The talk will address the elements and possible reasons for Hungary’s recent transition from a liberal to an illiberal democratic system, openly following Russia and China as models. After the transition to democracy in 1989-90 Hungary experienced a period of solid liberal democratic consolidation until 2010, when Fidesz with its 2/3 majority in the parliament introduced a new constitutional system eliminating checks and balances, and guarantees of fundamental rights. Even though the transition to democracy was elite-driven, there was large popular support for it as for most Hungarians freedom was a high priority. However, one of the legacies of the mild Hungarian socialism with its toleration of private businesses, relative social security, no unemployment from the 1960s onwards, was that people expected the new democracy to lead to rapid economic growth in order to attain the living standards of neighboring Austria overnight but without having to undertake painful reforms. The failure to achieve this growth led to widespread disappointment and undermined the legitimacy of democratic institutions.
It will be argued that the democratic backsliding in Hungary demonstrates that an institutional framework is a necessary but not sufficient element of successful democratization. Behavioral elements, among them political and constitutional culture, are equally important. What the Hungarian case shows is that mere membership in the European Union is no guarantee of liberal democracy. The lecture will discuss how the EU could stand up against the increasingly illiberal tendencies in other member states too, which threaten its existence as a community of liberal democratic values.
Gábor Halmai is Professor of Law at the Department of European Studies at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. Currently he is a EURIAS Visiting Fellow at the IWM.