landslide victory of Hungary’s Fidesz party under Prime Minister Viktor Orban on April 3rd raises new questions on how to stop democratic backsliding.  If even a united opposition alliance and European Union membership are not enough to stop a  democracy-eroding leader from gaining a fourth term in power, is it possible to interrupt the march of autocracy around the globe? Political oppositions in Turkey and Poland are attempting to form similar coalitions for the upcoming elections in 2023 and can learn from Hungary’s experience.


Recent experiences around the globe – from Nicaragua to Turkey to Venezuela – suggest that it is extremely difficult to dislodge well-entrenched backsliding leaders and parties who have embraced anti-democratic rule. Even when becoming vulnerable to the sudden loss of windfall economic profits or exposure to massive malfeasance, for instance, these backsliders are usually able to galvanize nationalism and persuade a significant faction of their followers that they are the virtuous David fighting a nefarious Goliath. If not, they may resort to more conventional autocratic strategies using outright repression by security forces or punish dissenters with long jail sentences through compromised judiciaries, as are the cases in Nicaragua’s crackdown on protestors and jailing of presidential rivals and  Turkey’s ruling last week against the 2013 Gezi protestors.


These experiences suggest that we should not have expected the Hungarian opposition to dislodge Viktor Orban and Fidesz, particularly when the government still retains massive European Union subsidies and steady economic growth. As such, democratic oppositions and international actors must radically rethink their politics and strategies. International actors must call out authoritarianism and offer principled resistance as soon as signs of democratic backsliding occur, and domestic oppositions must work to develop novel strategies and be prepared to take advantage of unexpected shocks making entrenched backsliders vulnerable.


Persistence of Democratic Backsliders

Contemporary backsliders use sophisticated means to entrench their rule under a pseudo-democratic guise.  They usually rely on majorities in parliament to do things like change electoral laws and appoint loyalists to judicial posts. Some with legislative supermajorities attempt to completely rewrite a constitution. They use post-truth politics to spin facts and give a sense of normalcy to their illegal actions and concentration of power. They also use polarizing politics to engineer loyal constituencies who are willing to overlook their transgressions in return for protecting “us” against the evil “them.” That alienated other can be domestic political opposition, immigrants and political refugees, or the collective “West” as a whole, among other scapegoats.


Once elected autocrats have deeply entrenched themselves, they may only be vulnerable when they lose a key resource, such as in an economic crisis or the loss of a charismatic leader. This happened in Venezuela when the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 coincided with a downturn in oil prices, severely undercutting his successor Nicolás Maduro’s ability to continue the distribution of oil revenues.  Faced with widespread rejection and a strengthening political opposition, Maduro was forced to resort to more conventional authoritarian strategies of outright repression through security forces who engaged in violence to close the proverbial town square.


The reasons these well-entrenched backsliders are so difficult to dislodge is not only because they change the rules and assume control of government institutions. More importantly, these backsliders persuade large swaths of the electorate that their continuity in power is vital to the well-being of the country. They do this by labeling their opponents as existential threats and by systematically dominating media space, most often expanding the use of public media to push their own narrative and harassing independent media with taxation or license controls, opening them up to purchase by friends and allies of the government.


The Hungarian Experience

Many of these elements of backsliding have been evident in Hungary since Orban returned to power in 2010. (He previously served as PM from 1998 to 2002). His government changed the constitution in 2012 and continuously changed electoral laws to their own advantage with extreme gerrymandering and other rules – such as extending the terms of government-appointed officials including the chief prosecutor, supreme court president, fiscal council, and national election council. They also outsourced control of public universities, arts, and cultural institutions to private foundations friendly to the government.  During Orban’s 12 years in power, the government systematically dismantled media independence through a complex series of financial and regulatory moves. As a result, Fidesz-affiliated media outlets now dominate nearly 80% of the media market, and one-third of the population receives only government messaging through the expanded public media conglomerate and a commercial conglomerate owned by a close associate of Orban.


When the Russian invasion of Ukraine upended the campaign, Orban swiftly pivoted to a slogan of peace, not war, contrasting with the opposition’s slogan of Europe or Hungarian Putin. The public media repeated Putin’s talking points about the justification for their invasion of Ukraine, and Hungarian opinion polls showed a deep polarization between pro- and anti-Fidesz voters over the justifications for the war – like the U.S. polarization between Republicans and Democrats about the integrity of the 2020 election and the legitimacy of the Biden presidency.


Orban justified his decision to deny the transfer of EU weapons to Ukraine through Hungary or to impose sanctions on Russian oil and gas by promising to keep Hungary out of the war and to protect the supply of oil and gas from Russia. In the end, repeated government propaganda about the risks of rising energy prices and involvement in the war should the opposition win appear to have swayed many voters.


Lessons from Hungary

The gradual nature of democratic backsliding means that international actors and domestic voters are often slow to react. For example, only since the election has a real threat to cut Hungary’s access to EU subsidies under a new rule of law conditionality emerged, a move that might have constrained Hungary’s authoritarian slide if implemented much earlier. Autocrats cooperate internationally, as seen in Orban’s reported vetoing of the EU condemnation of the Turkish Gezi protestor sentencing, or CPAC in the US celebrating Hungarian politicians and planning a CPAC conference in Hungary later this month, following a similar one hosted by Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in 2021. Democracies should likewise cooperate to learn effective strategies to defend democracy and the rule of law.


Domestically, in deeply polarized contexts, each side views the other as a threat to democracy. Backsliders frequently claim they are deepening or reforming democracy to remove an elite stranglehold on power, cultural values, or economic resources.  Opponents view the backsliders as subverting democracy and fundamental rights.  Such polities are unable to build winning coalitions to curb anti-democratic behavior and the erosion of freedoms.


Domestic oppositions, therefore, need to radically rethink strategies to challenge autocratization emerging from democratic backsliding. We lack good international examples, as no contemporary democracy that has eroded to a non-democratic status has yet been able to recover its democracy on a sustainable basis in the 21st century.


True, democratic actors have had success stopping democratic erosion earlier in the process, as illustrated by recent elections defeating backsliding incumbents in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovakia and  Slovenia, or reverting democratic erosion in Ecuador and South Korea. But for entrenched autocratizers, we have only partial and local success stories in countries like Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. In national elections, incumbents in these countries have so far managed to stave off all challenges, relying on control of the narrative, economic resources, and when necessary, outright repression of rivals and dissent. Vulnerabilities will eventually emerge, however, and democratic oppositions should be prepared not only to take advantage when they do, but also to help create such vulnerabilities.


Looking Forward

Opposition parties in Poland and Turkey are deciding on strategy now for elections in 2023.  They can learn from the Hungarian experience the importance not only of uniting in numbers, but also of working to earn credibility both within their broad coalitions and with independent or even incumbent-leaning voters. To do so requires recognizing their own past mistakes, distancing themselves from extremists among their own ranks, and presenting a coherent plan for governance with proposals beyond simply removing an autocratizing party.


Importantly, though, oppositions also need to be creative in finding ways to overcome the myriad obstacles in their path to reach voters.  Innovations such as creating new media channels controlled by municipal governments and using music, humor, and cultural influencers on popular social media platforms, as well as time-tested conventional methods like door-to-door house visits by grassroots activists will be required.


Oppositions can combat the divisive appeals to anger and fear so often used by polarizing incumbents by shifting the axis of politics to other emotions and unifying goals. They can appeal to hope and enthusiasm – shared values rather than exclusionary identities – and highlight concrete policies that promote security and social justice.


In Hungary, the Orban government will face continued rising inflation, a large fiscal deficit, and possible difficulty in accessing Russian oil and gas. Thus, while the election was certainly a blow to the opposition, Orban may for the first time since 2010 be facing a major economic downturn, likely softening his support considerably. If major protests emerge, he may face a choice between resorting to more repressive measures and moving more firmly to Eastern powers like Russia and China, or living within EU constraints on corruption and human rights abuses.


Hungarian opposition parties will need to overcome the temptation to enter an internal blame game or withdraw from politics. They will need to soberly assess the reasons for their own loss of supporters in this election. And above all else, they will need to persist in doing the hard work of building organizational capacity and grassroot support, along with developing credible policy programs, narratives, and leadership. In this way, they can be ready to take advantage when an entrenched autocratizer becomes vulnerable.


Jennifer McCoy

Jennifer McCoy, PhD, is a professor of political science at Georgia State University and Nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  She leads a collaborative research project on the consequences of severe political polarization for democracies around the world, and is currently working on a book on how to overcome polarization.


Murat Somer

Murat Somer is a Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Koç University Istanbul and an expert on democratization and autocratization, social and political polarization, ethnic conflicts and nationalism, and religious and secular politics in Turkey and around the world. His research appeared in books, book volumes, and journals such as Comparative Political Studies and Democratization and he is currently working on a book on how to overcome polarization and democratic erosion.


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