If Greece is the European Union’s economic Achilles’ heel today, Hungary is the political equivalent. Or so says James Kirchick in a new article for Foreign Affairs.

“Hungary today is the first member state of the EU, a body that prides itself as the embodiment of classical liberal values, to tack sharply toward autocracy,” Kirchick writes:

Supporters of the EU often claim that it has the power to nudge the nations in Europe’s periphery toward democracy. But the EU has never been confronted with this level of democratic backsliding from one of its own members. Indeed, were present-day Hungary to apply for EU membership now, it would not likely be admitted.

Central Europe watchers will be familiar with Kirchick’s argument. Since taking power in 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have pursued a distinctly anti-liberal agenda, from creating a commission empowered to impose massive fines on journalists to entrenching loyalists in top posts to ramming a new constitution through parliament that elided “Republic” from Hungary’s official title.

But Kirchick earns readers’ attention by pointing out the ironies of Hungary’s backslide. Who would have thought Hungary, home of the moderate “Goulash communism” from the 1960s on, would be the former Warsaw Pact country drifting toward authoritarianism 20 years after the Soviet collapse? And who would have thought Orban, who founded Fidesz as a liberal, market-oriented party when still in his twenties, would be the culprit? How could the 26 year old who, in a 1989 speech in Budapest, became the first dissident to demand the withdrawal of Soviet troops from his country be the same man leading it astray today?

Kirchick doesn’t offer a totally convincing answer, but cynicism seems at least partly to blame. When the ruling Hungarian Democratic Forum collapsed in the 1994 election, Fidesz saw its chance to gain a large constituency by occupying the new void in the nationalist right. The party shifted right and won parliament in 1998, with Orban as prime minister. Then Orban shifted.

“He was a major democrat,” Kirchick quotes Mark Palmer, the U.S. ambassador to Hungary in the late 1980s, as saying. “[He was] someone who, in my own mind, was as clear-headed about what Hungary needed and as European-oriented as anyone and courageous as anyone.

But, Palmer adds: “Even the best of us can be corrupted by power. And that’s what I really think is what’s happened.”

Since 2010, various human rights groups have slammed Orban. This year the Freedom House watchdog downgraded Hungary from “Free” to “Partly Free” in its annual ranking of global press freedom.

The EU has tried to pressure Orban, who, in Brussels at least, has placated European leaders. But he wants to secure an International Monetary Fund bailout to buttress Hungary’s ailing economy and takes a very different tone – indeed, one of nationalism – at home. In a March speech in Budapest, Orban compared Brussels to Soviet Moscow.

In dealing with Budapest, a key challenge Brussels faces is that it has significantly more foreign policy leverage when a country is trying to join the European club than when it’s already in. Financial aid and increased legitimacy in the eyes of investors are strong incentives for aspirant countries to reform during EU accession, but Brussels has few tools to twist the arms of members, especially at a time when membership has lost much of its luster. (Though the bailout from the IMF, where Berlin, Paris, and other EU powerhouses have sway, is a strong bargaining chip.)

If the backslide continues, Brussels could suspend Hungary. But that unprecedented move is unlikely, Kirchick writes, because the EU is tied up with Greece, and, in any case, is hoping isolation will convince Orban to shape up.

What about the 2014 elections? Will Hungarians pressure Orban to change tack? That’s also unlikely, according to Kirchick, because Fidesz remains the top party in Hungary, followed by the Socialists and the ultra-right Jobbik, and its base is solid. The opposition, meanwhile, is divided.

But there are some signs that a pink slip might be in Orban’s future. Fidesz’s popularity is at a 10-year low, according to recent polling, while 80 percent of Hungarians think the country is on the wrong track. And who can blame them? The economy shrank in the first quarter; unemployment tops 10 percent.

And while Hungary is the first post-communist EU member to regress so sharply, it wouldn’t be the first of its neighbors to misstep into authoritarianism only to be saved by voters. As TOL columnist Katerina Safarikova pointed out recently, Slovakia walked a dark path under Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar after Czechoslovakia split in 1993. But, seeing their country increasingly isolated, Slovaks voted Meciar out in 1998, and Slovakia righted course on economic and political liberalization, as well as EU and NATO membership.

True, Europe is in a very different place today. The global financial and ongoing euro zone crises have challenged public confidence in democracy, the free market, and moderate politics – the pillars of political Europe. And, economically speaking, few countries have been harder hit than Hungary since 2008.

“Hungary’s present condition, then, is a symptom of a trend sweeping Europe: the rise of extremism, left and right, from Greece to France,” Kirchick writes.

The difference, I would say, is that political extremism has been tested in Hungary, and it has failed. Hungarians are arguably worse off today than when Fidesz took power – and their leadership is the black sheep of Europe to boot. Given the circumstances, another Fidesz victory in 2014 would seem ironic indeed.

Photo of the Hungarian parliament from Wikipedia

S. Adam Cardais

S. Adam Cardais is a TOL contributing editor. Email: adam.cardais@tol.org.

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