How Democratic Is Hungary?

Orban in Budapest, February 2019 Attila Volgyi Xinhua / eyevine​ / Redux

In his essay “Democracy Demotion” (July/August 2019), Larry Diamond laments the decline in prominence of U.S. democracy promotion. It is refreshing to have an American expert lift a mirror to the United States, writing that the country “has to repair its own broken democracy” before it can take up again the mantle of democracy promotion internationally. But Diamond betrays his biases when, expressing concern about “the wave of illiberal populism that has been sweeping developed and developing countries alike,” he claims that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban “has presided over the first death of a democracy in an EU member state.”

The death of democracy in Hungary? That’s a dramatic claim, as ill informed as it is offensive. Diamond and other critics of Orban who assert that Hungary is no longer a democracy rely on a set of flawed arguments that are incapable of explaining a host of other facts about today’s Hungary.

For example, voter participation in Hungary has been going up, not down. Last year’s parliamentary elections saw the highest turnout since 2002. In elections for the European Parliament this past May, Hungarians again showed up in record numbers to vote, and a party barely two years old won ten percent of the vote. The surge in emigration that followed the 2008 financial crisis has subsided, and far more Hungarians are now returning than are leaving. A host of economic indicators—record-low unemployment, record-high female employment, rising real wages, robust GDP growth—show a much more positive picture than the one Diamond offers. So do important social indicators, such as an increasing number of marriages, a declining number of divorces, a dramatically declining number of abortions, and a rising fertility rate. Hungarians are a freedom-loving people, and these trends depict a country of optimism and confidence, not one where our liberty has been taken from us.

Diamond’s bias against Hungary illustrates a larger problem that explains why democracy promotion has taken on such a negative connotation

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