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How autocrats can rig the game and damage democracy

- January 4, 2019

Since coming to power in 2010, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has undermined key democratic institutions in his country. He’s attacked foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations, worked to tighten his control over courts and forced a leading private university out of the country.

But Orban has rarely done the things typically associated with autocracy. His government hasn’t banned any opposition candidates, and few have been attacked. Hungary holds no political prisoners. No journalists have been arrested. The country continues to hold relatively clean multiparty elections with virtually no outright fraud.

According to standard conceptions of democracy — which focus on violations of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, assembly and the press — Hungary’s status as an autocracy is ambiguous. The two most widely used indexes of democracy — conducted by Freedom House and Polity — continue to code Hungary as democratic.

Clearly, Hungary is not a democracy. But understanding why requires a nuanced understanding of the line between democracy and autocracy.

Democracy requires a level playing field

In our work on hybrid or what we call competitive authoritarian regimes, we show how democracy can be fundamentally compromised even without obvious civil liberties violations or electoral fraud. Leaders can create an “uneven playing field” by using administrative powers to strengthen their party and systematically deny the opposition access to crucial resources, media or state institutions. These autocrats submit to meaningful multiparty elections — but engage in serious democratic abuse.

In any democracy, elected officials have advantages over their challengers, including an easier time attracting media coverage and business support, because the government can deliver resources and policy benefits. But an uneven playing field means leaders use those advantages in ways that profoundly impair the opposition’s ability to compete. Let’s look at how that works.

First, leaders may systematically prevent opposition parties from gaining financial resources. Former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma, for example, regularly ordered tax authorities in the 1990s and 2000s to audit businesses that financed the opposition. Governing parties may also create a biased news media. In Malaysia, all major private newspapers and private television stations were controlled by individuals or firms linked to the governing party.

Governing parties may also manipulate the rules to disadvantage the opposition. The most common example is gerrymandering — drawing election districts where the governing party is far more likely to win. A country is not a democracy when gerrymandering makes it all but impossible for the opposition to win national power.

Finally, ruling parties may pack judiciaries, electoral commissions and other nominally independent bodies to ensure that the incumbent will win critical electoral, legal or other disputes.

Authoritarianism, Hungarian style

Orban’s Hungary is a prime example of a competitive autocracy with an uneven playing field. In 2010, Orban’s Fidesz party won 53 percent of the vote and 68 percent of parliamentary seats.  Since then, the party has increasingly denied opposition access to resources necessary to compete for power.

First, Fidesz infiltrated much of the state bureaucracy. By 2012, Fidesz loyalists were already entrenched in every corner of the state, as Miklós Bánkuti, Gábor Halmai and Kim Lane Scheppele documented — including in the constitutional court, budget council, electoral commission, national judicial office, state audit office, public prosecutor’s office and national bank. That brings significant advantages. For example, in the 2014 elections, the electoral commission rejected a wide range of complaints on inconsistent and formalistic grounds.

Next, Fidesz now controls most of the news media, dominating the staffing of major state media outlets — and driving away most international media groups. For example, in 2014, a pro-government media company borrowed from two banks with government ties to buy Origo.hu, a leading news website that had been highly critical of the government. Orban’s allies now control more than 500 media outlets, making it increasingly difficult for critical voices to reach large audiences.

The government has been able to influence news coverage by selectively distributing government advertising. Meanwhile, independent media have trouble attracting advertisers, because companies fear government repercussions. For example, after Fidesz’s election in 2010, many companies stopped advertising on the opposition broadcaster Klubradio, fearing political consequences. Many opposition and independent news outlets have had to shut down.  The dearth of visible coercion has allowed the government to portray such closures as the outgrowth of objective market forces rather than autocratic pressure.

Finally, Fidesz has changed the electoral rules in ways that make it easier for the party to dominate. That includes significant gerrymandering — splitting off constituencies with a leftist majority to dilute the opposition vote.

Fidesz’s opposition is weak for many reasons having nothing to do with Orban’s abuse of power — including scandals and economic problems from the 2000s, when opposition leaders last held power. But the uneven playing field creates a daunting obstacle to opposition victory at the ballot box.

The advantages of an uneven playing field

Killing a journalist or firing on crowds of protesters can easily rally international opinion and turn an autocrat into a pariah. But few notice or care if party supporters infiltrate the electoral commission or a pro-government entrepreneur uses government funds to take control over an opposition website. And using the legal system to force out independent voices enables the government to argue that it has not abused power. For example, after forcing a leading independent university out of Hungary, the government argued that this was the result of a “perfectly reasonable requirement under Hungary’s legislation.”

Fidesz’s ambiguous tactics have succeeded. Most importantly, the European Union has, with a few exceptions, failed to confront Orban’s government about its democratic backsliding. As long as Orban is able to maintain such ambiguity, he is unlikely to face serious consequences for his country’s democratic failures.

Lucan Ahmad Way is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

Steven Levitsky is a professor of government at Harvard University.

Together they are the authors of “Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War” (Cambridge University Press, 2010).