I am concerned. There is a significant threat to democracy in Hungary and few are paying attention in this country. A member state of the European Union may be transitioning from democracy, as Andras Bozoki warned here months ago, but there has been almost no reporting about the developments in the serious press in the U.S., let alone in the popular media, even though it’s a big story in Europe.
I did hear a report on National Public Radio the other day about the economic problems Hungary is having in its relationship with the European Union, but not about the disturbing political developments that a distinguished group of former dissidents criticized in their public letter, which we (along with many other sites) posted last week. There have been reports of mass demonstration in Budapest. But these provided little explanation and no follow up. It just fit into the year of the protestor story line.
I suppose that this may just be an indication that Europe is becoming a small corner of the new global order, not necessarily demanding close attention. Am I being Eurocentric in my conviction that this is an important story? Yet, very important issues are on the line, important for the Hungary and the region, but also of broader significance. The slow development of authoritarianism is a global theme with local variations, which need to be deliberately considered.
I have been informed by a circle of young Polish intellectuals working at the on line weekly, Kultura Liberalna. They recently published a special issue posing the question: “Should Hungary be excluded from the European Union?” They provide different perspectives and insight. Here are some highlights. The complete pieces now can be read on the weekly’s site in English.
The European controversies started with changed media law, at the center of the anti-democratic developments. Dominika Bychawska–Siniarska in her piece, “Attempt on Democracy,” highlights the basic problem as seen from Poland:
“Freedom of speech is the fundamental element of democratic society. The post-communist states are particularly obliged to respect and fully implement that freedom. Enactment of a media act which raises severe objections as to the international standards of freedom of speech should be perceived as a regression in the democratic transformation in Hungary.”
Adam Bodnar recognized the shared experiences of Poles with Hungarians, observing that the path Hungary is now on resembles earlier developments in Poland:
“[Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orbán has achieved something that [the former Polish Prime Minister] Jaroslaw Kaczynski only dreamed about. Step by step he gained more and more control to finally fulfill the process of taking over power by liquidating the main opposition.”
He then gives an overview of the historical process and the contours of the consequences for democracy:
“In … the middle of Europe we have a country – a member of the European Union- which has stopped being democratic. There is a facade, one can demonstrate and use the internet, the opposition leaders are not yet retained or arrested, but there is no pluralism in the parliament, control institution‘s and jurisdiction‘s voice was taken away and the opposition is excluded from having any influence on the state. In a moment political trials might begin.”
And he issues a call for Polish action:
“Poland cannot promote democracy, rightful rule and human rights among the Eastern Partnership or Arabic countries, if it neglects a creation of an authoritarian system in a Eastern Europe country, which is mentally so close to us. Maybe gestures of solidarity will not change a lot, but one cannot remain indifferent, because if similar processes happened to us, we would also expect a reaction of other states, politicians, political parties and prominent foreign communities.”
In her contribution, “Viktor Orbán: Dismantling Democracy,” Magdalena M. Baran concluded:
“When we couple the pre-holiday legislation with the recent decisions limiting the freedom of the media, such as revoking the pro-opposition Klubrádió radio station’s license, or banning the index.hu website’s reporters from entering the parliament, it is hard not to observe that Hungarian democracy indeed is not faring too well. This is not the first time that Orbán’s political fireworks explode in the New Year sky. But clearly, Hungarians are no longer blinded by the shimmering stars, and instead are beginning to notice that this is no grand celebration ushering in the carnival season. Rather, they see that this is chaos – that the ash settling over their country will be hard to clear, that the smoke left behind by the sparklers carries an unbearable stench, and that they have more to lose than to gain from allowing this irresponsible toying with fire to continue.”
Piotr Wciślik, in “Something Worse than a Dictatorship: Viktatorship,” warns that by centralizing power and making controlling checks and balances, while still permitting popular voting, the consequence of the anti-democratic turn may lead to a top down anarchy:
“Can one speak of a dictatorship? No, things are even worse. In principle, despite Orbán’s authoritarian style of governance, the constitutional guarantees of a democratic way of changing the government still persist. Nevertheless, even if Orbán goes, his departure can result in something worse than a dictatorship: a state of non-governability, a political impasse. Thus, paradoxically, and by way of unintended consequences, the tendency of the Regime of National Cooperation towards concentrating all power in a few hands, can lead to a sort of bizarre anarchy from above.”
Kacper Szulecki, an editor at Kultura Liberalna, published a piece that first appeared in the major Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza. He understands the piece to be a part of a transnational debate on Orbán’s “conservative revolution,” ignited by the Hungarian dissident appeal, in which different liberal and critical media – including Kultura Liberalna, along with the Czech Denik Referendum and the Slovak Je to tak. In our next post, we will publish an expanded version of his text prepared for Deliberately Considered.
There is bad news coming from Central Europe. But the persistence of critique provides hope. It is good to know that critical Hungarians, along with their neighbors are paying close attention. So should we.