Informal exercise of power – a comfortable way to undermine democracy in Hungary
Viktor Orbán’s government is masterful at creating a feudal relationship of social dependence by employing informal means of coercion. And while informal means of coercion play a very important role in the regime aiming at consolidating his power, international observers are practically unable to address systemically and effectively.
by Edit Zgut*
After nine years of efforts to transform the political system, Hungary has become a very successful example of a competitive authoritarian regime, where a change of government through elections remains theoretically possible, but the political environment built by Fidesz does not provide the opposition with anything approaching equal opportunities. While the often short-sided opposition also bears considerable responsibility for its own performance, the political playing field is so tilted in favor of the ruling party that victory for the opposition is extremely difficult. Even though they could join forces to have a better chance against Fidesz by providing a single opposition nominee in most of the country’s municipalities, they are competing on a grossly unfair political playing field ahead of the upcoming local elections on Sunday.
This goes beyond how the Hungarian government – thank to its constitutional majority – has restricted a broad range of civil liberties and basic freedoms, eroded the system of checks and balances, and undermined horizontal accountability by creating a legally centralized reverse-engineered capture of the state. The regime runs intimidation campaigns against individuals and organizations that want to hold the government accountable by further increasing government control over the Hungarian media and the judiciary. As part of a broader authoritarian strategy, the Hungarian authorities continue to undermine the opposition politically and financially, striving to delegitimize it by falsely claiming that it wants to replace the Hungarian population with Muslims.
What we have learned so far is that shifting into a less combative mode is not in the nature of the regime. Although Fidesz has made significant concessions by suspending the introduction of the administrative court system for political reasons, the Hungarian government is likely to revise the constitution for the eighth time. That would mean a shift in the system taking it in an even more centralized, authoritarian direction. While they would presumably revise the entire judicial system and limit the powers of the National Judiciary Council, which has been labeled a “platform for the opposition”, the power of the executive could be further strengthened.
Within the currently existing power structure, which has been characterized as central vertical coordination based on a hierarchical command system by János Kornai, there are hardly any institutions or dominant groups capable of vetoing governmental resolutions without Orbán’s approval anyway.
How to further consolidate power?
But in order to understand the success of the Orbán regime, we must move beyond the institutional and legal frameworks. Although these are methodologically easier to analyze, the substance of competitive authoritarian regimes often comes down to everyday, and even informal practice, which may be harder to capture analytically, but is equally crucial to understand.
Despite the fact that EU institutions have developed a wide range of tools with which to address the violation of the rule of law and democratic standards, so far, they have hardly dealt with the issue of informal exercise of power in a manner that undermines democracy in Hungary. Informal means of coercion (including clientelism but also corruption) play a very important role in Orban’s regime, aiming at consolidating his power in the long run. It has abused its powers on all levels not only by reshuffling the media environment, but also by practically bending economically or politically vulnerable people to its will.
As Isabelle Mares and Lauren Young have rightly pointed out in their extensive research, vote-buying is just one of many forms of political clientelism in Hungary. The government often provides public benefits in exchange for votes ahead of the elections, such as one-off payments for pensioners. Fidesz mayors go to the extent of offering elder members of their communities 10 kilograms of potatoes, coffee, pasta, and honey in a local election campaign, to give one example. And yet the most important forms involve even more extensive use of state resources, effectively combined with economic coercion.
For years, the most effective tool for clientelist exchange was the so-called “workfare program” that became a highly politicized resource in the elections. The program pays benefits of around 75,000 HUF per month, a sum close to the Hungarian minimum wage in 2011. Various reports have confirmed that the Hungarian government has been using it as a coercive tool to boost support for Fidesz candidates. In the Hungarian countryside, citizens have reported that in order to be able to participate in the workfare program they had to vote by open ballot during parliamentary elections to show that they were actually supporting Fidesz.
The vulnerability stems from the fact that local municipalities are responsible for deciding who can participate in the program, therefore, coercion through threatening to withdraw benefits has become a modus operandi for Orban’s party. This is partially mirrored by election results: the more popular this program was, the better Fidesz performed in the respective municipalities in the most recent local, parliamentary and European Parliament elections. Therefore, the government has offered a 13th benefit for these workers as a further incentive.
Moreover, power is often outsourced to extra-constitutional actors such as local money lenders and employers as well. They play an important role in this coercive clientelist system as they can also “ask favors” in order to be cooperative when it is needed. And even though the protection of private property has formally remained part of the legal system, several government measures were aimed at and practically resulted in taking over private property either by the state or private actors, mainly pro-government oligarchs. In contrast to the classic oligarchic state capture in the Czech Republic, this is a reverse-engineered “state capture” where a very strong, centralized administration is willfully cooperating with business circles to establish a complex, systemic corruption scheme.
What should be done?
Obviously, the Hungarian government is “untouchable” for Brussels in this regard, partly because the EU procedures aimed at monitoring the institutional and legal system cannot deal with Orbán’s informal power politics. His regime is safe as informal means of coercion are much more difficult for international observers to identify than formal mechanisms of repression. This has been also reflected accurately in OSCE election reports that did not deal with most of the issues described above in a detailed way. Therefore, as the cases cited indicate, to identify multiple types of coercive clientelism, election monitors will have to adopt a much more robust methodological approach including “list-experiments and deploying longer-term monitors to a much wider sample of rural communities”.
Another lesson has been learned, specifically, that Orban can easily play this game of “tightening-loosening” his autocratic control over Hungary for a long time with Brussels. One of the clearest examples was the issue of Central European University, which has left Hungary and remains in legal limbo. But as we have seen in the case of Poland, it is infringement procedures and not Article 7 that could slow down efforts to transform the system. Therefore, it is more important than ever that the European Commission stop accepting symbolic compliance by the Hungarian government and enforce substantive compliance with EU values by imposing burdensome infringement procedures more readily on Hungary.
Also, a much more holistic approach is needed by EU institutions, meaning that the Commission should employ more targeted legal arguments to give the EU Court of Justice more space to maneuver in interpreting the EU Treaties in a systemic and effective manner. Last but not least: currently existing mechanisms that allow for suspension of payments in the event of systematic violations of the rule of law (Article 142 of the Common Provisions Regulation) should be employed in a systemic and effective manner.
*The author is a political scientist, guest lecturer at Center for Europe in Warsaw University, and a PhD student at GSSR in the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at PAN.