Andrew Arato argues, rightly, that there are serious institutional reasons for Orbán’s recent landslide victory. He highlights two of them: on the one side, electoral distortions, the disproportionate system and the lack of media pluralism. On the other side, and more importantly, the oppositions’s failure to take into account the particularly strong desire for security in times of war; against this background it is not tactical to envisage regime change. Moreover, the demonisation of the war criminal Putin should have been avoided. His last European friend Orbán, by contrast, gauged the desires of Hungarian society well when he was reluctant to join the chorus of those condemning the aggressor.
The coalition of oppositional parties made a lot of mistakes, but not those pointed out by Arato.
Arato is well aware of the nature of the current illiberal regime, with its autocratic features resembling Putin’s regime more than any Western democracy. Yet he believes that the opposition was wrong to promise a swift rebuilding of the rule of law and radical democratic restoration by saying Hungary needs system change. In other words, the opposition should have countered one big lie with many little lies: like the short-sighted legalist, they should have promised its fearful electorate to stay within the existing legal and political framework when trying to overcome Orbán’s legacy (on the background of this debate see here). More simply, to fill the autocratic framework with non-autocratic content. Once in power, the democratic opposition could then more easily subvert the obstacles or peacefully return power to the master who had moulded it in his own image. This, however, would not have worked. The voters would have had to be fooled for the opposition to succeed. Autocratic legalism, such as embodied by the Orbán regime, cannot be defeated in elections. It can only be defeated by its own means. And to do so, since there is an ongoing war, should democratic politicians really not have taken the side of the Ukrainian victims and Zelensky in full clarity? Is it better to have a morally dubious “middle” position at a time of such a fierce election?
The war in Ukraine has sharpened the confrontation between democratic constitutionalism and the autocracies of the East. It has become clear where Orban’s ideology of „opening to the East“ and turning against a declining West can lead us to. You don’t have to be very well informed to see that Hungary is tragically on the wrong side. The opposition must be wrong to assume that those who have so little access to the real news could realize, that Hungary is on the wrong side. It was a mistake not to create a free press in time with the help of free cities (cities governed by democratic parties). But the news is that Fidesz also won in those municipalities where the „Print It Yourself“ movement was intensively disseminating real news.
The opposition has not communicated well on how they intended to deal with the public law traps, the so-called autocratic enclaves walled around with 2/3 acts. But it has made clear that it will act in accordance with the rule of law principles. The democratic opposition could neither say that the Orbán Fundamental Law is OK, nor that they will govern with orbanist tools.
The opposition parties had a constitutional programme that was in no way scary; it didn’t promise any great upheaval. But, as it turned out on Sunday, it was not attractive either, since it promised only to restore the democratic rule of law. At the same time, political speeches by the opposition talked about regime change, since acknowledging the the non-constitutional quality of Orbán’s regime necessarily entails overcoming this regime. An opposition victory therefore logically would have needed to be more than a mere change of government if the aim was to move away from Orbán’s unconstitutional regime structures. I’ve argued a lot with representatives of the democratic parties about the need to communicate these issues more concretely to voters, not less, and to offer more concrete public policy alternatives, because voters punish indecisiveness as much as radicalism. I thought, perhaps wrongly, that if the voters perceived that there was a solution for the dilemma of 2/3 laws and for neutralizing autocratic enclaves as Constitutional Court, they would not opt for shameless kleptocracy. The regime’s landslide victory in the countryside suggests that neither I nor those who wanted to restrain oppositional plans were right. Andrew Arato says that we shouldn’t have talked about the plans of constitutional change, I think we should have talked a lot more. Looking at the results of the elections, it is more likely that it does not matter at all. The issue of constitutional change is irrelevant.
It is difficult for us to acknowledge that populist illiberalism is successful and, until it is confronted by a serious economic crisis, cannot be replaced by elections. That, however, seems to be the case, at least in a society where there is little appreciation for freedom and almost none for limiting power. Let us at least be honest with ourselves: such electoral victories can hardly be explained by anything else. It is precisely because Orbán has been able to establish his autocratic kleptocracy so freely that the opposition has been unsuccessful, and a significant proportion of society is not bothered by this. The only alternative to an abrupt change motivated by hunger and anger, is the slow education for democratic values, which was so neglected during the past three decades. Until the first signs of this long learning process, Hungarian democrats are waiting for something miraculous from outside. This is the lesson we have learned well during our history. Nota bene: the glorious system change in 1989/90 gave little opportunity for democratic involvement, and I am afraid that it is better not to imagine whether the majority would have voted for Kádár’s departure in 1988.