U.S.-based pro-democracy group Freedom House said Tuesday that a "spectacular breakdown of democracy" has been taking place in Poland and Hungary, two countries that stood as models of democratic change after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
Hungary now has the lowest democracy score in Central Europe, and Poland's score is falling, the watchdog organization said in a report. It cited attacks by populist leaders in both countries on constitutional courts and the system of checks and balances, as well as the transformation of public media into "propaganda arms."
"The spectacular breakdown of democracy in these countries should serve as a warning about the fragility of the institutions that are necessary for liberal democracy, especially in settings where political norms have shallow roots and where populists are able to tap into broad social disaffection," the report said.
The downward spiral began with the election in 2010 of Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his ruling Fidesz party, according to the report. Together, they have re-written the constitution, taken over the courts, eroded critical media, attacked civic society and stoked anti-migrant feelings, Freedom House said. Orban himself has declared that he is building an "illiberal democracy" modeled on Russia, China and Turkey.
The civic society attacks played out dramatically Tuesday, when Hungarian lawmakers approved a bill targeting Central European University. The university in Budapest is funded by George Soros, the liberal Hungarian-American billionaire whom Orban sees as an ideological foe.
Poland's ruling Law and Justice party, under the leadership of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has taken similar steps since assuming power in 2015, eroding the independence of the Constitutional Tribunal and turning public media into a propaganda outlet for the party.
"Despite their apparent maturation, the media, the judiciary, and institutions of democratic representation in Poland and Hungary have turned out to be quite vulnerable," the report said.
The Hungarian government rejected the report's conclusions.
"Freedom of the press fully prevails in Hungary. Every political opinion can find room and be published in the Hungarian press. Hungarian citizens can exercise their democratic rights in free elections," the government press office said in a statement.
It also sought to undermine Freedom House by alleging it is financed by Soros, adding: "The Hungarian government is not surprised that an institution supported by Soros is attacking Hungary."
Freedom House spokesman Robert Ruby told The Associated Press that the organization received no funds from any Soros-backed institution in 2016 and 2017, and that "the last such grant was received in 2015, for an amount that was less than 0.5 percent of the organization's budget."
Freedom House made its assessment in its yearly "Nations in Transit" report, which evaluates the state of democracy in 29 formerly communist countries from Central Europe and the Balkans to Central Asia.
It found backsliding on democracy across much of this region but also noted Ukraine, Romania, and Kosovo had made "modest gains" thanks to reforms.