Hungary: democracy crisis, diagnosis and appeal

The government of Hungary led by Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party is alarming many by its establishment of ever-greater control over the country’s institutions and public life. A group of thirteen Hungarian intellectuals and public figures, who opposed Hungary’s communist regime in the 1970s - among them Gabor Demsky, Miklós Haraszti, György Konrád, and László Rajk - outline their concerns and call on Europe to help halt a slide to a new dictatorship.

The undersigned, participants of the erstwhile human rights and democracy movement that opposed the one-party communist regime in the 1970s and 1980s, believe that Hungarian society is not only the victim of the current economic crisis, but also the victim of its own government. The present government has snatched the democratic political tools from the hands of those who could use these tools to ameliorate their predicament. While chanting empty patriotic slogans, the government behaves in a most unpatriotic way by reducing its citizens to inactivity and impotence.

The constitutional system of Hungary has also sunk into a critical situation. As of 1 January 2012, the new constitution of Hungary - along with several fundamental laws - came into force. Viktor Orbán’s government is intent on destroying the democratic rule of law, removing checks and balances, and pursuing a systematic policy of closing autonomous institutions, including those of civil society, with the potential to criticise its omnipotence. Never since the regime change of 1989 when communist dictatorship was crushed has there been such an intense concentration of power in the region as in present-day Hungary.

Institutions with the authority to hold government activity in check have met a similar fate. The ruling party, Fidesz, continuously deprives such institutions of their autonomy, blackmails them for survival, discharges professional management, takes unlawful decisions and moulds these institutions so that they can no longer control and correct government activity (and, in sharp contrast to their original function, they serve to augment unbridled autocracy).

With the removal of the checks and balances, the whole state has become subservient to the government, or rather to the prime minister. The parliament and the president obediently comply with the dictates of the cabinet. By having their staff radically reshuffled and implementing laws curtailing their competence, several vital institutions - the chief prosecutor’s office, the court of justice and the constitutional court - act as the lengthened arms of the government. While local councils have lost the better part of their clout, semi-autonomous institutions such as the court of auditors, the Hungarian press agency, the Hungarian academy of sciences and the national cultural fund may well be regarded today as quasi-government agencies. Arbitration committees, including the now defunct national conciliation council, have been disbanded.

The concentration of power

A summary of these changes in the following five areas outlines the current situation in more detail.

1. Legislative power

Fidesz has created a system that puts an end to genuine debates in and outside parliament, and by excluding stakeholders parliament has become a virtual one-party powerhouse. It has been stripped of even a semblance of lawful parliamentary protocol. Fidesz, through its modifying of house rules, now has the exclusive right to turn any bill into law and make decisions about any issue concerning parliamentary protocol, thus rendering the existence of opposition parties a mere formality. Bills are rushed through legislation with no debate worthy of mention.

2. Executive power

Since a considerable proportion of proposals and amendments are submitted by individual members of parliament who make no effort to seek consensus and often ignore relevant ministries, professional and accountable governance has ceased to exist. This is a telling sign of the way power-sharing has become but a facade, with ministries and ministers having lost teeth. The president who is supposed to act independently of government and political parties, thereby being a living symbol of constitutional order, is now a man who promptly signs any document pushed on his desk. By disregarding the constitutional role bestowed on him, he is no more than a puppet of the executive power.

3. Jurisdiction

Numerous changes in legislation have been made that testify to a direct political intention to ignore democratic rules of law.

* The constitutional court, the ultimate institutional safeguard of legality, has been gradually turned into a weightless body. The number of judges has been increased with the addition of members known to be loyal to the ruling parties (including a former minister and a member of parliament, both Fidesz party members). The scope of the court has been narrowed, partly by depriving it of the right to arbitrate on economic issues

* The national judiciary office (NJO), established as part of the reform of the judiciary, has been brought under direct political influence. Instead of being an independent professional body, the chairperson of the NJO, who happens to be the wife of a Fidesz member of the European parliament, has the exclusive right to appoint, delegate and promote judges, as well as to determine which court deals with which case. The chair of the NJO has been elected for nine years by a two-thirds parliamentary majority; short of a qualified majority in the future, the chair may remain in her post indefinitely

* The retirement age may have been raised across the board, but a significant proportion of leading judges has been forced into retirement. The judiciary has thus become existentially dependent

* The chief prosecutor, who has the exclusive right to decide which case may be forwarded to the court of justice and which court should hear it, is a politician of the ruling party

* In the future, suspects and the accused may be deprived of the opportunity to consult their solicitors.

This new system marks the end of independent jurisdiction in Hungary.

4. The media

Fidesz intends to place the entire media under its control and regulation, hindering any form of an impartial, analytical and critical judgment of its policy. With this in mind:

* The public media, originally destined to be an impartial forum, has been forced to serve the government parties. Instead of professionalism, the only criterion for its continued existence is political loyalty

* The news service has been centralised: the same news is broadcast on every channel

* A national media and telecommunication agency has recently been established and granted unprecedented power. Led by its chairman, a Fidesz loyalist, it may exercise wide-ranging regulatory and sanctioning rights

* Radio frequencies and television broadcasting rights are conferred in an arbitrary fashion

* The independent press may be levied enormous fines, thus urging it to exercise self-censure. Disobedient newspapers are destined to lose state-sponsored advertisers - as well as private ones scared of retaliation - even run the risk of going bankrupt.

5. Election law

Democracy is posited on the condition that anyone may be voted out of office through peaceful measures. The new election law significantly restricts the opportunity to satisfy the will of citizens and realise a democratic change in the power structure. Instead of seeking consensus and a harmonisation of interests, Fidesz is intent on destroying rival political forces with the purpose of perpetuating its own power

* Motivated by political considerations, the new election law has redrafted constituencies and created a system which favours candidates of the ruling parties. In a way that violates the norms of constitutional democracies, no independent body has the right to veto the new distribution of constituencies

* Fidesz has taken the unprecedented step of ensuring that all the votes from the compensatory list go to the winning party; this clause, which takes no account of the will of the electorate, will distort the final outcome of the election

* The new single-round system will force the rival opposition parties into a coalition.

Fidesz is doing its best to criminalise its rivals: twenty-one years after the regime change, a new law has been passed in which the Hungarian Socialist Party, a democratic party of the Hungarian parliament, has been deemed guilty as being the legal successor of the former communist party.

The challenge to democracy

In Hungary, liberal democracy as interpreted in the west has come to an end; the autonomy of power-centres has become a formality. The government is thoroughly anti-democratic by according no respect to the sanctity of private property, eliminating local councils, and pushing all channels of social mobility, and of public and higher education under its political control. It seems obvious that the aim of the present government is to overhaul the entire society and, with recourse to threats and blackmail, to create a country rendered incapable of and too cowardly to defy its dictatorial rule. Under such conditions, had they applied in 2004, Hungary would have stood no chance of joining the European Union, the community of the western democracies. Regrettably, Hungary can expect only further isolation, impoverishment and hopelessness in the future.

However, instead of searching for an alternative to replace this constitutional dictatorship, it would be better to consider ways in which we can get rid of it within the bounds of legality. The question is whether there is any chance at all to break out and reinstate the rule of law under the legal constraints imposed by Fidesz.

The advocates of democracy and the rule of law within and outside Hungary must not acquiesce in having the government of a member-state of the European Union crush these universal values. Nor should the European Union just sit back and watch as it is being held hostage by an outdated, provincial tyrant. It is in the interest of both Hungary and the European Union to make a stand against the prime minister of Hungary. The leaders of the European Union are right in their decision to tighten integration, but this step should be taken not only to combat the financial crisis but also to challenge political crises and risks. The European Union may be threatened by disintegration on economic grounds, but it could equally disintegrate as a result of pursuing disparate and anti-democratic policies.

As we regard ourselves simultaneously as Hungarian and European citizens, we wish to avoid a clash of identities. We reject any political command that we give up our “dual citizenship”. If we must choose, our choice will be between the values of democracy and dictatorship - just as we did at the time of communist dictatorship. We are aware that the idea of a common Europe was born as an economic project, but this project is no more than wishful thinking unless its value system is accounted for and enforced, and its absence punished.

We are convinced that Hungary can become a country where the rule of law is reinstated. However, we must not forget that Fidesz, busy building a one-party dictatorship at an ever-growing speed, will never surrender unless compelled by the political representatives of Hungarian democrats, in compliance with the legal norms of democracy on which the European Union is founded.

The dictatorial rule has already reached a point of no return; under the present circumstances our country is unlikely to be able to find its way back to the rule of law. However, a debate along these lines is untimely as long as democratic forces are faced with the daunting task of uniting forces - in and outside the parliament, with one another. We cannot afford the luxury of learning the lesson after a lost election.

Unity for the time being - and for a long time hence - implies obtaining mass support. The size of this support will determine the means available for the reinstatement of democracy and the rule of law. Beyond raising its voice against the economic adventurism pursued by Viktor Orbán, Europe and the whole world will offer help for Hungarian democracy only after unity has been achieved with mass support to back it up.

Europe is at a crossroads too. Hungary is a sad example of what may happen wherever there is a concentration of crisis tendencies, aggravated by attempts to resolve problems caused by an economic and social crisis with authoritarian means and a policy of nationalistic isolation. Instead of prosperity and stability, such a policy can only lead to suppression, conflict and turmoil. The desperate situation of present-day Hungary should be a warning for all of us. If Europe is prepared to help Hungary, it will also help itself.

Attila Ara-Kovács, journalist
György Dalos, writer
Gábor Demszky, former mayor of Budapest
Miklós Haraszti, former OSCE representative on freedom of the media, former MP
Róza Hodosán, former MP
Gábor Iványi, pastor, former MP
János Kenedi, historian
György Konrád, writer
Bálint Magyar, former minister of education
Imre Mécs, former MP
Sándor Radnóti, philosopher
László Rajk, architect, former MP
Sándor Szilágyi, writer on photography

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László Rajk is a Hungarian architect and designer, who from the mid-1970s was active in democratic opposition to the communist regime in Hungary. In 1981 he co-founded (with Gábor Demszky) the clandestine, independent AB Publishing House, and used his Budapest apartment as a bookshop. In 1988 he was a co-founder of the Network of Free Initiatives and the Alliance of Free Democrats; after the establishment of democracy in 1989-90 he was elected a member of parliament and served for six years. His father, also called László Rajk (1909-49), was Hungary's interior and foreign minister in the post-1945 government; after a show trial on trumped-up espionage charges, he was executed