Even if overshadowed by the ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine, Viktor Orbán’s recent landslide victory in the Hungarian parliamentary elections was an important turning point for the Western world’s democratic credibility.

The implications of Orbán winning a fourth consecutive term as prime minister and a fresh constitutional supermajority for his Fidesz party, even in the face of a united opposition this time, will be far-reaching. Hungary’s Western partners must draw the right lessons from a historical juncture that has further cemented Hungary’s path of autocratization, alongside similarly disturbing trends in the region in Poland.

In the 12 years Orbán has been in office, Hungary has evolved into a unique laboratory of autocratization within the Western world. The lessons learned from the country’s authoritarian developments help to explain how competitive authoritarian regimes flourish and operate within the framework of the European Union, how the tilted playing field that such regimes create can impact political competition, and whether – and if so, how — a domestic democratic correction of advanced autocratization is feasible at all.

The Systemic Challenge of Autocratization

Despite the Biden administration’s effort to begin challenging democratic backsliding and the EU’s tentative recent efforts to push back on Hungary and Poland’s autocratization, the Hungarian election result confirms that Central Europe’s illiberal regimes are no temporary phenomena at all. Rather, they pose a systemic challenge to pluralist, liberal democracy by labelling themselves non-liberal, but democratic, and they will remain with us for years, if not decades. The result creates a long-term challenge to the democratic integrity of the transatlantic alliance.

In 2026, when the next parliamentary elections will be due in Hungary and Orbán will be in power for 16 years, there will be a full generational cohort of young Hungarians who once again got their political socialization in a non-democratic regime, lacking direct experience with liberal democracy. This, and the en masse emigration of politically dissatisfied Hungarians will keep the chances of a future democratic backlash against the Orbán regime rather low.

Of course, Hungary is not the only serious challenge to democracy in Central Europe. While Hungary’s autocratization pattern is different from that of Poland, their similarities are undisputable. For one, in both cases, the demise of the rule of law, the undermining of judicial independence, the hollowing out of constitutional checks and balances, and attacks on media pluralism appear to be inextricably bound with compromised election integrity.

This year’s Hungarian election was its third consecutive vote since 2014, when the incumbent Fidesz party enjoyed “undue advantage,” according to the assessment of the election observation mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). As the OSCE observation mission concluded this year: “the 3 April parliamentary elections and referendum were […] marred by the absence of a level playing field. […] the campaign was highly negative in tone and characterized by a pervasive overlap between the ruling coalition and the government,” this latter referring to the development of Fidesz evolving to a kind of “state party” and Hungary becoming a “party-state.”

This language is similar to the OSCE assessment of the 2020 Polish presidential elections, in which, according to the organization, “the campaign was characterized by negative and intolerant rhetoric further polarizing an already adversarial political environment. In an evidently polarized and biased media landscape, the public broadcaster failed to ensure balanced and impartial coverage, and rather served as campaign tool for the incumbent.” Poland’s autocratization will reach its key juncture at the 2023 general elections. If the regime of Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his Law and Justice (PiS) party will also succeed in further entrenching their position, a successful re-democratization of Central Europe would seem to be unrealistic in the short- and mid-term.

Orbán’s landslide victory this time was a stunning surprise, the reasons for which will keep Hungarian political analysts busy for a while. No public opinion poll predicted the collapse of electoral support behind the opposition, although Hungarian polls traditionally have been fairly accurate.

The united opposition organized a rather weak campaign with a couple of unforced errors, but this was hardly the main reason behind the opposition’s defeat. They followed a strategy that appeared to be right both in light of the Hungarian electoral system and the lessons learned from the 2019 municipal elections. That time, voters urged the full cooperation of democratic opposition parties. This time, voters, especially those of the former radical-right party Jobbik, abandoned the joint list of the six opposition parties in significant numbers. What happened?

The uneven playing field was a key factor in the opposition’s loss. The incumbent Fidesz party’s dominance of the media landscape, along with campaign rules allowing its candidates to outspend their opponents several times over, provided far more than a tactical advantage of a couple of percentage points, but rather a strategic advantage that fundamentally altered the nature of political competition. Fighting an uphill battle in public communications, the opposition was unable to deliver its messages outside of its core electorate. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine became the key campaign issue, and Fidesz was successful in labelling opposition candidate Péter Márki-Zay and the six parties supporting him as warmongers and traitors who would be ready to risk Hungary’s economic and physical security in order to provide military help to Ukraine. The bottom line is that, while political competition may exist in Hungary in legal terms, the country’s political system is de facto skewed to bar any opposition victory in elections.

This situation can only change if the credibility of the government’s communications suffers a severe setback, for example due to the increasing mismatch between the reality of citizens’ lives and the government’s narrative. In short, only a domestic crisis of the Orbán regime may open real opportunities for the opposition to challenge him with any hope of success.

War in Ukraine Masks Authoritarian Trajectory

The Hungarian-Polish political alignment has gone slightly off course in the face of Russia’s all-out war on Ukraine, as Orbán has maintained his pro-Russian foreign policy and reluctance to provide meaningful aid to Ukraine, while Poland’s historical enmity with Russia has prompted it to vigorously support Ukraine and take in almost 3 million refugees fleeing the fighting. But the authoritarian core of the two regimes remains unchanged. While rightly celebrated in the international media for its committed leadership in supporting Ukraine’s self-defense, the Polish government has used the fog of war to advance its authoritarian agenda even since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24. Among other anti-democratic moves just since then, it has continued appointing justices loyal to the party, refused to implement key international court rulings, and filed a draft law in the Polish parliament to discourage foreign funding of Polish watchdogs and civil society organizations.

And Hungary and Poland are not the only countries of concern in Central Europe. If trends remain unchanged, illiberal leftist leaders Peter Pellegrini and Robert Fico have a high probability of returning to power in Slovakia’s 2024 parliamentary elections, even though Fico is under investigation on allegations of organized crime. Such a change in power could once again derail Slovakia’s struggling democracy and put the country on an illiberal track again as well.

Clearly, democracy is not the only game in town anymore in Central Europe. While many Western stakeholders might be tempted to make concessions to the region’s illiberal strongmen in order to preserve EU and NATO unity, this approach was a key enabling factor and will only continue to weaken European and transatlantic organizations further. In the face of the clear authoritarian threat posed by Russia and China, challenging these trends in Central Europe to strengthen the democratic integrity of the Western alliance is more crucial than ever.

The US and EU Response

Western responses to autocratization in Hungary and Poland have long been weak, with the EU and the United States always reluctant to take action for various reasons at various times. In times of crisis, such as in the 2015 refugee crisis and now during Russia’s war on Ukraine, the West seems reluctant to challenge these demagogues on their anti-democratic actions, lest they stop cooperating on the crisis issue of the moment. But when Europe or the United States are not experiencing an acute crisis, they seem to lack the motivation to challenge these authoritarian regimes with firm action over issues of democracy, rule of law, and corruption. It’s as if there is never a right moment to discipline illiberal strongmen in the Western alliance. As a consequence, the authoritarian dynamics they have unleashed have advanced largely unopposed.

Over the past year, for example, both the EU and the United States had perfect opportunities to play hardball with Viktor Orbán — the EU through triggering its new rule of law conditionality mechanism that allows it to officially suspend EU funds for Hungary based on violations of EU standards for rule of law, while the United States could have done so by imposing Magnitsky sanctions against key members of the regime. But both the White House and the European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, backed down. If planned, timed, and publicly communicated appropriately, such sanctions could have significantly improved the opposition’s odds in the elections.

Now, both the EU and the United States will have to mount any challenge to Orbán under more adverse conditions. In the EU, if the political conflict with him escalates, he may be able to block EU decision-making in the context of the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, it would be dangerous for democracy if the EU and the United States continue to pull their punches. And the EU is showing signs of understanding this: In order to preserve at least some of its democratic credibility, the EU surprisingly announced the triggering of the rule of law conditionality mechanism against Hungary in April, right after the elections.

The United States now should follow suit, to raise the pressure on the regime, especially considering Orbán’s alignment with the Kremlin. Washington should introduce the planned Magnitsky sanctions against key figures of the Orbán regime. Only a coordinated transatlantic approach and the deployment of targeted sanctions is likely to change Orbán’s cost-benefit calculation and deter him from further autocratization. After 12 years of softball, its high time to play a different game.

IMAGE: Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (R) attend a joint press conference on Oct. 30,2019 in Budapest, Hungary. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)