Budapest, Hungary – According to Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report, while growing number of leaders around the world have dropped even “the pretense of playing by the rules of democracy”, the breakdown of the democratic consensus has been most visible in Central Europe and the Balkans, and particularly in Poland and Hungary.
According to the latest report, while Poland has left the consolidated democracies group and become a semi-consolidated democracy, Hungary left the category of democracies altogether to become a transitional/hybrid regime. The Czech Republic and Slovakia remain in the consolidated democracies group.
A stunning democratic breakdown
Freedom House’s annual Nations in Transit report evaluates the state of democracy in the region stretching from Central Europe to Central Asia – a region which has seen in recent years “a stunning democratic breakdown”, leaving citizens vulnerable to further rights abuses and power grabs associated with the coronavirus pandemic.
Unsurprisingly, the U.S.-based and U.S. governement-funded NGO is particularly critical of Viktor Orbán’s government, which it says “consolidated control over new areas of public life, including education and the arts”, and whose adoption of an emergency law that allows the government to rule by decree indefinitely “has further exposed the undemocratic character of Orbán’s regime”.
“Hungary’s decline has been the most precipitous ever tracked in Nations in Transit“, says Freedom House. “It was one of the three democratic frontrunners as of 2005, but in 2020 it became the first country to descend by two regime categories and leave the group of democracies entirely”.
In Poland, the report criticizes the governing Law and Justice (PiS) which “has been waging a war against the judiciary in an attempt to convert it into a pliant political tool”. It claims that “after devoting its initial years in office to an illegal takeover of the country’s constitutional court and the council responsible for judicial appointments, the PiS government started persecuting individual judges in 2019″.
The broader international environment
Freedom House is also critical of the international community’s (lack of) response and the broader international environment. With EU member states’ failure to tackle rule-of-law violations inside the bloc, “neither Poland nor Hungary has faced repercussions for damaging the rule of law at home”, points out the report. “Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has even remained a member of the mainstream European People’s Party, the largest grouping in the European Parliament”.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump “failed to stand up for democracy in the region” by “embracing the governments of Hungary and Poland”.
The report also takes a look at China’s influence in the region which it says “has an insidious effect on the development and functioning of democratic institutions” by intervening in the media in order to “shape content to their advantage and attack its local critics”.
Freedom House reports such “influence campaigns” in the Czech Republic, when Petr Kellner, the country’s wealthiest citizen with deep business interests in China, was accused of financing a media campaign, but also in Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
To counter this democratic breakdown and given the EU’s lack of success to date in addressing autocratization in Hungary and Poland, the report urges EU member states and the U.S. to make “make funding conditional on respecting democratic values and push on key areas related to the rule of law and media freedom”.
In a recent letter, six major civil society organizations, such as Amnesty International and RSF, had already urged the EU to take “immediate measures” against Hungary, pleading for member states to ensure “enhanced monitoring of the Hungarian government’s use of EU funding”.