On March 30, 2020 Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz allies in the Hungarian parliament used coronavirus as a pretext to push through a law that suspended elections, criminalised free speech and gave the prime minister the authority to rule by decree indefinitely. Hearing echoes of twentieth-century European coups, many decried the ‘end of democracy’ and the establishment of a dictatorship.
After 10 years atop Hungarian politics, this was not the point at which Orbán became a dictator, it was the point at which the mask came off and he stopped pretending not to be one. Since becoming Prime Minister in 2010, Orbán gradually increased his power, eroding democracy and rigging the system in his favour. Using the same playbook as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Orbán enacted a very modern coup. Not sudden, but gradual. Not denouncing democracy, but hiding behind a hollowed out version of it. Not obvious, but just as deadly.
Both Erdoğan and Orbán were once seen as democratic hopefuls and if you listen to their rhetoric today, you might be fooled into thinking they genuinely hold democratic principles. After winning the contested 2018 presidential election, Erdoğan stood on the balcony of the AKP headquarters in Ankara and declared: ‘The winner of this election is democracy’.
This ‘democracy’ both leaders so regularly extol is democracy in name only.
There is no doubt that both Orbán and Erdoğan command significant support in their respective populations and both of their countries do hold regular elections. But this is as far as their democracy goes, however. In both countries, elections are by no means free and fair. The press has been neutered and reduced to parroting the government’s message, the constitution has been manipulated to enhance the leader’s power, and all other sources of potential resistance within society have been purged and populated with government loyalists.
The constitutional majority Fidesz enjoys in parliament is not built on the vast majority of the population’s support, but on extreme gerrymandering and dirty tactics. In the last election, Fidesz helped to create a number of fake parties to split the opposition vote and win a two-thirds majority of MPs, with less than half of the vote. During the 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, there were reports of voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing, whilst Erdoğan imprisoned a number of opposition MPs and leaders.
Perhaps the most significant way in which Erdoğan and Orbán have rigged the electoral systems in their favour though, is through their control of the media. In both countries, it is estimated that around 90 per cent of the media is either state-controlled or owned by government allies, leading to extremely unfair reporting and opposition leaders being greatly disadvantaged during election cycles. Throughout the 2018 presidential election, Erdoğan’s main opponent was virtually blacked out by the state television network TRT, getting just 15 hours compared to Erdoğan’s 181.
Unlike coup d’états of old, these takeovers weren’t performed overnight, but over time. Though they did increase in pace when the government felt particularly vulnerable; such as after the failed coup attempt by the Turkish military in 2016, when Erdoğan shut down more than 100 news outlets by decree and imprisoned dozens of journalists — making Turkey the worst jailer of journalists in the world at the time. The incremental nature of these modern coups not only means that people don’t know what is happening until it’s too late, but it also makes them harder to fight against as there is rarely a single event which calls those who want to defend democracy to action.
This difficulty is enhanced by the fact that both leaders (representing sections of the population who feel as if they have been locked out of power for a long time), acted in the name of ‘restoring democracy’ to the people from whom the secular, liberal elites had stolen it. This is why Erdoğan and Orbán have maintained a veneer of democracy and also why resistance is so difficult, as it is immediately characterised by the government as being anti-democratic.
It is under this pretence of ‘restoring democracy’ to the people that both leaders have removed all other sources of potential resistance and power within society. Fidesz expanded the size of Hungary’s constitutional court so that they could pack it with friendly judges, whilst the AKP — after nearly being shut down by Turkey’s constitutional court in 2008 — used a referendum in 2010 to pass an amendment allowing them to do the same. Like elections, referendums can be key to enacting a modern coup. Leaders can pick the issue or question and use their control of the media to get the public to endorse their decision — before shaping the decided outcome how they want — all the while presenting it as the antithesis of subverting democracy.
Orbán and Erdoğan purged the civil service, business leaders, academia and the military, replacing them all with government supporters. Following the defeated coup (or as it maybe should be known, counter-coup) attempt in 2016, Erdoğan has dismissed over 100,000 public sector workers, 5,000 academics, 33,000 teachers and huge swathes of the military, whilst imprisoning over 50,000 citizens — often on false charges of supporting what the government calls ‘terrorist organisations’. Orbán also fired civil servants en masse, forced the Central European University out of the country and used corrupt means to ensure it is near impossible to get rich in Hungary without the support of the government.
When, therefore, Orbán gave himself the power to rule by emergency decree earlier this year, just as Erdoğan did in 2016, it was not a huge constitutional change and lurch towards authoritarianism; rather, it was simply writing down in statute what was already true. No one of these measures destroyed democracy in Turkey or Hungary, but together they combined to rig the system in their leaders’ favour and ensure they can stay in power indefinitely.
Hungary and Turkey are not the only countries in which this is taking place. Poland looks to be on a very similar trajectory and Trump, if power in America wasn’t so decentralised, may have been more successful in doing the same. They are, however, the best examples of the modern coup and should serve as a warning to western democracies about how democracy can be subverted by those purporting to be saving it.