Viktor Orbán’s Reelection Shows Mere Democracy Is Not Enough

Westerners have a tendency to view liberal democracy in a single package. They don’t stop to think about the potential for the two parts to work against one another. The protection of all citizens’ rights and freedoms is the essence of liberalism. Democracies are governed by the people directly or via representative elections. What if the population decides to use democratic means to support an unliberal government?

On Sunday, the Hungarian people voted in a landslide to give Prime Minister Viktor Orbán his fourth term since 2010. According to current tabulations, parties that are allied with incumbent leaders have a higher vote share than 53 percent. This is an absolute majority.

Orbán is a self-proclaimed proponent of “illiberal democracy,” which distinguishes, in Amnesty International’s Summary“A fully democratic Western” system, with liberal values and accountability, is what Orban calls the ‘Eastern approach’, which is built on a strong government, weak opposition, and poor checks and balances. Orbán has spent more than a decade engaging in aggressive gerrymandering, court packing, use of state power to drive out or co-opt dissenting media, and more. Corrupt practices are rampant. Corruption is rampant. ConcentratedAt the top.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) took the uncommon step of sending an entire election-monitoring missions to Hungary. QuestionsAbout the election. This is why the country cannot be considered particularly democratic. Or Right now, it is especially liberal. Freedom House, a non-profit organization RatesIt is only partially free and scores 45 of 100 democracy points. This makes it an laggard in both count among European countries. 

At the same time, Orbán’s sweeping victory suggests that many millions of Hungarians, well aware of his record, are on board with his vision for their country. This raises the specter of a true illiberal democracy—it shouldn’t be hard to imagine a country with genuinely fair and open elections but also majority support for authoritarian leaders and policies that deny equal rights to all.

This scenario can be viewed as a reminder that attacks on democracy aren’t the only danger we face. One society where 51 percent of the population vote to suppress the remaining 49 percent could claim democracy. This isn’t undemocratic, it’s illiberal. 

As important as democratic institutions may be, they only go so far. It is essential that we insist on liberalism: freedom speech, protection of private property, religious liberty, freedom to move, constitutional restrictions and separations between power and law, and all other aspects. While we don’t know where we’ll end up, we can predict the side that we’ll go on. However, we are better off if we limit the amount of time we let our votes be cast.