Opposition Parties’ Cooperation: Plan for Liberal Hungary

August von Pettenkofen, József Borsos: Opening ceremony of the Hungarian parliament in 1848 // Public domain
August von Pettenkofen József Borsos: Opening ceremony of the Hungarian parliament in 1848 // Public domain

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[1]

The End of History? was written by Francis Fukuyama in 1989 – when the Soviet Union lost the Cold War and many socialist countries (like Hungary) became democracies. Fukuyama’s known opinion is that liberal democracy is the best possible political system for any country.

In the 1990’s it seemed as though liberal democracy has won: European post-socialist countries – and also countries in South America – changed their old authoritarian regime. Democracy’s Third Wave[2] was between 1974 and 1990, Hungary had made the transition to democracy in 1989 and it stabilized in 1994 – after the second free and fair election. During the 1990-1994 period the parliament passed many important resolutions to make a constitutional democracy – like the establishment of the Constitutional Court and the introduction of a mixed electoral system.

After a promising start the Hungarian political system could not turn into a liberal democracy. It is not a special occurrence, in some other “third wave countries” democratization slowed down or stopped as well. The democracy crisis has many reasons: fragmented political culture, economic problems, problematic challenges to fundamental rights.

However, the outcome is similar. After the backlash and the disillusionment with democracy, citizens choose populist parties and politicians to lead the country. Since 2010, Fidesz is the most powerful political party in Hungary and they have an absolute majority in parliament. They’re building an illiberal democracy instead of a modern liberal democracy. In these days there are great many deficits of democratic values in Hungary.

What Is Liberal Democracy?

An important philosopher of liberal democracy is Robert Dahl, who conjured the term polyarchy. Polyarchy is an ideal political system with pluralist power. Dahl named five requirements for a system to be a polyarchy:

  1. Founding of parties and organization is a right for everybody
  2. Parliament elections
  3. Because of the pluralist competition, the politicians are ready to compromise
  4. Alternative mediums
  5. Pluralist institutes (separation of powers)

The liberal democracy term complements polyarchy with separate courts, rule of law, civil society, legitimate electoral system and protection of minority political groups. These parts of liberal democracy can create institutionalized freedom – as the most successful system.[3]

In Hungarian politics there is a deficit of liberal democratic values. In my article I wrote about the separation of powers, the Constitutional Court, freedom of media, the electoral system and reconciliation. What is the problem in Hungary? How did illiberal democracy come about? What is the solution? The opposition parties’ cooperation? Could Hungary be a liberal democracy? Now I look for the answers for these questions.

What Is Illiberal Democracy?

As the first step, Fidesz had created a new constitution, it’s named the Fundamental Law of Hungary. “The functioning of the Hungarian State shall be based on the principle of the separation of powers.”[4] However the last 10 years, the centralization of power heavily increased.

The biggest change has happened in the Constitutional Court and the electoral system. Since 2012 the Constitutional Court became weaker. The first reason for this is the appointment of constitutional judges. Members of parliament vote for the judges with a 2/3 majority and only they have a title to notation. The president of the Constitutional Court is elected also by the parliament.

Therefore, the membership depends on Fidesz. Furthermore, the governing party limited the competence of Constitutional Court: they cannot review laws about public money. The new constitution removed actio popularis too, so no more can citizens turn to the Constitutional Court.

The electoral system is also favourable for Fidesz. At present the electoral system is mixed but very unequal. In 2014 and 2018 the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation) has made a report about the election. The biggest problems:

  • Difference between the voters who live abroad and Hungarians living outside its borders
  • Gerrymandering: manipulation the boundaries of electoral constituency
  • Winner compensation: parties get extra fraction votes after their candidate wins an electoral constituency

Furthermore, the law of the electoral system is not legitimate because it was created without the involvement of opposition parties.

In the OSCE report there is a chapter about the media.

“Provisions in the legal framework that can be used to provide for the broadcasting of government advertisements during an election campaign should be amended in order to prevent the governing party having an undue campaign advantage.”[5]

Media is also an important instrument to the dominant Fidesz party. The governing party controls many TV channels and newspapers. Media freedom is not complete in Hungary.

The reconciliation deficit is the last problem that I wrote about. Civil society is very important in a liberal democracy to policy making. In Hungary, reconciliation does not work. Politicians usually make decisions alone without civil organizations or separated institutes. The government only maintains connections with “the good part of civil society” that supports the politics of Fidesz, they do not listen alternative, minority opinions. Damaged pluralism is typical in illiberal democracy. “Illiberal democracy” in itself is a special term in Hungary since Orbán Viktor’s speech at Băile Tuşnad.

“Meaning, that Hungarian nation is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not deny foundational values of liberalism, as freedom, etc.. But it does not make this ideology a central element of state organization, but applies a specific, national, particular approach in its stead.”[6]

7 years later, opposition parties now also need illiberal democracy as they have made their program against this special term.

Plan for Liberal Hungary

Opposition parties’ cooperation was born with strategic reason: small parties stand no chance to win the election against Fidesz. However, the cooperation isn’t a strategic choice alone, because the different opposition parties also have similar values. They want to save liberal democracy.

Opposition parties have written three important documents: Value Proposition, Common Ground and Code of Ethics. In all three documents there are good proposals to make an alternative political system. A political system that can meet the requirements of liberal democracy.

In the Value Proposition there are two liberal promises about the legitimate election and civil society. The opposition parties are ready to give an answer to antidemocratic modifications of electoral bill. They guarantee the legitimacy of their candidates with primary elections. Therefore, the voters can construct the winning team and every opposition party starts with equal chance.

In spite of the joint list the parties will make 6 factions after the parliament election. It is necessary to keep their different identities. As governing parties, they will create a new fair and more proportional election system. It is not the only plan to change the Hungarian political system either: they want to create a new constitution too.

Reconciliation is a crucial value in the opposition parties’ cooperation. It is written in the Value Proposition the new parliament will create a constitution involving civil society. The parliament will have to organize a referendum about the bill. Furthermore, the parliament will have to pass the bill two times in two different parliamentary terms.

The details of the constitution are written in the Common Ground. Common Ground is the official program that the six opposition parties had created. They want to create a pluralist constitution which values every citizen, and they want to represent the minority, and not just the majority in politics. With the opposition program, parties take a stand for separation of powers.

At the present, many leaders of independent institutes are loyal to Fidesz. This needs to change – said the opposition parties. The most important institute is the Constitutional Court that depends on the governing party. The opposition politicians want to stabilize it: they want to revive actio popularis and the notation of judges will also be different. The purpose is a strong Constitutional Court that could be a balance against the parliament and government.

Another interesting chapter of Common Ground is related to media freedom. Regarding the media, the most important value is transparency. Opposition parties want to separate public media and private media. The mission of public media is pluralist information. Competition and media ethics have to exist in private media too. Shortly, the goal is for every politician and party to be able to start with equal chances in media.

Illiberal democracy (2010-) Plan of liberal democracy
Constitutional Court Weak Constitutional Court depends on parliament  Strong Constitutional Court is a balance against the parliament
Elections Illegitimate and unequal electoral system Fair and more proportional electoral system
Media Governing party controls media Media freedom
Reconciliation Decision-making without involving civil sector Involvement of civil society in decisions and planning
Separation of powers The centralization of power increased Independent institutes

Ethics and righteousness are also important aspects for opposition parties. They have written a document named Code of Ethics. It defines the character of cooperation. Opposition parties made a promise that they will help each other independently of the result of the primary elections. Their common opponent is Fidesz, and they will not fight each other, they’re fighting alongside each other in the election campaign period.

One more value is the democratic debate: they make a stand for collision of different opinions. Before the primary elections, the prime minister candidates – and some parliament candidates – will debate about program points.

Why Is Debate Important in Liberal Democracy?

Opposition parties’ standpoint is that pluralism and democratic debate is the guarantee of Hungary’s future. They said it is the best way to find great compromises. Political debates have a good place in the opposition program. But why is it important in a liberal democracy?

“First, if any opinion is compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we can certainly know, be true. To deny this is to assume our own infallibility. Secondly, though the silenced opinion be an error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of truth; and since the general or prevailing opinion on any subject is rarely or never the whole truth, it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”[7]

In a good political system every standpoint matters because it is the prerequisite of policy making. Majority and minority work together in a liberal democracy. To make a good compromise, they have to organize real debates between political parties and civil organizations. Therefore, reconciliation leans on democratic debate.

If opposition parties win the election in 2022, fair debate could be common in politics because regulation implementation will be politically divided between many different parties. It’ll be good for political culture in the long run. Citizens will know more opinions, interests, ideologies and will hear more proposed solutions. It helps pluralize political thinking. Also, civil activism will be better, because more citizens will think they can influence politics.

Overall, the program of opposition parties’ cooperation will be a good solution to correct illiberal democracy. Liberal democracy can guarantee real reconciliation, separation of powers and political pluralism. Just one question is left: will opposition parties have any chance to accomplish their plans? In 2022 we will find out.


[1] Fukuyama, Francis (1989): The End of History? The National Interest. No. 16. pp. 3-18.

[2] Huntington, P. Samuel (1991): Democracy’s Third Wave. Journal of Democracy. No. 2. pp. 12-34.

[3] Bibós István (1990): A kapitalista liberalizmus és a szocializmus-kommunizmus állítólagos kiegyenlíthetetlen ellentéte. In: Bibó István: Válogatott tanulmányok. Negyedik kötet. Magvető Könyvkiadó, Budapest. 759-783.

[4] Fundamental Law of Hungary. Article C/1

[5] Hungary. Parliamentary elections. 6. April 2014. OSCE/ODIHR Limited Election Observation Mission

Final Report

[6] Orbán Viktor’s speech at Băile Tuşnad. https://budapestbeacon.com/full-text-of-viktor-orbans-speech-at-baile-tusnad-tusnadfurdo-of-26-july-2014/

[7] Mill, John Stuart (1859): On Liberty. John W. Parker and Son, West Strand, London

Continue exploring:

Discrimination against LGBTIQ Community in Hungary

Making It Work: Harmonizing Globalization and National Interest in Governance

Sara Szilagyi
Republikon Institute