(Budapest) – The EU needs to respond promptly and comprehensively to the grave threat to the rule of law and democratic institutions posed by Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, which won a fourth term in national elections on April 3, 2022, Human Rights Watch said today.
The EU has responded insufficiently to the hollowing out of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary during 12 years to date of a Fidesz government under Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The ruling party’s two-thirds majority will give it free rein, unless EU institutions take resolute and concerted action.
“After Orban and Fidesz have spent 12 years rolling back democratic safeguards and centralizing power, it would be naïve to expect them to rest on their laurels,” said Lydia Gall, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “EU institutions should use all the tools at their disposal to ensure that the Orban government is held accountable for its erosion of EU values and to guard against future threats.”
The election was marred by serious concerns about its fairness. An election monitoring mission from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted on April 4 a number of concerns in the lead-up to election. They included blurring the lines between the government and the ruling party in campaigning, amplifying the advantage of the ruling coalition, the absence of a level playing field, and lack of balance in campaign coverage.
The ruling party’s fourth consecutive win follows years of foot dragging by EU institutions and member states in the face of flagrant breaches of the rule of law and attacks on democratic institutions in Hungary. The country’s devastating rights record is rooted in successive Orban governments undermining the independence of the judiciary, hijacking public institutions, controlling the media landscape, criminalizing activities by civil society organizations, harassing independent journalists, and demonizing vulnerable groups and minorities.
The impact of Fidesz’s hostility to democratic institutions became evident before the elections, when opposition party candidates were given five minutes of airtime on government-controlled TV in four years, and the ruling party tinkered with the electoral law to serve its own interests. An anti-LGBT referendum held on election day failed, after a concerted civil society campaign led to large numbers of spoiled ballots.
For too long, the EU took a muted response to the Hungarian government’s backtracking on the rule of law, refusing to acknowledge or speak out against the systematic nature of attacks, Human Rights Watch said. More recently, the EU has attempted to bring Hungary’s government back in line with fundamental EU values, through infringement proceedings, European Union Court rulings, and the possibility of conditioning EU funds to respect for the rule of law.
The political sanctions process under Article 7 of the EU treaty, intended to hold governments to account for threats to EU values, has failed to deliver concrete recommendations to Hungary. Key judgments from the EU Court remain unimplemented, resulting, for example, in the continued criminalization of assisting refugees at Hungary’s borders.
Fidesz’s win should raise alarm bells at the Council of the European Union and prompt member states to immediately move Article 7 proceedings forward, Human Rights Watch said. Article 7 should be the final tool against the erosion of the bloc’s values and is more relevant than ever. The European Commission should look at activating conditionality for EU funding to ensure that EU taxpayers’ money is not used to fund repression.
“EU institutions should keep a close eye on Hungary’s human rights record in the coming four years and be prepared for further attacks on democratic institutions and core EU values,” Gall said. “Brussels should stand in solidarity with those upholding EU values, including Hungary’s embattled civil society, and do everything it can to halt the downward spiral that subjugates the rule of law and dismisses human rights protections.”