Hungary: Turning right–and fighting with the EU

Will controversial prime minister Viktor Orbán be forced to back down?

Democracy did not come easily to this part of the world. There were centuries of feudalism, a monarchy, a right-wing dictatorship, a Communist dictatorship, then the 1956 revolution when many died, many more were imprisoned, and some executed. And then there was silence.

Things began to improve during the 1980s. In 1989 Hungary decided it wanted to be a democracy. Since then, there have been several different governments, but none quite like the present one led by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. In 2010, his FIDESZ party won an easy victory over the seriously incompetent and admittedly mendacious socialists, and formed a new government with 53 per cent of the popular vote. Given electoral laws, that translated into two-thirds of the seats in Budapest’s spectacularly grand turn-of-the-last-century parliament. That is absolute power. Since then, with increasing velocity, the Orbán government has rewritten or created almost 300 laws, culminating in a new constitution, called the basic law, that came into force in January 2012.

Among the first were the draconian new media laws, whose original purpose, says Géza Jeszenszky, Hungary’s ambassador to Norway, had been to eliminate racism, hate speech, “excessive violence and improper language” from the airwaves. But their real consequence has been to silence most critics of the government. A new media board—composed of FIDESZ loyalists—can assess what is balanced reporting and can, should it choose to, levy substantial fines on those not meeting its hard-to-define standards. Its chair is to enjoy an extraordinary nine-year term. One of the board’s recent decisions was to deny a licence extension to Klubrádió, a radio station that has often aired views critical of government.

The basic law, meanwhile, attempts to root the country in its illustrious distant past as a Christian bulwark against incursions from the East. Among other things, it determines that human life begins at conception (the government is also relegating responsibility for education in some areas to churches). It also aims a direct hit at all the checks and balances designed to prevent absolute power by any one party by, as Human Rights Watch complains, “interfering arbitrarily with the judicial system and media.”

The Constitutional Court has been packed with FIDESZ allies, its jurisdiction has been curtailed to exclude financial matters, and constitutional challenges of laws have been significantly lengthened by forcing them to first go through the lower courts. As well, to eliminate more experienced but possibly politically suspect judges, the government lowered the judiciary’s retirement age from 70 to 62 and established a national judiciary office with the absolute power to appoint judges and allocate cases. The new public prosecutor has also been appointed for nine years.

It doesn’t end there. The central bank has lost its independence, and its embattled president had his salary slashed by 75 per cent. The country’s data protection agency and its national audit office are under government control. The new state auditor has a 12-year appointment. Senior civil servants have been replaced, as has the politically suspect artistic director of Budapest’s New Theatre. Its new director, whose political leanings are to the right of FIDESZ, aims to schedule more nationalistic fare than the currently playing Don Juan.

Assigning top spots to a party elite has long been the habit of post-Communist countries, and the socialist government that preceded FIDESZ was no exception. What is different this time is the duration of the appointments, and the speed with which they took place.

Meanwhile, a new, all-FIDESZ Election Commission has replaced the past politically mixed one, and electoral district boundaries have been redrawn. While FIDESZ explains this as its desire to have roughly the same-sized populations in each district, the net result will be that the few areas that went socialist last time will now likely vote FIDESZ. As well, a new law on the status of religion cut the number of recognized religious organizations to 14 (after an outcry, another 18 were added at the end of February), leaving more than 300 others in a state of unregistered limbo.

The government seemed impervious to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech last year in Budapest when she stressed the need for “real commitment to independence of the judiciary, a free press and governmental transparency.” The European Union, having welcomed Hungary as a member in 2004, has also been sabre-rattling and sending letters of protest, but so far there has been little to show for its efforts. At times, in fact, the government has found the EU’s threats useful in gathering patriotic support against the gnomes of Brussels. After all, as Orbán pointed out, he and his government had been elected, while the EU’s executive, the European Commission, isn’t.

But pressure continues to mount. The International Monetary Fund ended urgently needed financial aid talks in December to protest the changes at the central bank. And in January, the EC launched “infringement proceedings” against Hungary to see if it violated EU laws when it changed the laws governing the central bank, judiciary and the data protection agency. Whether FIDESZ is really going to tough it out is questionable. The Hungarian currency, the forint, is in the tank. Hungary’s credit rating has been downgraded to junk status, and international corporations are, understandably, ill at ease about investing in a country that can now impose a “crisis tax” on corporations without prior notice.

Zoltán Kovács, Hungary’s communications minister, told Maclean’s that while the government remains steadfast in its new directions, it is reviewing some recent decisions and is responding fully to the EU’s objections. As so many other FIDESZ deputies are, Kovács is nonplussed by all the negative attention Hungary has received. Instead of focusing on its deficit reduction—for the first time in many years Hungary has managed to bring its deficit to three per cent of its GDP—the IMF, he says, is punishing the country. As for Klubrádió, Kovács says, its 12-year licence has merely run out, and there was a higher bidder for the same frequency.

But according to professor Miklós Haraszti, a writer, human rights advocate, and recent Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe representative on freedom of the media, Klubrádió’s frequencies have been granted to a new company whose only address appears to be the same as that of a FIDESZ lawyer. Haraszti, a former dissident, is advocating for the reinstatement of Radio Free Europe’s Hungarian service, the voice of democracy that pierced the silence of Communist times. And like Haraszti, several former dissidents who were willing to sacrifice years of their lives under the Communist regime are now, once again, speaking out—this time against the anti-democratic ways of Orbán, once a fellow traveller in the pro-democracy movement.

György Konrád, one of the country’s most famous writers, is one. In a Jan. 19 New York Times protest article, he accused Orbán’s followers of being anti-intellectual, former Communist youth-group cadres. Hungary, he says, “is beginning to resemble the post-Soviet dictatorships of Central Asia; some are even calling it Orbánistan.” Soft-spoken philosopher Janos Kis’s essay in HVG, a political weekly, concludes that it’s impossible to foresee a stable governing system out of Orbán’s cumulative actions.

The Western media, led by the Germans and abetted by the Americans, has also been critical of the Hungarian government. Has all that had an effect? On March 14, Orbán wrote a conciliatory letter to EC President José Manuel Barroso, assuring the EU of his unswerving co-operation to revive bailout talks with it and the IMF. And yet, on March 15, Hungary’s grand holiday commemorating its attempt in 1848 to gain freedom from the Austrians, Orbán spoke to a massive crowd in front of the parliament buildings, declaiming his intention not to recognize the independence of the central bank, and announcing that “we will not become a colony” and that Hungary does not want “unasked-for help from foreigners” in tailored suits.

Democracy, as it turns out, has been a bit of a disappointment for many Hungarians. A 2009 Pew survey found that they are the most disappointed people in the former Eastern bloc.