Hungary’s choices one year on: in the land of ‘Revolutionary Voting Booths’

The EU has to deal with a government that came to power democratically and uses its power to dismantle the democratic institutional system. Fidesz' ‘solutions’ are desperately wrong. But the problems are real. Europe can only offer attractive alternatives to its peoples, if it finds viable solutions to these problems. What happens in Hungary is not the internal affair of 10 million Hungarians. It is a litmus test for Europe's capacity to defend its basic democratic values.

In early May a young MP of the extreme-right Hungarian party, Jobbik, proposed the removal of the "anti-Hungarian" Imre Kertesz and Gyorgy Spiro from the school curriculum. The Minister of National Resources embarked on an official ‘defence’ that nevertheless accepted the premise of the attack, replying that it takes time for "eventual aesthetic and eventual moral values" to be revealed, "independent of our current historical sensibility", but that "Bartok, despite his role played in the Commune of 1919, Thomas Mann, despite his homosexuality, Attila Jozsef, despite his Communist Party membership, (…) can remain part of the canon."[1.] If Europe's citizens do not want to wake up one day to hear that Shakespeare was not worthy of study because his sonnets might have been addressed to a man, or Dumas because he had some African blood in his veins, they must look at what is going on in Hungary today.

Approaching the April 2010 parliamentary elections, Hungary had serious economic problems, including heavy indebtedness, high unemployment and even higher inactivity. For many, even those with university degrees, work was not sufficient to assure a decent standard of living. The governing Socialist Party having served two terms, was largely discredited due to corruption, nasty in-fighting and the lack of a programme. The liberals and other parties of the right and centre were decimated. On a massive scale, people were turning away from politics. In this devastated political landscape two well-organized, self-confident parties emerged, both advocating order, justice, prosperity based on honest work, and clean politics: Fidesz - Hungarian Civic Union as a feasible conservative alternative, and the radical right, Jobbik[1b].

What happened after this is well-known: the Fidesz-MP Party - and its Christian Democrat coalition partner - won the elections with 3.32 million votes (53%) that gave them 68% of the parliamentary seats. Fidesz, led by Viktor Orban, declared that a revolution had taken place in the voting booths that now authorised them to introduce the "System of  National Cooperation" that would accomplish a "genuine" regime change, instead of the "failed one" of 1989. Fidesz inner circle were appointed to the post of president, chief prosecutor, the head of the Court of Auditors; the powers of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court and the Budget Council were drastically curtailed, the independence of the National Bank undermined, a series of new laws and regulations were introduced, some retroactive and some tailored to concrete persons or cases. A new Constitution followed that among other measures, increased the term of office for key public functions (occupied by Fidesz officials), changed the mandate of key political institutions and lowered the retirement age of judges from 70 to 62, sending home masses of judges, their current superiors. Within a year the Constitution will be complemented with 39 "fundamental laws" (needing the approval of 2/3 of MPs) that regulate such basic issues as voting rights, pensions, party financing and the system of regional self-government. Presumably these will be elaborated and passed into legislation in the same way as the above; with record speed, the unanimous approval of the coalition parties and with the exclusion of independent experts, social partners and the political opposition. 

Wide-scale personnel changes have taken place at state and public institutions, going far beyond the usual clean-up that follows change of government; many of those who occupied leading positions under previous governments, including school headmasters, hospital directors and company managers have been removed or required to reapply for their jobs. And, as always in situations like this, once the general direction and tone has been set, zealous executors ‘overdid the plan’; newly appointed directors ‘cleansed’ their institutions of ‘unreliable elements’ - often their professional rivals or personal enemies – taking advantage of one of the government's first measures that made it possible to dismiss state employees without justification.[2] Party affiliation often overrules professional competence, and resistance to arbitrary decisions can easily cost jobs. (In an utterly Ubuesque episode a whole intergovernmental professional committee was dissolved, because they disagreed with the government's proposal to rename Budapest Airport, omitting the traditional name, ‘Ferihegy’, in use for decades.) 

The ‘Voting-booth Revolution’ is accompanied by a veritable ‘Cultural Revolution’. Directors of theatres, academic and cultural institutions were replaced, subsidies were withdrawn from publishing and cultural events, the Opera House was beheaded, the management of the National Cultural Foundation and several Hungarian Cultural Institutes were changed. The independent public Hungarian Film Foundation was dissolved, its funds blocked, which meant a halt on film-making, and replaced by a new Hungarian National Film Foundation, run by Andrew Vajna, a Hollywood film-producer of Hungarian descent, in the rank of a state secretary. Most state institutions became ‘National’; public spaces were renamed after Hungarian celebrities. One of the most beautiful squares of Budapest will change its name from F.D. Roosevelt to Istvan Szechenyi (an outstanding nineteenth century politician), because, according to the President of the Hungarian Academy of Science who proposed the change, "Roosevelt has nothing to do with the public space that wears his name".[3] (The quay and the bridge leading to the square already wear Szechenyi's name.) At the demand of Jobbik (neglecting the protests of the Jewish authorities) a square was named after Albert Wass, an anti-Semite Transsylvanian writer, condemned in absentia after WW2 for war crimes in Romania.

The educational system is completely revamped: the curriculum is revised, obligatory schooling stops at age 15 (instead of 18), several primary schools are closed or handed over to churches, at least 1/3 of high education institutions are scheduled to disappear and the number of state-sponsored university places will diminish significantly. Indispensable austerity measures, administrative or organisational problems are used to justify cutting support or closing down centres of independent thinking, like the excellent Collegium Budapest, and research teams at universities and academic institutions. The integrity of the archives is threatened[4]; history is rewritten with an emphasis on the ‘glorious’ chapters (Hungary as Europe's shield against the Turks) and the rehabilitation of the Horthy system[5], including the “re-interpretation" of the country's role in the extermination of its Jews. According to the new Constitution, Hungary is not a Republic any longer, but “the country of the Hungarians". The "nation" includes Hungarians living abroad; citizenship was offered to ethnic Hungarians living outside the country and they were promised voting rights in future elections. There are persistent references to pre-WWI "historical Hungary" that rightly worry neighbouring countries. One of the government's first measures was to declare a "National Memorial Day" to commemorate the Trianon Peace Treaty, and in this year's celebrations several Fidesz politicians spoke in front of the map of Great Hungary. In late May the government opened a “Székelyland,” (Land of the Szeklers) Bureau in the Brussels office that represents Hungarian regions. The move provoked strong reactions not only in Romanian official circles, but also on the side of those representatives of the Hungarian minority that have been sidelined since Fidesz came to power and have been excluded from political discussions and distribution of Hungary- or EU-provided financial resources. Representatives of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia have already protested against Fidesz' ‘divide and rule’ politics. [6]

One year on - what has the Revolution of the Voting Booths delivered? 

After the elections, Mr Orban promised to put the economy back to rights, strengthen public order and then start work on a new Constitution. For almost a year, “order” was restored to the economy in a series of ad-hoc and chaotic measures, until in March 2011 the economic policy programme was unveiled.[7] The "Plan Szell Kalman", is a severe austerity package, with serious budget cuts particularly to health, education, culture and welfare. Economic policy has two leitmotifs: to achieve "economic autonomy" and centralise resources and decision-making in state agencies. Fidesz stopped cooperation with the IMF, levied heavy taxes on a group of large foreign corporations, bypassed the EU's crisis management proposals and curtailed the right of the Budget Council, Monetary Council and Constitutional Court to interfere in its economic management. Repayment of the public debt was accelerated, not only by heavy budgetary cuts, but also by endorsing a "popular initiative" launched by a Catholic priest, calling for patriotic contributions. In late May the government announced a "new victory" in its fight for economic independence with the buy-back of the MOL strategic energy company. (In fact 23% of the shares was bought for HUF500bn.)

Simultaneously an intense re-centralization of resources is taking place, including the previously decentralized budget of regional self-governments, public institutions, foundations and PPP constructions, which has culminated in the expropriation of private pension funds, containing the savings of 3 million people. 

Austerity is selective; projects and persons close to the government are lavishly financed, while others are starved. In order to "save money", 35 prestigious independent public foundations, including the Institute Peto for handicapped children, foundations defending minority rights and the 1956 Research Institute were closed down or placed under state tutor-ship, with their funds absorbed by the state. At the same time, a "Hungarian Art Academy" a self-appointed artistic association set up by the architect Imre Makovecz, (who is convinced that Mr Orban should be declared regent) was raised by the Constitution to the rank of the Hungarian Academy of Science (sidelining the already existing Artists' Academy), in order to "establish artistic guidelines" that would be financed by the state. A special anti-terrorist unit was set up headed by Mr Orban's personal security guard (budget HUF13bn), while Mr Orban's family dentist was entrusted with elaborating a project on the development of dental-tourism (budget HUF1bn). In the same week, the Igric cooperative, an all too rare flourishing Roma agricultural enterprise, was refused the HUF400mn it had requested for financing its dissemination of best practice. Out of the two leading symphony orchestras in Hungary, support for Ivan Fischer's excellent Budapest Festival Orchestra was slashed by HUF180mn, while Mr Kocsis's National Philharmonics received an increase of twice that much. It just happens that Fischer has uttered critical remarks about the government's policy, while Mr Kocsis has reassured the readers of Süddetusche Zeitung that in Hungary everything is in order. Funds for all documentary film making on public television have been blocked, except for the generously financed films on rural Hungary by Zsolt Bayer - a member of Fidesz' inner circle, who regularly distinguishes himself with his virulently anti-Semitic articles. 

Daniel Cohn-Bendit has called Orban a "European Chavez" (earning himself a concerted attack from the Fidesz-controlled media accusing him of being a paedophile, drug-addict, and a Communist). But Cohn-Bendit is wrong. As a genuine populist, Chavez has taken important measures to improve the situation of the poor and marginalised and spends generously on health, education and culture. The Orban government, in contrast, is likely to produce masses of new poor and marginalised. The new tax system, based on a 16% flat tax rate, favours the better-off; welfare services have been radically cut; the price of public services have increased; while the new Constitution seriously curtails labour rights. Before the elections, Mr Orban promised 1 million new jobs in 10 years. According to the April report of the Hungarian Statistical Office, in one year 13,000 new jobs were created. Unemployment stagnates at 11.6%, (26.8% among first job seekers) and its average length has increased to 18 months. At the same time, unemployment benefits are only provided for 3 months (cut down from 9). The new regulations are very harsh on the poor, jobless, marginalised, handicapped, including those on invalidity pensions, half of whom are expected to return to work. Some of these measures are utterly grotesque; homeless people can be fined for "using public spaces for living", and in some districts of Budapest those who are caught scavenging in the garbage bins also have to pay fines. 

The undisputed beneficiaries of the system are the higher social strata and one section of the Hungarian entrepreneurial class in particular. In the capital accumulation process that took place after the collapse of the ancienne régime, two partially over-lapping business groups emerged, both benefiting from the extraordinary opportunities the radical redistribution of economic assets offered. One orbited around the Socialist Party and its nebula of interest groups, the other, representing more conservative and nationalist ideas, gravitated towards Fidesz. This latter group felt sidelined by the increasing dominance of international capital and from the late 2000s has thrown its weight behind Fidesz. In March 2010, before the elections, Fidesz signed an agreement with the organization representing the interests of larger Hungarian entrepreneurs, integrating five out of their six key demands into its government programme. (The one left out was the introduction of the Euro.) 

Public order has been "restored" by making the penal code more severe (including plans to lower the age of legal responsibility to 14) and the introduction of rigorous punishments even for minor offences, like speeding or smoking in bus stops. Events take place with a dizzying speed; key dimensions of public and private life are changed abruptly, without previous consultation or preparation. Due to the flood of new regulations, reconfigurations and massive personnel changes, state and public institutions are overwhelmed. (The forced retirement of the judges alone means the handing over of 40,000 cases pending in one year.) The much-needed fight against corruption has taken the form of criminalising the previous political leadership, with some spectacular televised "raids", showing suspects arrested by having their hands and feet chained. At the same time, Transparency International Hungary has voiced serious [8]concerns about the loopholes of both the Constitution and the new draft law on public procurement that open the door wide for corruption. 

The government, at the same time, has singularly failed to address one of the key elements of public disorder: the extreme right. In its fight to gain back power, Fidesz skilfully manipulated the passions Jobbik stirred up and adapted some of its language, arguments and claims to win voters. Once in power, despite some publicly displayed conflicts, until recently, Fidesz has tolerated, accommodated and occasionally cooperated with Jobbik. (On festive occasions Jobbik's leader likes to appear in Parliament wearing the vest of the legally dissolved far-right militia, the Hungarian Guard - without consequences). Jobbik is a very active and vocal party, with a substantial youth following. It addresses people directly and intervenes in crisis situations, like last year's flood, offering a feeling of solidarity in a deeply eroded society where communities with shared values and activities have tragically fallen apart. All this is wrapped in a violently nationalist and racist ideology. In the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, Jobbik got 427,773 votes; in the 2010 Hungarian elections, 996,851 and, according to a March 2011 assessment, it still has almost 600,000 sympathisers. Jobbik uses the problems of the Roma community exactly the same way as western Europe's extremists use immigration. ‘The Gypsies’ are the scapegoats to blame for society's unresolved structural problems: unemployment, deteriorating social welfare, poverty, crime. A key element of Jobbik's agenda is the "fight against Gypsy criminality". 

Roma have been living in the margins of the Hungarian society since the fifteenth century, specializing in what one would today call, services: entertainment, repairs, recycling and some specific trades, like iron work, basket-weaving, wood-work, horse-raising. Under the Communists there were some efforts to integrate them through massive job opportunities, schooling and housing, but during the 20 years of systemic change they became excluded from the world of work, marginalized and pauperized, with large sections living in utter misery. None of the post-1989 governments, including the ones that called themselves Socialist, felt that this problem was important. Given the steady diet of nationalist and racist discourse on offer from the extreme right, anti-Roma sentiments have become widespread, even going beyond the extremists' political boundaries. In 2008-2009 there was a series of attacks against Roma in the villages of East-North Hungary, in which 10 people were killed, including children. It turned out later that the crimes were committed by young nationalists who were "fed up by Gypsy criminality and impunity". 

When Fidesz came to power, it appointed a state secretary in charge of 'insertion' and started to elaborate its Hungarian National Roma Strategy, one of the key projects of the EU Presidency. Simultaneously it closed down or put under state control several public foundations that represented the Roma, reduced the budget of some excellent integration projects, like the Szecseny initiative to abolish child poverty and according to the new Constitution, it will put an end to the autonomy of the Parliamentary Minorities Ombudsman (by merging that position with those of the other three Ombudsmen). The government's austerity and disciplinary measures - among others, the cancellation of the social work programme that gave employment to approximately 80,000 Roma – has made their situation even worse[9]. In the Spring of  2011 - while the trial of the racist murderers was taking place - Jobbik started to implement its vision of "restoring order". Its activists, together with members of a self-appointed uniformed guards – (the "Civil Guard Association for a Nicer Future" is a successor to the outlawed, openly racist paramilitary organization, the Hungarian Guard) occupied Gyongyospata, a village in North Hungary and terrorized and humiliated its entire Roma population[10]. The police stood by, having the order only to intervene if atrocities were committed on either side. Jobbik was so pleased with the results that the action was repeated in two other villages as well. It took two months and the outbreak of violence in late April for the government to step up and issue a decree that forbids "uniformed violence". In a press conference given after the events, Janos Lazar, leader of a Fidesz parliamentary fraction referred to Jobbik "an openly national-socialist Party".[11] In late May the newly elected President of the reorganised National Roma Self-Government, Florian Farkas (who happens to be a Fidesz MP and Ministry official in charge of supervising the distribution of state support for the Roma) signed a new agreement with PM Orban promoting Roma inclusion, including the target of helping at least 100,000 jobless Roma to employment by 2015. 

Whatever the actual results of its governance are, Fidesz places heavy emphasis on communicating a positive image of its performance. The party controls an extended media network and through the new media law it intends to assure its power over the rest. Several TV channels, the Hungarian Radio and the Hungarian News Agency were put under state control and subordinated to a single State Agency that is in charge of programmes, distributes publicity rights, and disposes of the centralized media archives and real estate. A separate state agency supervises all forms of media, including printed and electronic press, directed by a Fidesz appointee with a mandate for 9 years. Since December 2010 the Media Authority uses administrative and economic tools to silence Klubradio, the only remaining independent cultural radio station (with an audience of 500,000) that provides in-depth political analysis. 

With the centralization and state control of news provision, mainstream communication channels feed the government's messages to a large section of the population. Using the same pool of arguments and similar language, with a remarkable self-assurance, Fidesz politicians interpret facts in a peculiar way. PM Orban's first, stormy reception in Strasbourg, when he was criticised for the media law, was an "insult to the Hungarian people", whereas there were "only technical problems with the media law". The economic policy "has nothing to do with restrictions", and the judges were forced to retire "to cleanse from the judiciary system its Communist heritage". This is despite the fact that 72% of the judges started to serve after 1990 and those previously in service were heavily vetted in 1994.[12] Previous governments have "pushed the country to the brink of bankruptcy" which justifies the Cabinet's "un-orthodox" crisis-management measures, even though according to independent observers, including the OECD, the European Commission and the IMF, thanks to the sober economic policy of Gordon Bajnai's caretaker government in the year before the elections, the economy was on its way to being consolidated. (Austerity measures imposed since late 2006 had reduced the budget from over 9% of GDP in 2006 to 3.8% in 2010; public debt was consolidated at 72.1% of GDP; and 2010 was expected to become the first year of economic recovery after the contraction of the previous years.[13])  It was in fact Fidesz officials who caused the first crisis on achieving power in 2010, by announcing that Hungary was in a worse situation than Greece, and on the point of collapse.[14] 

To make sure that its message gets through abroad as well, the government has hired the services of the London-based Project Associates, a “strategic communications consultancy” (for £100,000) and Financial Dynamics, a financial PR firm.[15] Government representatives regularly publish articles in foreign newspapers providing their version of the facts.[16] An argument they often use to prove Fidesz' democratic credentials is that the party fought against and toppled the Communists in 1989. (In fact Fidesz played a marginal role in the process - on the side of the liberal SZDSZ Party - and at the time it had a completely different political agenda.) Official discourse is often adjusted to the audience; Fidesz politicians often address fiery speeches to their home base, but are far more reconciliatory abroad. The EU accord on economic coordination, for example, is presented outside as one of the achievements of Hungary's Presidency; but at home Fidesz politicians keep repeating that "we do it our way" or as Mr Orban put it in a recent interview in Krone "only dead fish swim with the current". [17]

To the Hungarian public the government presents itself as a hero in permanent struggle to defend the nation against its enemies. The "external enemies" are international capital and the international financial institutions; according to Minister of Economy, Gyorgy Matolcsy, Hungary wages a "life and death freedom fight against the IMF".  In a speech marking the March 15 national holiday, PM Orban singled out the EU as well, talking about a Brussels that intends to "dictate to Hungarians, like Vienna and Moscow in the past". The internal enemies are the representatives of the previous governments and the critics of the system - particularly if they raise their voice abroad - as shown by the witch-hunt against Agnes Heller and other philosophers. Even Laszlo Solyom, former president of the country, who cannot be accused of being hostile to Fidesz, was criticised for badmouthing the country, when in an interview to a German paper he compared the Constitution to the building of the National Theatre that "has nothing to do with modern theatre architecture, eclectic, bombastic and was forced through by political power, despite the unanimous objection of the profession".[18] (In Fidesz' first term, 1998-2002, ongoing construction of the new National Theatre was halted and the winning tender replaced by an aesthetically dubious and dysfunctional theatre design by an architect close to Orban.) 

Fidesz' performance has two strikingly different readings in Hungary.  One part of the population is convinced that grandiose changes are taking place and the government is paving the way for genuine prosperity and independence. The other, apparently increasing, part of the population interprets the changes as a forced march towards an authoritarian one-party system that ruins the country en route. According to a recent survey, in March approximately 27% of the population, 2.2 million Hungarians supported Fidesz, which means more than 1 million lost voters since the elections. 68 % of those interviewed thought things were going in the wrong direction in Hungary, while 23% saw positive changes.[19] Walking around in Budapest, one can see telephone booths bearing the sticker, "I did not want this. I'm sorry. The Booth."

Public manifestations of discontent started last December, when a small group of university students took to the streets of Budapest with a banner: "We are the first generation born in a state of law, we don’t want to be the last one." Protests have multiplied since, including an approximately 30,000 strong gathering in defence of press freedom in March and a Hungarian and international trade union protest of around 50,000 people in April. Beyond the severity of the new policy guidelines, protesters are outraged because decisions are taken unilaterally, without consulting those concerned and in sharp contrast with Fidesz rhetoric and pre-election promises. 

In early April the organizations in charge of public order – police, firemen, soldiers, prison guards and customs officers - started to demonstrate against the government's measures that took away their social gains, including the unilateral modification of their pension rights, and worsening work conditions. Despite efforts of intimidation, the protests went on for weeks, before discussions with the Minister of Interior started that did not bear more fruit than the dismissal of the leader of the trade unions' protest committee. In early June it was promised that PM Orban would negotiate with half of the protesting unions, but before these talks could take place, Parliament voted for a Fidesz constitutional amendment that would end early retirement for men, rendering one of the most important demands of the protesters irrelevant. In their disappointment, they called for a demonstration on June 16, in which at least 25,000 people participated, many of them symbolically taking back their votes given to Fidesz a year ago.[20] 

In early May, the European Trade Union Confederation Congress urged the Hungarian government to resume talks with the trade unions - the tripartite Council of Interest Representation having only met twice in one year. A week later the government dissolved the Council and charged the National Ministry of Economy to establish a new National Economic and Social Council, "a wide platform with the participation of civil society organizations, the historical Churches and representatives of the sciences" that would formulate proposals to the government on economic and social issues. In early May the government announced the revision of the Labour Code, with further restrictions on employees' rights that would come into play after July, (like several other laws) when the EU Presidency will be over.

Instead of negotiating, the government clearly prefers to carry out "social dialogue" on its own terms, either by choosing one privileged interlocutor (e.g. one trade union or Roma organisation) for closed negotiations or by "popular consultations". A few weeks before the Constitution was passed, in a "national consultation", adult citizens received letters with 12 vague questions about the future text. According to government sources, 900,000 persons responded, so "the Constitution was democratically discussed". In early May "social consultation" was launched with 10 similarly vague questions on welfare. (This time the letters bore a personal identification code.) 

Benefiting from the constitutional and legal changes and the potential votes of Hungarians living abroad, Fidesz might secure power for several more electoral terms. But even if it lost the next elections, Fidesz' policy would prevail, due to the constitutional changes that have fundamentally altered the competence of key political institutions and filled key positions with Fidesz representatives, with lengthened office terms. Events in Esztergom might predict a grim future. The democratically elected independent mayor, unable to carry out her programme to save the city from bankruptcy after some disastrous Fidesz management because the Fidesz-majority city council continues to obstruct her work – appealed to the government, to no avail. In early April, accompanied by representatives of the inhabitants and civic organisations, welcomed by sympathisers all along the road, she walked to the Parliament (45 kms). She was only allowed to hand over her protest letter, addressed to Viktor Orban, at the gate. A representative of the Council of Ministers assured her that the government would reply, "in the spirit of the "National System of Cooperation". In her absence the city council met and passed some new measures. 

Hungarian democrats, whose legal channels to defend their rights are rapidly narrowing, pin their hopes on the European Union. The EU is confronted with an unprecedented situation. It has to deal with a government that came to power democratically and uses its power to dismantle the democratic institutional system. It seems that the bulk of Union representatives understood the challenge. The media law was a subject of wide-scale international criticism and EU expert bodies examined it in detail. After several rounds of discussions, in March European Commissioner for a Digital Agenda, Neelie Kroes expressed satisfaction that the government modified certain points of the legislation; the Hungarian media immediately announced that the EU "blessed" the law. Nevertheless, from Thomas Hammerberg, the Human Rights commissioner of the Council of Europe to Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur of the UN, from the OSCE to Amnesty International, many forums warned that the changes were not sufficient and finally the European Parliament called for further revisions. The Constitution also drew an avalanche of critics. The text was examined in depth by the EU's Venice Committee and their Report strongly criticised both the way it was created and several fundamental aspects of the Constitution.[21] 

Both in the case of the media law and the Constitution, Fidesz politicians argue that they are compatible with EU norms and/or are Hungary's internal affairs, and that other European countries have similar elements in their basic documents.[22] The comments of the Venice Committee were rejected on the grounds that its experts "misinterpreted the text" and "were influenced by the ideological attacks against the Constitution".[23] When the opposite is proved, a lengthy process starts, in which critical remarks and answers go back and forth between Budapest and the respective EU organization, the result of which might be a modification of the discussed document or measure. The analysis of every minor detail of official documents and their implementation is a lengthy and strenuous exercise, but there is a lot at stake. What happens in Hungary is not the internal affair of 10 million Hungarians. It is a litmus test for Europe's capacity to defend its basic democratic values. 

If European institutions and citizens want to contain and prevent the multiplication of the Hungarian experiment, they should go a step further. Beyond clientalism and propaganda, Fidesz has an appeal, because it asks some crucially important questions. The current world crisis shows clearly that the dominant economic and political models are exhausted and have become destructive. The explosions of Spain, Greece or Iceland indicate the depths of the problem and the inefficiency of European crisis management. Instead of exploring genuine alternatives, efforts aim to reconstruct the pre-crisis status quo, using inadequate methods. Fidesz raises some of these problems.

To the uncritical following of neo-liberal economic policies, Fidesz answers by tying together political and economic liberalism, condemning both. To the unregulated activity of TNCs, Fidesz replies by levying heavy taxes on large corporations and closing down some operations. Reacting to the economic cures proposed by the IMF and BCE, Fidesz refused cooperation with the international monetary institutions and advocates economic autonomy. (In fact, Fidesz and its business circles envisage tighter links with China, whose leaders, in addition, would not raise human rights, political freedom, or environmental considerations.) To uncontrolled privatization Fidesz' responds with a strongly centralized state that controls the economy and all possible aspects of political and social life. To the dumping of trash in newspapers and commercial media, Fidesz introduces quasi-censorship. To the shortcomings of the welfare model, Fidesz answers by separating labour and welfare, interpreting the former as a pure duty and the latter as indulgence. Facing a general loss of values, Fidesz imposes its own version of "God, Nation and Family". 

Fidesz' ‘solutions’ are desperately wrong. But the problems are real. If Europe wants to offer attractive alternatives to its people, it should urgently address these questions and find viable solutions to them. 

Waiting for answers, one can still go to the theatre in Budapest. The world of art has responded to the “Voting Booth Revolution” with desperate creativity. In an abandoned flat in what used to be the ghetto of Budapest, 4th grade theatre students present Bertolt Brecht's play, "Fear and misery in the Third Reich", staged by Sandor Zsoter, one of the finest contemporary Hungarian directors. The piece was written in 1938 in Prague and tells of the suffocating everyday lives of Germans under Hitler. At arms-length from each other, actors and spectators share fear, anxiety, misbelief, disgust and very occasionally, laughter. At the end of the play, the spectators are reluctant to leave.  As if they were afraid to face the reality waiting for them outside.

Some years ago Mr Zsoter directed The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui . I wonder what will be on programme next year. Or if there will be a programme.

 

P.S. On July 1, 2011, Hungary handed over the EU presidency to Poland. On the same day the media law came into force and an investigation was launched against a newspaper, because a comment on an article was allegedly disrespectful to Hungary’s President. In a panic reaction several newspapers and internet news sources closed the down the comments spaces on their articles. The next day the former Minister responsible for the National Security Office and two other former high-ranking former government officials were arrested, and accused of espionage. The case’s official documents were declared top secret & classified until 2089.  During the following week, Parliament voted in a new law that makes it possible to circumvent a democratically-elected mayor in situations like the one in Esztergom. The mayor and a delegation from Esztergom wanted to protest in silence from the visitors’ balcony at the Parliamentary session; despite their valid invitations, they were not let in. According to a new legal amendment, people can be arrested and held in custody for 48 hours, without the possibility of consulting their lawyers. The organizers of the “clown Revolution” are accused of breaching the law and could be taken to court.  Before autumn, 1000 out of 3,400 public radio & TV employees will be dismissed; 570 have already gone in the first wave. The government is preparing a new election law.  

So, the show goes on.

 


[1.] Imre Kertesz, writer, 2002 Nobel Prize winner, Gyorgy Spiro is a contemporary Hungarian writer, Attila Jozsef (1905-1937) one of the most outstanding Hungarian poets. 

[1b]  For more background see the excellent article of Istvan Deak: Hungary. The Threat, New York Review of Books, Apr 28 2011 and the exchange between Deak and George Schopflin in the 23 June issue.

[2] The Constitutional Court opposed this step; after several rounds of clashes this measure will be modified, but the rights of the Constitutional Court were significantly curtailed.

[3] As a "compensation", there are plans to move Roosevelt to a nearby square called Freedom.

[4] http://hungarianarchives.com/

[5] A right-wing conservative politician, Miklos Horthy was the regent of Hungary between March 1920 and October 1944, when he handed over power to the fascist Arrow Cross Party. He concluded an alliance with Nazi Germany, in exchange for the restoration of some of the Hungarian territories lost after the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

[6] Some foreign commentators evoked the case of Kosovo or the Republica Srpska, which might be an over-pessimistic analogy, but since a new draft law proposes the re-introduction of compulsory conscription in "extraordinary situations" and PM Orban started some of his recent speeches stating that "Hungary is in war" (to specify later that the war was against indebtedness and unemployment) the unease is justified.

[7] For a resume see: Janos Kornai,Taking stock, 7 Jan, 2011. http://www.kornai-janos.hu/Kornai2011%20Taking%20stock%20-%20NSz.pdf

[8] Transparency International Hungary called the attention to numerous corruption risks in the Bill regarding the new Constitution. 11 April 2011, http://www.transparency.hu/en/news_events?nid=560andPHPSESSID=a69baaee83d52d432a4be75059108cde ; A közbeszerzések kétharmadát nem szabályozza az új közbeszerzési törvény. Kormányhivatal alá kerül a jogorvoslat. 21 June, 2011. http://www.transparency.hu/2011_2

[9] The government is elaborating a new public work programme , under the eagis of the Ministry of Interior, which envisages a system where the masses of unemployed would be used for unskilled work, under precarious conditions, for very modest remuneration, controlled by retired policemen who will be forced back to work due to the new regulations on public order forces. 

[10] http://gyongyospatasolidarity.wordpress.com/

[11] Kimondta az ítéletet a Jobbikra Lázár, Klubradio, 2011.05.04.

[12] The statement of the Supreme Court to the public of Hungary and the European Union, http://www.scribd.com/doc/53330875/Az-LB-teljes-ulesenek-kozlemenye

[13] See e.g. OECD Economic Survey of Hungary, 2010.

[14] The announcement was clearly an internal political message, but caused significant losses to the Hungarian economy. See e.g. Hungary faces struggle to regain trust of markets, Reuters, Jun 6 2010.

[15] Chris Bryant, Hungary moves to repair image abroad, FT March 4 2011, Tamas's tweets, The Economist, Apr 4th 2011.

[16] Tibor Navracsics,  A New Constitution for Hungary. Locking in the values of the political transition of 1989-90, at last. The Wall Street Journal, Apr 19, 2011; Tibor Navracsics, What Hungary can offer Europe and the world, The Telegraph, 1 June 2011; Zsolt Becsey, Forget Austerity, Follow Hungary's Lead, The Fidesz Party has focused on creating jobs, and the strategy is working. The Wall Street Journal, 9 June, 2011.

[17] Orban: "Nur toter Fisch schwimmt mit dem Strom", Interview in Krone, 10.06.2011.

[18] "A kétharmad nem törtszám", Interview with Laszlo Solyom, http://hetivalasz.hu/itthon/a-ketharmad-nem-tortszam-37159/

[19] Csokkent a Fidesz tamogatottsaga, Index/MTI, 2011. màrcius 24.; Kevesebb fideszes, több bizonytalan, Népszabadság, 2011. március 24.

[20] Several protesters marched dressed up as clowns, reacting to an earlier declaration of Mr Orban, who said that he would send his "Minister for Clown Affairs" to negotiate with the protesters.

[21] Opinion on the New Constitution of Hungary, Venice Commission, http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2011/CDL-AD%282011%29016-E.pdf

[22] Other countries might have similar pieces of legislation or policy directions, but in Hungary these elements constitute a consistent system.

[23] Interview with Thorbjorn Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe, 2011. 06. 20. http://www.origo.hu/itthon/20110620-interju-az-europa-tanacs-fotitkaraval-thorbjorn-jagland-norveg-politikussal.html

About the author

Yudit Kiss is a Hungarian economist, based in Geneva, and author of several academic publications dealing with the post-Cold War economic transformations of Central Europe. Her articles of wider interest have been published by the Guardian, Lettre International, El Nacional, Nexos, Gazeta Wyborcza & Eurozine.