Victor Orban is the pariah of Europe. If his autocratic control of Hungary continues for much longer his country may be expelled from the European Union, an unprecedented and devastating move. Why would the EU feel this is necessary? Let me count the ways.
Victor Orban has “ruled” Hungary with an iron fist since 2010. During the past 13 years in power he has systematically eliminated freedom of the press, an independent judiciary and the civil liberties of many of his citizens. He and his regime are being investigated for fraud, corruption and vote tampering by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the European Court of Justice. He and his Fidesz Party have been accused by international observers of rigging elections, including the most recent one in 2022 when he ostensibly won with an incredible 60% of the popular vote. For the past two elections his platform has been a fiercely xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic diatribe of “Hungary for Hungarians.” [i] Most recently, he has refused to offer support for Ukraine or condemn Russia for its unprovoked attack on that democratic regime.
Yet this is the man former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper congratulated on his 2022 electoral victory. This is the man Mr. Harper visited last week and is now calling for “closer ties” between Fidesz and the Conservative Party of Canada.[ii] What on earth is he thinking?
Nor is this an isolated incident. Harper also met last week with Italy’s recently elected prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the first far right party elected in Italy since World War II. This would be the same Meloni who took great pains to explain away the neo-fascist roots of her party, the Brothers of Italy, as the election neared, and who then formed an alliance with two other right-wing party leaders – Matteo Salvini and Sylvio Berlusconi, both of whom were well-known admirers of Vladimir Putin – in order to secure a majority in Italy’s chaotic multi-party electoral system. Although she has subsequently declared lukewarm support for both Ukraine and the EU, she has also moved Italy further right than ever before, with particularly controversial approaches to LGBTQ issues and refugees. Like Orban, Meloni’s government is now stirring up public anxiety over what it has termed “ethnic replacement” and introduced legislation to sharply narrow the grounds for claiming asylum. [iii] Meloni has also praised British PM Rishi Sunak’s plan to transport asylum seekers arriving in Britain to Rwanda, a plan that was subsequently ruled illegal by Britain’s top court. While Italy is hardly in the same boat as Hungary, there is clearly little reason to emulate the ideas of its governing party.
Indeed. the idea that Canada’s Conservative Party should form closer bonds with either the Hungarian or Italian governing parties is not only ridiculous but dangerous. And it begs the question of who will be next to receive the blessing of Mr. Harper and his International Democrat Union, the organization of which he is the president. Far from being models of liberal democracy, these countries are classic examples of democracies that either have (Hungary) or are in danger of (Italy) sliding into what is increasingly being termed “illiberal democracy.”
In a seminal article published in 1997, political scientist Fareed Zakaria coined the term “illiberal democracy” to describe this paradoxical phenomenon.[iv] In essence he argued that the electoral component of democracy in such regimes has been separated from other essential aspects of liberal democracy, including respect for civil liberties and constitutional government. His conclusion has been reinforced by the observations of countless other scholars, who have variously termed the perverse outcome “electoral authoritarianism”[v] or “soft authoritarianism”.[vi] Whatever the term, they all agree that the liberal values underpinning western democracies are being trampled beneath the feet of this new brand of illiberal leader.
How is this possible? Do citizens not object? A good part of the answer appears to be by moving slowly and gradually. Other academic studies of this phenomenon (such as Sajo’s Ruling by Cheating and Guriev and Treisman’s Spin Dictators) have stressed that the dismantling of many liberal elements of these democracies has also taken place by stealth, or without citizens apparently understanding what is actually happening.
Liberal democracies require free and fair elections offering citizens a real choice between two or more political parties. But they also require much more. Majority rule must be tempered by minority rights. The power of governments must be tempered by constitutional limitations and the existence of an independent judiciary. Citizens must have the right to free speech and freedom of assembly, and access to accurate information provided by a free press. In short, liberal democracies require the existence of both free elections and free citizens.
Illiberal democracies do not have “free” elections because the electoral process has been rigged or manipulated and the independent media that would provide accurate information have been muzzled or eliminated. Nor do their citizens enjoy many standard civil liberties such as freedom of speech or association, and minorities may also be deprived of equality rights. In addition, both the constitution and the judiciary in these illiberal democracies have been weakened or rendered impotent
As noted British historian and political commentator Timothy Garton Ash has warned, the emergence of illiberal democracies in much of central and eastern Europe, and notably Hungary, should be a serious concern for liberal democracies everywhere. Stephen Harper cannot possibly fail to know this. Even more ominous, when asked whether the Conservative Party of Canada supported Mr. Harper’s call for closer ties with the Orban regime, no one from the party headquarters, or the leader’s office, responded. Should we assume they agree with him?
[iii] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/italy-narrows-asylum-rights-new-clampdown-immigration-2023-04-20/ and https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12021267/Italys-far-right-leader-Giorgia-Meloni-praises-Rishi-Sunaks-work-tackling-illegal-migration.html
[v] Neil DeVotta. “From Civil War to Soft Authoritarianism”. Global Change,Peace and Security. 22(3) 331-343.
[vi] Andreas Schedler. Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition. (New York: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2006)