The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hungarians go to the polls today. But are voters enough to protect democracy?

People marching against Prime Minister Viktor Orban flash the lights of their mobile phones in Budapest last month. Hungarians will vote Sunday in parliamentary elections. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)
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How does a democracy collapse? We often envision military coups or corrupt politicians stuffing ballot boxes, sending their opponents to prison and declaring martial law.

The story in Hungary shows a far more subtle erosion of democracy — one where politicians took advantage of transitory control of the legislature to rewrite the rules of the political game.

Hungary, where elections are being held Sunday, is an example of how elected politicians can strictly follow the letter of the law and yet manage to tilt the playing field to their benefit. Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his governing Fidesz party implemented a variety of revisions between 2010 and 2014. Many of them, especially the re-engineering of the electoral system, appear highly technical or complex. But these changes nevertheless helped entrench Fidesz in power.

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The story of Hungary’s backslide

Hungary, a member of the European Union since 2004, had been a competitive democracy since the early 1990s. But things began to change when Orban’s party won the 2010 elections, garnering a supermajority that allowed Fidesz to amend the Hungarian constitution at will.

The party passed laws restricting media ownership and content, packing the Constitutional Court with allies and altering Hungary’s complicated electoral process. The meaning and effects of these changes, especially around the procedures for translating the popular vote into parliamentary seats, were not immediately transparent to voters. Experts, however, roundly agreed that the reforms would make it harder for the opposition to challenge Fidesz.

The 2014 elections — the first under the new, Fidesz-written rules — presented a unique opportunity to learn about Hungarian voters. How would they perceive these challenges to democratic competition?  As “politics as normal,” or would they see these reforms as extraordinary efforts to entrench an incumbent in power?

How did Hungarians interpret the reforms?

The stakes were enormous, in Hungary’s case. Social scientists tend to regard alert citizens as bulwarks of democracy, capable of punishing elected leaders who abuse office.

But what if voters cannot reliably fill this role? For example, we know that voters often use party labels as “information short cuts” rather than spending the time to learn all the specifics about a particular policy or candidate. If voters don’t think about the fairness of the electoral rules, independently of their personal partisan commitments, then democracy may be less secure than we normally think.

Testing voter perceptions in Hungary

In a recent paper in the Journal of Comparative Economics, we report the results of research into how Hungarian voters reacted to the Fidesz revisions. Working with a research team and pollsters in Hungary, we embedded a randomized experiment in a survey around the 2014 elections.

We provided our survey respondents with different pieces of simple information about the changes to the electoral rules. Some respondents were told nothing, some were told technical facts of the reforms, and some were briefed with those same facts but in a context that makes clear the reforms’ partisan origins.

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We found large partisan gaps in survey respondents’ perceptions of the reforms and their reactions to the information we presented. Long-term Fidesz voters as well as recent converts gave the revisions a thumbs-up and showed no reaction to the information we presented, regardless of its partisan context.

Voters planning on avoiding Fidesz that election day — long-term non-supporters and more recent defectors — presented a contrasting image. These voters were much more pessimistic about the reforms and became even more so when presented with facts about the revisions in a partisan context. But presenting just the dry, technical facts had no consistent effect on either group’s opinions. It’s worth noting that we found these partisan differences before the election; this is not just another example of losers crying foul.

Many Fidesz supporters displayed a remarkable tolerance for their party’s incremental erosion of democratic competition. Voters for opposition parties (and those who chose to stay home) appeared to rely on standard partisan shortcuts to understand the reforms.

In the end, Fidesz lost votes between 2010 and 2014 — but Orban’s gambit worked. Fidesz still took 67 percent of the parliamentary seats while winning only 44 percent of the party vote. The tilted playing field and the continuing support of Fidesz partisans meant that Orban’s party retained not just control of the government but also the parliamentary supermajority.

Fast forward to Sunday’s vote

Hungarians head to the polls again today under the same rules as in 2014. The opposition remains divided. Orban is reasonably popular, outpolling the opposition. The Fidesz campaign has largely consisted of widespread attacks on George Soros, the Hungarian American billionaire philanthropist. It seems likely that Fidesz will win again — although the party may fall short of another supermajority.

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The Hungarian example shows that the substantial reduction in Fidesz’s electoral support in 2014 was not enough to prevent democratic erosion, even though the elections were free from overt fraud.

Voters by and large perceived this erosion through existing partisan lenses. Those voting for Fidesz were far more likely to think the reforms improved electoral fairness and legitimacy whereas those voting for the challengers thought the opposite and were more prone to partisan framing effects. Strategic politicians can take advantage of voters’ informational constraints and cognitive biases to enact democracy-eroding laws, using the democratic process itself.

As Hungary’s case suggests, for elections to sustain and reflect democratic competition, voters must exist in a system involving a free press, an independent judiciary and an international environment that rewards respect for democratic norms. Put simply, shoring up democracy requires more than just voters and elections.

John Ahlquist is an associate professor at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy and a current fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. 

Nahomi Ichino is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Michigan. 

Jason Wittenberg is an associate professor in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science at UC Berkeley. 

Daniel Ziblatt is professor of government at Harvard University and recently published “How Democracies Die” with Steven Levitsky.