Budapest – Hungary should no longer be considered a democracy after an unprecedented consolidation of power by the European Union member’s leader, according to an annual survey of countries that once lay behind the Iron Curtain.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s dismantling of checks and balances over the past decade, including a decision to indefinitely rule by decree triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, pushed the nation into the “hybrid regime” category between democracies and autocracies, according to a report published Wednesday by Freedom House, a Washington D.C.-based rights group.
While Hungary posted the biggest decline since Freedom House started compiling its “Nations in Transit” report, it reflected a wider trend of weakening commitment to democracy across the 29 formerly communist countries.
“A growing number of leaders around the world have dropped even the pretense of playing by the rules of democracy,” Freedom House researcher Zselyke Csaky wrote in the report. “They are openly attacking democratic institutions and attempting to do away with any remaining checks on their power.”
Orban has dismissed criticism over the state of Hungary’s democracy by saying that his changes were in line with the will of the people. He was re-elected for a third consecutive and fourth overall term in 2018.
He complained Monday that Hungary was the subject of “an unprecedented attack and disinformation campaign” over his actions in an open letter to fellow leaders of the European People’s Party, the EU’s largest political group.
“Anyone who doesn’t conform to their liberal view, gets downgraded,” Hungarian government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs said on Twitter, referring to Freedom House. Without providing evidence, he also blamed Hungarian-born financier George Soros, whom Orban has demonized for promoting a liberal agenda, for allegedly influencing the report.
The number of countries classified as democracies fell to 10 from 15 a decade ago while hybrids like Hungary rose to 10 from three. Full-blown autocracies dropped to nine from 11. Freedom House, which is mostly funded by the U.S. government, gives each country a “democracy score” based on seven categories, including elections, corruption, judicial independence and media freedom.
Serbia and Montenegro, two nations hoping to join the EU in the future, joined Hungary this year in the “hybrid regime” category after its leaders “tipped those countries over the edge” after years of state capture and “strongman tactics,” according to the watchdog.
Poland, another EU member, was downgraded to a “semi-consolidated democracy” from “consolidated democracy” after the ruling Law & Justice Party intensified attacks against courts, including by persecuting individual judges.
Adding to pressure on the region’s democratic institutions from Russia was the rising influence of China, which was less confrontational in style but also having an “insidious effect,” Freedom House said.