On March 9, 2023, the ISP held a debate with Zsuzsanna Szelényi (CEU Democracy Institute) on the occasion of the premiere of her latest book Tainted Democracy. Viktor Orbán and the Subversion of Hungary, which portrays the history of Hungary's revolutionary path towards autocracy under the leadership of Viktor Orbán.
Her co-discussant was Professor Radosław Markowski (SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities) and the event was moderated by Karolina Zbytniewska (EURACTIV.pl). The recording of the debate is available below.
Contemporary Hungary, which until the early 2000s was a leader in the liberal-democratic trends of Central and Eastern Europe, under the Viktor Orbán’s rule underwent a complete transformation of the political and social system. The ongoing legal and political transformation, based on unquestionable leadership and populist references to the "will of the people", has made Hungary the leader in the rankings of democracy backsliding. Considering the fact that this country is often mentioned together with Poland as an example of a shift from European values, it is worth considering how such a revolution was possible within a functioning democracy.
It is important to emphasize that such a colossal transformation of the country did not result only from the concentration of power in the hands of an individual or one party, but from the entire system of legal changes securing the new structure and the ruling camp. What turned out to be crucial for setting a new direction for Hungary's development was a well-thought-out strategy of targeting and transforming the key areas of the state's functioning. Subordinating the Constitutional Court of Hungary, blocking the independence of the judiciary, limiting media independence, and cutting off opposition parties’ funding are the most significant examples of the appropriation of state power by the ruling Fidesz party. It is also a lesson and a warning for Poland, which in many areas follows the path of its Danube Region partner, at the same time weakening its own democratic institutions.
These and other mechanisms of seizing power in the country, as well as political strategies of electoral mobilization were discussed at our Institute with Zsuzsanna Szelényi, one of the founders of the Fidesz party, who from its beginnings could observe the transformation of both her own country and its democratic direction. Describing Orban's way of governing, Szelényi pointed out that the populist desire to seize power is based on bending systemic principles in a way that negates the coherence of such a system, but allows to overtake opposition movements and thus consolidate undemocratic changes. The Polish issue, in turn, was referred to by a co-discussant, Professor Radosław Markowski, who rightly pointed out many weaknesses in the functioning of the Polish system that could enable similar transformations. In addition, he referred to Orban's mechanism of mobilizing a radical minority, which may also be repeated in Poland, especially in the face of the upcoming parliamentary and local elections.