This week, the Washington-based think tank Freedom House published its annual Freedom in the World report assessing the state of democracy and freedom in countries around the world. Freedom House assesses countries’ political rights and civil liberties, and categorizes them broadly as “free,” “partly free” and “not free.” The report found a “consistent and ominous” pattern of democracy in retreat across the globe, but its judgment on Hungary was especially notable. Ever since it became a democracy in 1990, Hungary has been categorized as “free.” This year, it was downgraded to the status of “partly free” — along with countries such as Pakistan, Singapore, Ukraine and Zimbabwe.
This is deeply embarrassing for the European Union. States must be democracies to join the E.U., the E.U. Treaties commit members to uphold democracy and freedom, and the E.U. claims that the promotion of democracy is a central aim of its foreign policy. Now, Hungary is the first E.U. member state ever to be designated as “partly free.” Many consider Hungary an electoral autocracy or “competitive authoritarian” regime. As in other such regimes, elections are held, votes are counted and the regime does not jail its opponents. However, the dominant ruling party manipulates elections, skews media coverage, abuses state resources and harasses opponents in ways that practically ensure victory. However, the E.U. is not likely to take any serious action against Hungary. Here’s why.
Hungary’s downgrade was hardly unexpected
Hungary’s democracy has been in trouble for some time. The country’s Freedom House scores fell for five consecutive years before recent actions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government finally tipped Hungary over the edge into the “partly free” category. As this week’s report explained, “Hungary’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to sustained attacks on the country’s democratic institutions by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party, which has used its parliamentary supermajority to impose restrictions on or assert control over the opposition, the media, religious groups, academia, NGOs, the courts, asylum seekers, and the private sector since 2010.” During its years in office, the Orbán regime has managed to consolidate control over the judiciary and nearly all the media, eliminate effective checks on its power, rig the electoral system to its advantage, stifle civil society organizations and even expel the country’s top independent university — the Central European University.
Freedom House is not alone in sounding the alarm. The European Parliament recently issued a damning report on the situation in Hungary and triggered the first stage of a sanctioning procedure against the regime for its violation of the E.U.’s fundamental democratic values. Many leading analysts of the region had already declared that Hungary was no longer a democracy but instead a hybrid or “competitive authoritarian regime.”
But the E.U. is likely to keep pretending nothing’s wrong
The E.U. is unlikely to crack down on the Orbán regime now for the same reason it has failed to do so over the past several years: party politics. Orbán and his Fidesz party are members of the European People’s Party (EPP), the most powerful E.U.-level Europarty, which also counts German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union as a member. Europarties are hugely influential in E.U. politics. They group together national political parties into Pan-European blocs that generally vote together in the European Parliament and cooperate in the European Council. Europarties help determine who becomes president of the European Commission through the peak-candidate (Spitzenkandidat) process.
Orbán’s regime delivers needed votes to the EPP, and in exchange the EPP shields the regime from E.U. sanctions. There has been controversy within the EPP about the party’s support for Orbán. Nevertheless, the party recently selected Orbán’s longtime ally and supporter, Manfred Weber, as its candidate for the commission presidency and chose not to eject Fidesz from the group.
This is not unprecedented
It may seem shocking that the E.U. would allow the emergence of an authoritarian regime in its midst. However, political science suggests we should not be surprised. Scholars of “subnational authoritarianism” have shown that democratic unions often allow authoritarian governments at the state level to persist for decades. As in the E.U.’s case, party politics plays a key role. National parties protect local autocrats who deliver them votes and seats in the national legislature.
The E.U. appears to be trapped in what I’ve termed “authoritarian equilibrium”: E.U. party politics has developed to the point that there are strong incentives for Europarties to protect national autocrats who belong to their blocs. However, European party politics are not developed enough that autocrats’ allies pay a real political price for supporting them or that their E.U.-level opponents can intervene to dislodge them.
E.U. membership stops hybrid regimes like Orbán’s from descending into full-blow authoritarianism like that practiced by the Recep Tayyip Erdogan regime in Turkey or the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia. However, so long as they have powerful party allies and avoid violent, blatantly dictatorial tactics, it appears the E.U. will tolerate authoritarian member governments and even continue to subsidize them generously with E.U. funds.