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If you ever want to study a perfect example of how a traditional liberal democracy can backslide, look no further than Hungary and its Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. < Remember, the word "liberal" is not used here as it's often used to describe someone's political positions in American politics.  A liberal democracy refers to a representative democracy that protects individual liberty through established rule of law.  On the other hand, an illiberal democracy places no (or very few) limits on the power of elected representatives. >


First, it's important to make clear that Orbán is an authoritarian leader (one who favors strict obedience to authority over personal freedom) that champions autocracy (a government led by one person who has absolute power).  For years, Orbán has methodically shifted Hungary away from the traditions of liberal democracy by embracing far-right, nativist politics - effectively shutting down immigration; at once bribing and threatening the media; stacking the judiciary with close allies; and sabotaging free and fair elections through aggressive gerrymandering.

Naturally, Orbán wraps his populism in national sovereignty and antisemitic Christian identity while, at the same time, wages fierce culture wars against everything from multiculturalism to LGBTQ rights.  He has worked to make the educational system in Hungary more “patriotic” - as defined by him - and spies on journalists and dissidents.

The scariest tool Orbán and his Fidesz party has used to centralize power for themselves is to place Hungary's three branches of government - executive, legislative and judicial - firmly under Fidesz’s control.  Orbán calls this a “system of national co-operation,” probably because it's less terrifying than saying what it really is - a fully illiberal regime.

Freedom House – a U.S. government-funded nonprofit organization that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights – put it this way:

"Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government in Hungary has dropped any pretense of respecting democratic institutions. After centralizing power, tilting the electoral playing field, taking over much of the media, and harassing critical civil society organizations since 2010, Orbán moved during 2019 to consolidate control over new areas of public life, including education and the arts. The 2020 adoption of an emergency law that allows the government to rule by decree indefinitely has further exposed the undemocratic character of Orbán’s regime. Hungary’s decline has been the most precipitous ever tracked in Nations in Transit; it was one of the three democratic frontrunners as of 2005, but in 2020 it became the first country to descend by two regime categories and leave the group of democracies entirely."  Read the report here.

Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) measures democracy by assessing five high-level principles of democracy: electoral, liberal, participatory, deliberative, and egalitarian.  In 2018, V-Dem removed Hungary's status as a democracy altogether.

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