Democracies have an inbuilt flaw when their own processes can be employed to undermine them. It is what has happened in Hungary in the last decade, and Hungary is not alone.
In his youth the current prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, was an ardent dissident leading a youth movement, Fidesz, and in 1989 he was calling for the removal of Soviet troops and free democratic elections. Opposition to single-party socialist rule was eventually successful, and he was elected a Fidesz member of the National Assembly in 1990.
In 1998, his party won a plurality, and he served his first term as prime minister until 2002 when the socialists returned to power. However, a landslide victory in 2010 gave Orban a two-thirds supermajority, and with it the power to amend constitutional laws.
Shortly thereafter in 2011 a new constitution was promulgated which gave the Fidesz control of the judiciary, and administrative commissions responsible for elections, media and the budget. Hence Orban’s ubiquitous presence on billboards around Budapest — a consequence of a law regulating billboards that he passed driving his supporter’s competitors out of business. Opposition flyers may now be found posted on poles and trees … and good luck seeing them at a distance.
With the opposition weakened, Hungary became a democracy backsliding to authoritarianism. In 2020, the parliament passed laws that allow Orban to declare an emergency at will and then rule by decree.
All of which poses a conundrum: Anti-democratic laws passed by an elected government undermine democracy yet at the same time can be considered the will of the people, even if they infringe their rights.
If one believes the U.S. is immune, consider elected politicians gerrymandering districts to remain in power. And if we believe for an instant that all of this is a right-wing phenomenon, we just have to glance at Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro.
Freedom House’s classifications of freedom in 210 countries note that Venezuela is not free. Orban’s Hungary is now only partly free in contrast with, say, the Czech Republic, another former communist East European state which is classified free.
In their book How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, Tom Ginsburg and Aziz Z. Huq argue that forces of democratic decay often accompany the appearance on stage of a charismatic leader holding the populace in thrall. They also note three pillars supporting democracy: free and fair elections, freedom of expression and association, and the bureaucratic rule of law. The latter implies the independent functioning of bodies like the election commission, the Federal Reserve, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration and so on. This limits the power of the central executive unlike in Mr. Orban’s case.
Fortunately from the Ginsburg and Huq analysis the U.S. appears to be well insulated and employs freedom of association in particular to great effect. There can be chinks in the armor, however, as is happening in Georgia with new voter suppression laws.