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#3 2011
12 min read

Hungarian Democracy in Tatters

The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his party Fidesz controls over two-thirds of the parliamentary seats. Now they are putting the country through a thorough makeover. The Canadian-Hungarian historian Éva S. Balogh, who runs the internationally acclaimed blog Hungarian Spectrum, describes the political landscape in Orbán‘s Hungary.

Credits Text: Éva S. Balogh December 13 2011

At the end of October the Associated Press reported that Christoph von Dohnanyi, well-known German conductor and grandson of Hungarian composer Ernő von Dohnányi (1877–1960), had cancelled a pair of appearances at the Hungarian State Opera because he didn’t want to “appear in a city whose mayor entrusted the direction of a theatre to two known, extreme right-wing anti-Semites.”[1]

Theatre lovers of Budapest—and they are many in a city of ninety some theatres—staged a demonstration demanding a reversal of the mayor’s decision that was made against the recommendation of a panel of experts. The appointment of two extremist anti-Semites was a political decision, most likely dictated by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán himself. Orbán is willing to appease or even work with the extreme right if his political goals so dictate. As Al Kamen of The Washington Post wrote not long ago, “Viktor Orbán has no appetite for democracy.”[2]

In Europe, too, observers consider Prime Minister Orbán antidemocratic and autocratic. The same opinion can be heard in Europe. Ian Bremmer in The Financial Times noted that “Mr. Orban has veered from an ancient Greek path, one that underpins the entire European Union—that of democracy.” Bremmer complains that the European Union not only “lacks the institutions to police its members’ fiscal policies . . . but alarmingly, there is no institutional or legal recourse that the EU can fall back on to enforce the rules” that would guarantee democracy and civil liberties.[3] Jan-Werner Mueller complains about the same thing in The Guardian. Attention is focused on the fiscal crisis while nobody is paying much attention to “what has been going on in Budapest—the dismantling of the rule of law, the systematic weakening of oppositional media, the creation of a new nationalist and in many ways authoritarian constitution—which arguably put European integration much more in doubt than any problems with the euro.”[4]

What has happened? How could it have happened? In 1989–1990 Hungary was considered to be a model among the former socialist countries where the change of regime occurred smoothly based on a compromise between the representatives of the former regime and those of the opposition. This peaceful changeover was achievable because in its later years the Kádár regime, which with Soviet military help had managed to quash a fledgling multi-party system in 1956, was no longer a harsh dictatorship.

But what was a definite advantage in 1989–1990 became an impediment later. Preparatory negotiations involved only a few dozen men. Although the old Stalinist constitution of 1949 was completely rewritten, there was no nationwide discussion of its key points. What people hoped for was a more prosperous existence; the political structure of the country was of secondary importance in their eyes.

And then came the disappointment, because with the introduction of democracy came existential insecurity, a huge drop in living standards, high unemployment, and of all things, homelessness. All sorts of things Hungarians were unaccustomed to. That was twenty years ago, and the people are still waiting for that prosperity they were seeking at the end of the 1980s. Instead came one austerity program after the other because the new political elite was either inexperienced or irresponsible. Sometimes both.

By now more than 50% of the electorate cannot even pick a party they would be willing to vote for, while a year and a half ago at the national elections 52.73% of the voters opted for Orbán’s party, Fidesz-KDNP. It was a landslide that translated into 67.88% of the parliamentary seats. That meant that Orbán achieved what he hoped for: a two-thirds majority that would enable him to completely change the political structure of the country. It is likely that most people didn’t realize the dangers this super-majority posed to the checks and balances that are essential to any democracy. They were fed up with waiting for the Promised Land that seemed to be farther and farther away—especially in the wake of the financial crisis. They had had enough of reforms and didn’t want to hear the word “austerity.” Orbán promised instant paradise.

Were the socialist-liberal governments between 2002 and 2010 that bad? No, they were not. Expectations of the population were too great and pressure from Orbán in opposition was merciless and vicious. In his relentless attacks on the government Orbán was expressing his fundamental political philosophy. When April H. Foley, the U.S. Ambassador to Hungary between 2006 and 2009, called his attention to the fact that in a democracy the opposition is supposed to work out compromises with the government parties, Orbán’s answer was that it may be so in the West but not in Hungary where there is only one political goal: to win elections.

And win he did, with a margin that allows him to do whatever he wants. He can turn the whole country upside down, and if he has “no appetite for democracy,” he can get rid of it. This is what Orbán is doing at the moment with the assistance of hundreds and hundreds of willing ideologues who have been waiting breathlessly for their time to come.

Yes, there have been several missteps, but these “mistakes” occurred mainly in the economic and financial sectors. And that was because the plan that had been worked out by him and his economic “right-hand” as he called György Matolcsy, the minister in charge of the economy, couldn’t be implemented because of the resistance of the European Union. He was not allowed to increase the deficit. Thus, the government had to improvise: bank levies, the nationalization of private pension funds, lowering and raising taxes.

The rest of the important changes made since April 2010 were premeditated and worked out to the last detail. Without going into all the particulars, Orbán is building a government structure and a political system that has mighty little to do with democracy. The system that is being formed is highly centralized; the state will be paramount at the expense of the local governments. Hospitals and schools are being nationalized without compensation. This move requires a change in the constitution which, given the two-thirds majority, is no problem at all. In fact, in the last year or so, the constitution has been changed at least four or five times.

The Constitutional Court’s powers have been severely curtailed and diluted with the addition of five new judges, all handpicked by Orbán. A new office whose head will be appointed by the prime minister will select judges to replace the almost three hundred judges who were let go when the compulsory retirement age was lowered from 70 to 62. The prosecutor’s office has been in Fidesz hands ever since the appointment of Péter Polt as chief prosecutor in 2002.

Orbán also has rather peculiar ideas about the role of education. According to common wisdom the better educated the population the more successful the society and economy of the country. Orbán and his fellow politicians are following a different path. They are lowering the age of compulsory education to 16 from 18. They are planning to cut back on higher education so that fewer students will be able to attend colleges and universities. In any case, Orbán is not the intellectual type and one suspect that he has only disdain for people interested in the liberal arts. He keeps talking about a “work-based society” and gives examples of the kind of physical work that will bring prosperity to Hungary. A rather retrograde view in the twenty-first century from the Prime Minister of a relatively well developed country.

What kind of society does Orbán have in mind as the result of his efforts? First and foremost one in which he and his party will be in power for many years to come. He made that clear already in September 2008 in a speech before a select audience. He outlined his vision of a new Hungary in which there will be one “central power,” a governing party that will be in charge for decades. According to him “dual power,” meaning a political system in which the opposition has a significant role to play, leads only to superfluous bickering which impedes effective governing. In brief, Orbán is trying to build a system in which there will be an opposition giving the appearance of democracy, but where the opposition will be so weak that it will not be able to exert any influence on the course of events.

For the time being he seems to be successful. The opposition is divided. On the one hand, there is a fairly large contingent of parliamentary members from the extreme right (Jobbik) and, on the other, there are two parties on the left which between themselves do not see eye to eye. Moreover, one of them, the Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP), just split along ideological lines. At the moment in the 384-member parliament Fidesz-KDNP has 262 and the far-right Jobbik party has 45 members. These two parties often vote together. On the left, MSZP used to have 58 members, ten of who now sit with the independents. LMP, a party that is hard to characterize but whose members usually vote against the Government, holds 15 seats. In brief, the Government can do whatever it wants.

In the last year and a half, Orbán has made sure that the media would not pose difficulties. A media law was adopted which, although it didn’t introduce outright censorship, put severe restraints on media workers. They are simply afraid to express views that the almighty Media Authority might deem punishable by huge fines that would put their newspapers, radio stations, and television stations at risk. As it is, most of the media outlets that are critical of the government are on the brink of bankruptcy. Companies are afraid to support them with advertising for fear of not receiving government contracts or of being the target of some other harassment. The frequency of the country’s only liberal radio station will most likely be taken away soon.

The public television stations and radio have for some time been under Fidesz’ influence, but their coverage since the election has become blatantly one-sided. For example, on October 23, 100,000 people staged a demonstration with the call “I don’t like this regime!” MTV, the Hungarian government controlled television station, simply ignored it. Even commercial television stations are reluctant to cover political news in fear of retaliation. Thus, a lot of people are being left in ignorance about what is going on in the country.

What is missing to ensure a couple of decades of Orbán rule is a change in the electoral law. But such a revision is already in the works. According to estimates, the new law will further distort the electoral results. If at the last elections 53% of the votes was sufficient to receive 69% of the parliamentary seats, with the new law that same 53% would translate into well over 75% of the seats! Currently, the election is conducted in two rounds so that candidates who trail after the first round can make deals in the hope of a reversal. According to Fidesz’ plans, the second round will be eliminated. That would mean that in order to defeat the current government party the opposition parties would have to agree on a single candidate. Given the fragmentation of the opposition, this will be very difficult.

As the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a meeting with members of the Hungarian liberal-socialist opposition in Budapest, “the key question from the point of view of Hungarian democracy is what kind of electoral law will be enacted.” As long as “there are free and fair elections Hungarians will be able to express their political will.” Indeed, but on the basis of the experiences of the last year and half one is not at all sure whether this will be the case.

Éva S. Balogh runs the English-language blog Hungarian Spectrum, which has a large international following. As a young student she left Hungary in 1956 after the Soviets crushed Hungary’s popular anti-communist uprising. She immigrated to Canada and later moved to the United States to continue her studies. After receiving her Ph.D. she taught East European history and was a college dean at Yale University. Her published work focuses on Hungarian history between the two world wars. In October 2011 she was one of the founders of the Canadian-Hungarian Democratic Charter.

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