Democracy’s decline in recent years has been a slow-moving trend, one marked by a steady erosion of rights and rule of law more than military coups. About 60 percent of 129 countries have seen a decline in political rights since 2006. A good example of the trend is Hungary. An election there last Sunday was heavily tilted in favor of the ruling party after it cracked down on media and civic activism.
For eight years, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been planting seeds for authoritarian rule, such as stacking the courts. He even admits his view of democracy is “illiberal.” With this latest victory, he is now tightening the screws on nongovernmental organizations that champion freedom.
Yet while the election is a worrisome example of a country rejecting democratic values, especially in Europe, it is also clear Mr. Orban has forced another kind of seed to sprout in Hungary: corruption.
Over the past six years, Hungary has risen 10 places in an index of countries with the most corruption. It represents “one of the most alarming examples of shrinking civil society space in Eastern Europe,” states Transparency International, which surveys for corruption worldwide. In the capital, Budapest, the Corruption Research Center estimates the ruling party, Fidesz, has distributed $8 billion to $12 billion in favorable contracts to the party’s close associates in business. Last year, a group of young people organized a campaign against a government bid for Hungary to host the 2024 Summer Olympics. The group’s main worry: money to construct the sport facilities would flow to cronies of the ruling party.
If anything might reverse autocracy in a nation, it is a rise in corruption, or rather a demand among the people for clean and accountable governance. “In the long run, ruling by coercion and not by dialog always leads to a dead end,” says Aart De Geus, chairman of the German think tank Bertelsmann Stiftung.
In a global survey, Bertelsmann found that 12 democracies have combated corruption successfully while only one autocracy did so. In hybrid democracies like Hungary, “corruption tends to be widespread and the rule of law is weak. Civil society is weak ... and the judiciary is not independent,” finds The Economist Intelligence Unit.
With more corruption in Hungary, Orban may simply ramp up his rhetoric against immigrants, which so far has won him votes. But ultimately the corruption will be too real and the rhetoric too empty for his supporters. A swing back to democracy, as in many places of the world, will bring Hungary around. A country’s long-term stability lies in honoring individual rights and freedoms.