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European Parliament elections in an autocratic member state

Since 1979, the European Parliament (EP) has been directly elected every five years by the citizens of the European Union (formerly the European Community) through universal suffrage in a system of proportional representation. There is no uniform voting system for the election of Members of European Parliament (MEPs); rather, every member state is free to choose its system, subject to certain restrictions. Simultaneously, there is the unspoken assumption that every member state is a democracy. This will be the first EP election when, according to two of the significant institutions measuring democracy, one of the European countries cannot be considered a democracy anymore.

Hungary has received international attention in recent years for being the first fully consolidated democracy to turn into an autocracy. Freedom House, a non-profit organisation, has traced the country's transition from a 'consolidated' democracy as of 2010 to one that was only 'semi-consolidated' by 2015. The Varieties of Democracy Institute classified Hungary as an 'electoral autocracy' in 2020. The same year Freedom House categorised the country as a 'hybrid regime'. The country is no longer a constitutional democracy able to ensure a peaceful rotation of power. By any measure, Hungary's fall from democratic grace in just 13 years has been one of the most shocking examples of democratic backsliding. Neither domestic nor transnational institutions, such as the European Union, have been able to intercept the process, and by now, autocratization has reached a level where resistance is less and less effective. There are features of this trajectory that are unique to Hungary and others that are shared with other backsliding regimes in Eastern and Central Europe. After the democratic transition in 1989-1990, Hungary was often called the star pupil in the region, with a powerful Constitutional Court consolidating the constitutional regime to the point when it joined the EU in 2004. Then, the country seemed better positioned than many other accession states to honour the rule of law. The contentious politics of the socialist-liberal government in the run-up to the 2007-2010 financial crisis, which hit Hungary earlier and harder than other European countries, paved the way for the right-wing populist Fidesz Party's return to power with Viktor Orbán as Prime Minister in 2010.

The country's autocratization matters not only for the future of Hungary. It is also important because it poses challenges to the countries in the region, to the European Union, and beyond. Altogether, ever since 2010, the Hungarian system of governance has become populist, illiberal, and undemocratic. This was, too, Prime Minister Orbán's openly stated intention, disclosed in his infamous speech from 2014.

One of the characteristics of Orbán's illiberal electoral autocracy is that the national elections are not fair and only partly free. In 2012, an amendment to the country's new illiberal constitution called Fundamental Law, limited both the time for campaigning and advertising spaces, thus placing even greater restrictions on the opposition's already limited channels of communication with the public. The independent OSCE election observers were very critical of the 2014, 2018, and 2022 parliamentary elections, noting that: 1)"overlap between state and ruling party resources," 2) opaque campaign finance, 3) media bias, and 4) "intimidating and xenophobic rhetoric" have hampered voters' ability to make informed choices. Fortunately, the highly disproportional and rigged Hungarian election rules do not apply in the proportional European parliamentary elections. This is why the party Fidesz usually gets 'only' around 60% of the votes, but never the two-thirds majority achieved in all national elections since 2010. Nevertheless, the one-sided political campaign, the advertising restrictions, and the dismantled media freedom are still present during the EP elections.

In addition to the decisive internal forces driving autocratization, transnational or international institutions, particularly the European Union, could not force the Hungarian government to comply with European rules and values. The reasons for tolerating an autocratic member state within the allegedly value-based community of the EU are partly political and partly economic.

Of course, despite the eventual complicity of the EU, Hungarian democracy cannot be restored from the outside. On the other hand, to keep the vision of Europe as a value-based community, inevitably, the joint values of rule of law, democracy, and fundamental rights in every member state will be enforced. For this reason, the more consequent use of traditional tools like infringement procedures or triggering Article 7 for breaches of values enshrined in Article 2 TEU is important. If democracy is undermined, courts are captured, rights are threatened, and a member state's government disrespects the EU, the sincere cooperation guaranteed by Article 4(3) TEU cannot work. At the same time, new means of value conditionality should be activated, such as cutting funds for member states that do not comply with certain basic institutional requirements of the rule of law. Unfortunately, the newly introduced economic conditionality mechanism is burdened with several bad compromises. However, it seems to provide the only hope for discontinuing the unprincipled protection of Hungary's autocratic government and the start of serious enforcement of the values of democracy, the rule of law, and fundamental rights. Otherwise, the EU is doomed to fail as a value-based community and may fall apart altogether as a result.

The EP elections can contribute to the prevention of this sad perspective by mandating MEPs and party groups and selecting a Commission that will be uncompromisingly committed to this task. In addition, the democratic willingness of member state governments in the European Council to preserve the Union is crucial until the Hungarian people wake up and re-democratise their own country. The biggest demonstrations in years, organised recently by a former insider in the ruling Fidesz party, who intends to launch a new party to run in the EP election, offer some hope for an awakening.

A newly approved research project, led by the author within the EU Widening program conducted at EUI in cooperation with the Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, will investigate resistance and resilience against autocratization in Hungary.


Gábor Halmai is a part-time professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. Between 2016 and 2022, he was Professor and Chair of Comparative Constitutional Law at the Law Department of EUI. His primary research interests are comparative and European constitutional law. His latest publications include Human Dignity and Democracy (edited together with D. Bedford, C. Dupré, and P. Kapotas), Edwar Elgar, 2022) and Economic Constitutionalism in a Turbulent Word (edited together with Achilles Scordas and Lisa Mardikian, Edward Elgar, 2023).