June 10, 2019

How Hungary’s Orban Puts Democratic Tools to Authoritarian Use

By Carisa Nietsche

In his visit to the White House last month, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who proudly describes himself as an illiberal democrat, did what every good populist does: He explained that he had a mandate from the people. “From the people, by the people, for the people. That is the basis for the Hungarian government,” he said when asked about democratic backsliding in his country.

Like other populist leaders, Orban uses a number of tactics to back up his claims: sidelining the media to quell critics, whipping up perceived threats from migrants, refugees and others from abroad, and, like other euroskeptics, casting the European Union as a bogeyman. One less-documented item in Orban’s toolkit, which is cast in a seemingly democratic sheen, is his use of national consultations—soliciting citizen feedback on government policies or regulations through surveys and opinion polls.

In the past five years, Orban has launched several of them, all designed to consolidate his political position and justify his illiberal agenda. A national consultation in 2015 focused on the supposed linkages between immigration and terrorism. Another one, in 2017, fixated on the so-called “Soros Plan,” which claimed that billionaire philanthropist George Soros was behind the European migration crisis in an attempt to destabilize Hungary and weaken its Christian culture. Last year, Orban launched a national consultation on measures designed to promote and protect families and children, one of many efforts by Orban to build an “old-school Christian democracy” in Hungary. The consultation pits the Orban government’s efforts to deal with Hungary’s demographic decline, as birthrates continue to fall, by supporting families—against the solution of “Brussels bureaucrats” to reverse the shrinking population through increased immigration.

At first glance, national consultations appear democratic. On closer inspection, however, Orban’s methods of collecting direct public feedback about government policy are far from it. Their methodologies defy all of the best practices of survey design. In the 2015 consultation on immigration and terrorism, respondents were given three choices—two of which represented agreement with the government and a third which represented disagreement—thereby giving the Hungarian government a two-out-of-three chance that the respondents would rubberstamp their proposed action. For instance, they pose questions like, “Would You support the Hungarian government if, contrary to the permissive policy of Brussels, it introduced stricter regulation of immigration?” In the family law consultation, respondents were given a “yes” or “no” choice to answer a series of questions addressing how Hungary should address demographic decline, without an opportunity to expound on their position.

Read the full article in World Politics Review.

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