Acasă Extern How Viktor Orban Puts Democratic Tools to Authoritarian Use

How Viktor Orban Puts Democratic Tools to Authoritarian Use

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 rubber stamp 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.

In addition to the methodology, respondents are often primed to agree with the government position. Accompanying the “Soros Plan” consultation, Orban included a fear-mongering letter that cited the impetus for the consultation. “In Brussels, plans are being made on our future which involve major threats,” it stated ominously. In last year’s family law consultation, the government included a paragraph before each question that stated its position on the proposed solutions to demographic decline, including increasing support for mothers with three or more children. The paragraphs provide essentially a form of leading the witness to the conclusion of supporting the government’s line.

As more democracies risk sliding toward autocracy under populist leaders, more of them will rely on seemingly democratic tools to consolidate their rule.

Recent consultations also suffer from a troubling lack of transparency. After the 2017 national consultation on Soros and immigration, the government reported that the survey received 2.2 million responses. Yet there was no public release or verification of the results from an independent and objective body. Instead, Minister of State for Government Communication Bence Tuzson held a press conference trumpeting the outcome. “Based on the results so far,” he stated, “practically every respondent said no to the fact that 1 million immigrants should be resettled in Europe as part of the ‘Soros Plan.’” It was a convenient conclusion, of course, and one that gave Orban public support for his plan to make George Soros an enemy of the government and bolster support for Orban’s reelection.

Rather than actually gauge public opinion, the primary purpose of these consultations is to enable Orban to claim a democratic justification for enacting his “illiberal” agenda. Research shows that legitimacy is an important factor in stabilizing an authoritarian regime due to the public’s direct role in empowering the rise of the autocrat. A supposedly democratic mandate from the people allows Orban to bypass institutions that could potentially constrain him, like parliament. The unmediated access established through a national consultation often serves as a pressure release valve for the wider populace and creates the perception of a direct dialogue between the government—and the leader, in Orban’s case—and the people, which research shows can build loyalty to the regime.

The national consultations further consolidate Orban’s power by providing him with campaign insights and enabling him to identify opponents. The information collected from national consultations allows Orban to notice weaknesses in his electoral strategy. In conjunction with the “Soros Plan” consultation, Orban and his Fidesz party launched a large-scale media campaign laced with scare tactics and bolstering the government position—which also served as a reelection platform for Orban and Fidesz, paid for by taxpayer dollars. The potential campaigning power of national consultations goes a step further. In the 2015 national consultation on migration, NGO representatives and think tank experts suspect that Fidesz used the collected information to illegally build a database of potential Fidesz voters. Reports suggest that the national consultation allowed the government to monitor the perspective of voters region-by-region, as well as identify which voters potentially disagreed with the government’s stance due to a lack of a response. These measures blur the lines between campaigning and governing at the expense of Hungary’s taxpayers.

Orban’s growing use of national consultations suggests he could be learning from authoritarian leaders like China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Over the past few years, China has launched a national consultation roughly every two weeks, for everything from a Chinese Medicine Ordinance to a review of electoral arrangements. However, reports show that 15 of 25 consultations yielded no more than 100 responses; some only yielded a handful of responses. Despite the paltry response rate, the Chinese government often utilized the results as a justification for official government policies.

The ability to identify challenges to a regime is an added benefit of national consultations and potentially a lesson Orban learned from Russia. Putin has utilized a public discussion page on his website, a telethon and even an online petition platform known as the Russian Public Initiative, which crowd-sources federal, regional and municipal level policy changes from citizens across Russia. In most cases, these tools have given Putin’s government insight into potential critics and opponents, or about issues that could lead to social instability and anti-government protests.

When used in bad faith and for undemocratic ends, national consultations can guide countries down the path to autocracy by stabilizing the regime in power, providing the cover of a democratic mandate, and bypassing the institutions that are supposed to act as checks and balances. It is likely that other populist leaders will learn from Orban’s tactics, just as he seems to have learned from Xi and Putin. As more democracies risk sliding toward autocracy under populist leaders who nevertheless came to power through democratic means, more of them will rely on seemingly democratic tools to consolidate their rule. The old tactics of regime survival are evolving, from Beijing to Budapest. Dressed up as democracy, measures like national consultations are in fact undermining it.

Source: World Politics Review

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