Hungary: democracy through twilight

The sweeping reform programme of Viktor Orbán's Hungarian government is provoking alarm among its domestic critics and European partners alike. But its economic policies as well as its political ambitions deserve to be put under the microscope, says Anton Pelinka.

Anton Pelinka
8 February 2012

 The Hungarian government has become more and more isolated. Within the European Union, Hungary is confronted with three legal procedures, started by the European commission. The issue is violations of the EU treaty by three Hungarian laws passed by Hungary's parliament, where the ruling Fidesz party has a clear majority of seats.

The EU is insisting on changes in these laws - to guarantee the independence of the Hungarian central bank, to avert damage to the rule of law, and to save the Hungarian media from control by a government-dependent body which looks like at least a potential "big brother".

Hungary’s internationally most prominent intellectuals such as Agnes Heller and György Konrád are leading the protest against the government’s authoritarian tendencies. In responding to this critique, the far right does not shrink from using certain xenophobic stereotypes. The old pattern of "cosmopolitan" persons who have lost their Hungarian roots is in use again - the same kind of "arguments" the communist regimes developed in earlier decades.

In an open appeal, a group of intellectuals, defined as "participants in the erstwhile human rights and democracy movement that opposed the one-party communist regime", sees Hungary under the present government as "a sad example of what can happen wherever there is the attempts to resolve problems…through authoritarian means and a policy of nationalist isolation."

But it is not only the government’s authoritarian leaning which is criticised from within the same liberal milieu which was responsible for the dissident and reform movement directed against the communist regime in the 1980s. The government’s disastrous economic policy has also become extremely problematic among a wider range of critics.

A downward path

The focus of their scorn is the way that the government is leading the Hungarian economy towards bankruptcy, in what appears an exercise of dilettantism. In 2011, the government - in an act it claimed was in defence of Hungarian sovereignty - stopped regular negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Now, some months later, Hungary is begging the IMF for help. Again in 2011, some prominent representatives of the governing party Fidesz (Young Democrats) lectured the world that "the west" has lost its role as a model - for Hungary. Yet in the first half of 2011, Hungary was itself the incumbent in the rotating European Union presidency. An EU-presidency distancing itself from the west?

This is the adolescent behaviour of a government which tends to invent the wheel for a second time; even more astonishing when it is recalled that Fidesz has been represented in parliament since 1990 - and was in power from 1998-2002. The prime minister during this period? The same Viktor Orbán who is today again head of the Hungarian government.

The result: the Hungarian economy is on the verge of collapse. Among the four Visegrad countries of former communist central Europe (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia), Hungary's economic performance is by far the worst.

Hungary's government tries to hide the dismal results by blaming its predecessor - and by playing the card of symbolic, of nationalistic, politics. Since 2010, the Hungarians have acquired an additional day of official national mourning. It commemorates the treaty of Trianon in 1920. It is impossible to imagine a German government deciding in 2010 to introduce an official day of mourning regarding the Versailles treaty - or an Austrian government about St Germain.

A map of danger

Some specific steps initiated to reduce the role of political control - over the media, judiciary, the national bank - are dangerous for Hungary’s democracy. The threshold religious denominations must reach before being recognised by the government has been significantly raised. All Islamic as well as evangelical groups have lost their status as legal entities entitled to specific rights. Moreover, the electoral system will become tailored to favour the present government.

Orbán justifies all these "reforms" by his mandate; the Hungarian voters gave him and his party a two-thirds majority in parliament. Fidesz therefore has no need to look for partners - including with regard to the new constitution, which defines Hungary just as "Hungary" (and removes any mention of a republic).

Any single step Fidesz has made can be debated. It is the sum of all its ambitious policies that creates the feeling that Orbán’s understanding of democracy differs from that in other European countries. The connecting strategic philosophy behind the Fidesz government's "reforms" seems clear: they are about reducing the autonomy of regulating, accountability-guaranteeing institutions.

Orbán and his government define the new constitution and all the "reforms" as the decisive step necessary to break with Hungary´s communist past. After more than two decades of pluralistic democracy, of free elections, of peaceful changes of government, the Orbán government seeks to redirect Hungary back to 1990. Belittling the successes of peaceful democratic transformation, disregarding even Orbán’s own role in this process, Hungarian society is being forced to "overcome communism" again. In the process, this already established democracy which could become the victim of transformation.

This series of changes is also making Hungary more and more isolated within the EU. The nationalistic conflicts with Slovakia and the attempt to provide all ethnic Hungarians outside Hungary’s borders with Hungarian passports is very much in contradiction of the basic values the EU stands for. The EU is challenged by the Orbán government. Now, the European institutions can demonstrate their willingness and ability to respond decisively to anti-democratic trends within one member-state.

Is Hungary’s democracy as a whole in danger? Not as long as Orbán and his party are interested to stay in the EU and to keep friendly relations with the European People’s Party, the "party-family" Fidesz belongs to. This gives European actors some leverage - and to put pressure on the Hungarian government whenever the core qualities of democracy, its basic political freedoms, are in jeopardy. Hungarian democracy has its best friends among the European actors who are outspoken critics of what is being done in Hungary.

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