Orbán and the Self-Asphyxiation of Democracy

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It came as no big surprise that Orbán has used COVID-19 to dismantle further the checks and balances that are an integral part of any functioning democracy. On 30 March 2020, with the authorization of the Hungarian Parliament (in which the government has a large majority), an Act was passed, which effectively gave the government sweeping powers to rule by decree. It is not unusual in times of emergency for the executive branch to revert to extraordinary measures, though in this case they have a Hungarian twist: the new law is of indeterminate duration (though Parliament can end it when it sees fit – in the case of Hungary de facto when the Executive sees fit) and the powers granted exceed those necessary to deal with COVID.

More ominously, alongside that enabling law, the Penal Code was amended, permanently, to introduce two new crimes – punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment for any activity that interferes with the government in the discharge of its emergency responsibility and for any publication ‘distorting the truth’ that might alarm a large number of persons – which I imagine could mean any publication that contradicts the government narrative. I consider this part of the package far, far more pernicious.

There have also been reports of government changes to the education package in schools to bring it into conformity with the government view of Hungarian history and ‘appropriate’ Hungarian authors.

Hungary has deepened further its ‘illiberal democracy’ – a juicy oxymoron.

Not unexpectedly, the social networks were full of (justified) fire and brimstone, though the official reaction of the European Union by the President of the Commission was, in the eyes of many, rather ‘gentle’. (The Christian Democrat EU family, which in this case strikes me as neither Christian nor Democrat, really needs to do some soul searching.)

But a characteristic of the popular social network was, again not unexpectedly, like a commercial jingle: Orbán here, Orbán there, Orbán, Orbán everywhere.

And herein lies what I consider a real problem, both in analysing the problem and reacting to it. In the name of democracy, we forget the basics of the democratic ontology.

First, there is an ironic paradox in this last act. Of all countries, the one that least of all needs emergency powers to facilitate the functioning of its Executive is Hungary. The systematic dismantling of the substance of liberal democracy, though carefully if entirely artificially sticking to the form (that’s the strategy and tactic) means that already before the Act, the executive branch had a far freer hand – in fact a totally free hand – than most other governments. And these last measures are not the most grave in the process – the earlier de facto emasculation of an independent judiciary, for example, was a far weightier assault.

The real point, however, is that by saying again and again Orbán, Orbán, Orbán (and make no mistake, he is vile), we fall into the trap that reflects a widespread malaise in our general democratic discourse of ‘deresponsiblizing’ the People, the nation, the electorate. Orbán has been clear and transparent – he declares openly, to the world and his electorate, that he wants an ‘Illiberal Democracy’ (to repeat, an oxymoron in my vocabulary). He, and those to his right, were elected with a significant majority and, hugely significantly, were re-elected even after the reality of his regime was there to be seen by all and sundry. We call him a dictator. That is, paradoxically, comforting; the classical image that Dictator and Dictatorship conjures is one of 10 million Hungarians suffering under a repressive regime with all the attendant paraphernalia: the knock on the door in the middle of the night, disappearances, torture, gulags, etc. This is not the case in Hungary. Mercifully not even close. But it is precisely because he is no Franco, he is no Pol Pot, he is no Ceausescu; this is not the Greek colonels or the Argentinian generals; there is no Securitate or Tonton Macoute and the like, which makes the new phenomenon, in the heart of Europe, in the European Union, so demoralizing.

This is not a regime about which it can be said that the free will of ‘the people’ has been repressed. Even though the information and deliberative processes have been perverted, no serious observer could deny that he (and those to his right) enjoy widespread and deep support from a significant majority of the electorate. The Parliament, with his constitutional majority, is a more or less accurate and true reflection of the popular will. The majority of MPs who voted for these and previous acts, and the President who signed them, are expressing the collective will of a majority of the Hungarian people.

All the attempts to avoid this incredibly uncomfortable truth – they don’t understand, the media is controlled etc. – falls into the trap of that otiose Marxist trope of False Consciousness, a trope that expresses both arrogance and disrespect. Those among the Hungarian people who voted for him – a substantial majority – understand perfectly well, just as you and I do, what he is about, what his worldview is, and they approve of it.

Now, we all know, or should know, the difference between individual guilt, which is indeed individual, and collective responsibility that a society has to assume, admirably articulated in the recent 8 May speech of the President of Germany. Laudably and with utmost integrity, like several of his predecessors, he did not resort to the ‘Hitler, Hitler, not us the Germans’ obfuscation.

Yes, there was a not insignificant minority that voted against Orbán. And one should do everything in one’s power to support them. But democracy also means collective responsibility. I observed the same with Bush over Iraq. Bush, Bush, Bush. But it was not simply Bush, it was the American people who voted for him (twice – thus retroactively approving of his policies) and a Congress that also overwhelmingly approved his actions, ex ante and ex post. Responsibility for Iraq rests as much with the American people as it does with Bush. There are endless similar examples – choose your favourite. If Trump is re-elected in November, there will be no excuses.

Why, then, is it all the time Orbán, Orbán, Orbán, and not pointing the finger also at those responsible for Orbán? Why do we refuse to acknowledge that Orbán enjoys majoritarian legitimacy, albeit in a state that has ceased to conform to our normal notions of liberal democracy?

There are, to my mind, several reasons.

The first is that we operate under the false assumption that if it is democratic it is okay. It is good. How false. If it is not democratic it is certainly bad. As a technology of governance obviously, with all its flaws, we consider democracy indispensable. But the opposite is not necessarily true. A democracy of evil people will be an evil democracy. A democracy of (socially) unjust or uncaring or indecent people will be a socially unjust, uncaring and indecent democracy. To point the finger and condemn those who, if we believe in democracy, should be the first and last to be held responsible – those who elected and re-elected Orbán – is not to show disrespect to democracy, it is the opposite, it is to show respect for democracy. If we do not, we actually disrespect democracy.

The second is that we shy away from any statement that inculpates ‘people’ – i.e., not those in power. We always think of ‘people’ as entitled to rights and benefits, and all other good things. We are not in the habit of holding them responsible. But in democracy they, we, are. We shy away from collective responsibility, but the essence of democracy is collective responsibility. Democracy is not only for the people; it is also by the people.

And as I noted above, there is a difference between individual guilt, for which individuals should be judged on an individual basis, and collective responsibility of the demos which constitutes the democracy – provided their will was freely given in reasonably free elections.

And there is a third reason. ‘Orbánizing’ the phenomenon and infantilizing the people who vote for him in droves serves as an exculpating device for us. It obviates the need to do some serious soul searching regarding the failures of our liberal democracy to which millions of Europeans across the continent turned their back. When we keep parroting Orbán, Le Pen, Salvini and other fellow travellers, we do not need to ask where we went wrong and can continue to bask in our sanctimonious self-righteousness. This should not be read as any kind of justification for ‘illiberal democracy’. But we cannot remain complacent when so many in so many of our Member States seem to be turning their back to the European construct and to the basics of liberal democracy.

Thus, to point a finger not only at Orbán and his likes but at the people who freely put him there and endorsed his programmes through their votes would impose on us, too, the same moral imperative of democratic responsibility – to reintroduce us to a more honest form of republican democracy, a form to which we have become less and less accustomed.

So, let’s reserve the appellation Dictator to the likes of Pol Pot or Franco. The last instalment in the Hungarian saga is another drop in that poisonous chalice. But this is not a military coup d’état. And this is not rule by terror. This is an act of collective democratic self-asphyxiation, of willed action, which could have been stopped at the ballot box. Let us call it as it is, and this call makes the Hungarian situation ever more disconcerting: a vile leader supported by a significant majority of his subjects.

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Hoffmann Tamás says

August 5, 2020

Dear Prof. Weiler,

While I definitely agree with most of what you say, it must be pointed out that the enabling law has already been withdrawn - effective 20 June.

Moreover, as for the crime of "Scaremongering", that had already existed in Hungarian criminal code for decades, so it is definitely not a new crime - and certainly not two. The Hungarian government introduced the new underlying offence of "hindering the effectiveness of defence during the state of emergency", which is undubitably a vague category and introduced harsher sanctions for spreading false information.

While I don't think that really affects the gist of your argument, I had to add this for the sake of factual accuracy.