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Freedom House sees Hungarian democracy crumbling

The current Hungarian regime is ranked as a “semi-consolidated democracy” in the Nations in Transit 2017 report by Freedom House, the U.S. government-funded NGO that conducts research on democracy, political freedom, and human rights. In the CEE region, Hungary’s democracy has deteriorated in the most spectacular way in the past ten years, the report says.

“In a year dominated by the Europe-wide advance of national-populist and radical parties, democratic governance in Hungary, a pioneer of ʼilliberal democracy,ʼ has further deteriorated,” says the report, which is subtitled The False Promise of Populism.

“Adopting the same strategy as in 2015, the ruling coalition of Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Alliance and its minor partner, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP), maintained its popularity and electoral support by whipping up resentment and xenophobia,” the report adds.

The democracy score of Hungary, according to Freedom House, deteriorated from 2008’s 2.14 to 3.54 this year, on a one to seven scale where one means “most democratic” and seven means “least democratic.” The report shows a steady, uninterrupted slide in Hungaryʼs score since 2008.

Among individual sub-ratings, the report shows Hungaryʼs National Democratic Governance rating declined from 4.00 to 4.25, “due to the continued centralization of power and the total domination of the political system and economy by the governing parties, as well as the deployment of illiberal rhetoric.”

While Freedom House tagged Hungary’s World Status and Net Freedom Status both as “free,” its Press Freedom Status is ranked as only “partly free,” according to the report.

“The media landscape changed significantly in comparison with the previous year. Due to the support of the deeply biased public media and important acquisitions in the television, online, and print segments, pro-government outlets have come to dominate the market to an overwhelming degree unimaginable even a year earlier. The October shutdown of the country’s leading daily newspaper, Népszabadság, underlined both the governing party’s vast influence on the market and the fact that - unlike in previous years - acquisitions and economic control, not legislative power, are the most important tools of influence,” the Freedom House report says about the status of the media in Hungary.

"Friendly oligarchs" and "corruption networks"

Freedom House also criticizes the country for its “rewarding” attitude towards “friendly oligarchs.”

“Recent developments confirm the existence of a ‘reverse state capture’ in Hungary, where politics and a strong state set up corruption networks and use public power and resources to reward friendly oligarchs. In addition to loyal oligarchs, leading government figures stood in the crosshairs of corruption accusations in 2016,” Freedom House says in the report.

The report singles out National Bank of Hungary (MNB) Governor György Matolcsy who “was connected to at least three separate cases raising the suspicion of serious corruption, [but] there were no political consequences,” the report says. Minister Antal Rogán, heading the prime minister’s cabinet, is also mentioned in the report as having “suffered no political ramifications despite his central role in the controversial Hungarian Residency Bond Program and numerous corruption accusations,” the report adds.

In conclusion, Freedom House says that the “lack of prosecutions shows the effective political control and selective, biased functioning of the police and prosecutor’s office - an essential prerequisite of state-led corruption in Hungary. With the governing parties’ ever-growing media dominance, an increasingly uneven political playing field, and the misuse of public resources for political and private purposes, Hungary’s political system inches further away from constitutional and liberal democracies and closer toward hybrid regimes in the region.”

The full report is available here. The Hungarian government has not yet addressed its findings.