Skip to main content

Democracy is about more than elections.

It requires checks on the governing party between elections in the form of legal protest, a robust press and strong judicial oversight. It needs civil society groups that exist beyond the control of the state.

That’s worth remembering as Viktor Orban returns to power in Hungary for a third consecutive term as prime minister, after his Fidesz party scored a thudding two-thirds majority in parliamentary elections on Sunday.

There’s no question the populist, anti-immigrant Mr. Orban is popular. As well, the election was administered in a “professional and transparent” way, according to international observers. It was no sham.

But his re-election is still marked by the decline of Hungarian democracy under his watch.

Mr. Orban is best known internationally for his xenophobia. During the Syrian refugee crisis, he built a razor-wire fence to keep migrants out. He speaks proudly of defending Hungary’s Christian past against Muslim newcomers.

But the harm Mr. Orban has done to his own country’s institutions is at least as serious as his attacks on outsiders.

During his first term, he undercut the independence of Hungary’s judiciary by concentrating the power to appoint and reappoint judges in a single “czar.”

His attacks on the press have been constant, comprising both the purchase of outlets by government cronies and a press law that established a media-control body with the power to levy fines for “imbalanced news coverage.”

A range of civil society groups has also felt the pinch, from churches that have lost their legal status to theatre companies that Mr. Orban has stacked with pliant directors.

Some members of the European Union are reportedly considering using an upcoming budget debate to threaten Hungary and other increasingly autocratic members like Poland with a loss of money. That’s heartening.

But the bloc should make clear that any sanctions are the result of Mr. Orban’s attacks on the procedural guardrails of democracy, not his right-wing posturing.

Members of the EU don’t need to be progressive. They don’t all need to toe Angela Merkel’s line on migrants.

They do, however, need to be democracies. Mr. Orban is making it ever harder to apply the word to Hungary.

Interact with The Globe