In-Depth Analysis

The Crisis of Democracy in Hungary, 2012

The Hungarian political system for twenty years was a liberal democracy, characterized by a multiparty system, free elections, representational government, strong opposition, free media, strong, independent courts and credible institutions that protected the rule of law (i.e., the Constitutional Court and the Ombudsman Office). With a few striking exceptions, human rights and religious freedoms were respected. During the two decades after 1989, the incumbent governments had always lost the elections (except for 2006). The media criticized politicians. Democracy was consolidated, and in 2004, Hungary joined the European Union. Hungary remained until relatively recently (until the eve of 2006), a success story of democratic achievement. But more recently, Hungary took a serious autocratic turn, as I explored in my post last year. Here, I explore the problem of the transition from democracy more closely, as this transition has since escalated. Is it possible for my country to return to an authoritarian system as a fully-fledged member of the European Union?

Conceptual underpinnings of the regime

The policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his ruling Fidesz Party are based on the pillars of “national unification,” the “central arena of power,” the change of the elites, power politics and the era of “revolutionary circumstances.” This is more than just empty rhetoric. Prime Minister Orbán genuinely believes them to be true.

First: almost all of Orbán’s important messages are based on the notion of “national unification,” which has both symbolic and literal importance. He expressly criticizes the Trianon Peace Treaty that concluded World War I as well as the legacy of the Communist system and the forces of globalization, which he sees as the most important political issues of the day. Orbán suggests that the “nation” serves as the bastion to offer protection against these forces. The idea of national unification furthermore maintains that Hungarians living outside of Hungary are not minorities, but full members of the Hungarian nation with corresponding rights and privileges. As such, these Hungarians are now granted Hungarian citizenship upon request, regardless of where they live, and thus they are also automatically granted voting rights. Orbán believes that the civic rights to freedom, membership to the European Union, belonging to the political allies of the West, are salient only insofar as they do not contradict the priorities of “national unification.”

Concerning domestic politics, “national unification” refers to the “system of national cooperation” introduced by Orbán, which has emerged as an alternative to liberal democracy. However, the priorities of Orbán’s “system” are not to improve the livelihood of the poor, the marginalized and the Roma communities, nor does his “system” encompass the concept of the republic, and the respect for social and cultural diversity. Orbán’s words wish to give the impression of uniting the nation, yet, the reality is that he divides society. In his dictionary, the term “people” is defined not as the masses, but instead represents a national-historical category.

Second, Orbán’s notion of a “central arena of power” eliminates the idea of competition endorsed during the transition to democracy. He wants to create a system based on the monopolization of the most important elements of political power. Orbán does not need economic, cultural and political alternatives; he strives to establish a unitary, dominant system of values (i.e., his own system of values). But where no alternatives exist, there is no room for democracy. That which remains resonates from the era of state Socialism: the “people’s democracy.”

Third, Fidesz radically has changed the elites, by replacing top administrative, economic and cultural leaders tied to the previous decades. The first Orbán administration (Prime Minister, 1998 – 2002) had used culture to strengthen its own power. The second Orbán administration, by contrast, sees culture as a source of unnecessary costs and potential criticism. It does not engage in a cultural battle, because it does not want to argue; rather, it simply has changed the elites. The aim here is to dismantle the political independence of institutions and to put a group of Orbán loyalists in key positions. Anti-Communism is the ideology bolstering this move, which today is no more than a “cover” for the quest for power. This endeavor to solidify clientelism has sent the message that life outside the “system of national cooperation” is unthinkable.

Fourth, the government’s policies have not been based on any single ideology, because according to the Prime Minister, the era of ideologies has ended. Viktor Orbán is in no ways a conservative thinker. He is simply an opportunistic politician. Instead of ideas, Orbán believes in maximizing power. He is a tight-fisted leader who is focused on order, not freedom as his end. Moreover, Orbán believes that he embodies the traditional, patriarchal values of hundreds of thousands of rural Hungarians. Those who identify with this mindset are individuals who are servile towards their superiors, but stamp upon their own employees. There are also those individuals who are only obedient towards their superiors when they feel that they are under their watchful gaze.

Fifth, Orbán has interpreted his electoral victory as “revolutionary.” This has allowed Orbán with a two-thirds parliamentary majority in hand to employ exceptional methods, by making claims to exceptional circumstances (i.e. “revolutionary conditions”). As a result, Orbán has deployed warlike, offensive tactics, pushing legislation through parliament, thereby quickly and systematically rebuilding the entire public legal system. Fidesz often refers to the ideas espoused by 1848 Revolution led by Lajos Kossuth (i.e., “revolution and struggle for freedom”). However, Fidesz’s own “revolutionary struggle” has undermined freedom. In its stead, Fidesz has worked to establish a single party state, where power rests with the party and the Prime Minister himself. At this moment, there are no powerful groups within the party critical of Orbán who could offer political alternatives. As such, the will of the “leader” (i.e., Orbán) is largely binding and faces no limits.

The building blocks of the system

Though Fidesz during its 2010 campaign was silent about the most important tasks that it would need to carry out after its anticipated victory, once in power, Viktor Orbán began constructing a new system to replace the “turbulent decades” of liberal democracy. As a first step, Orbán issued the “declaration of national cooperation,” making it obligatory to post this declaration on the walls of all public institutions. The essence of the new system is that anyone can be a part of this “national cooperation” who agrees with the government. However, those who disagree cannot be a part of the system, because the system is based on submission to the ruling party.

The government majority, upon Orbán’s recommendation, chose not to reappoint László Sólyom as President of the Republic, an individual who, although previously had made significant pro-Fidesz moves, guarded the autonomy of the presidency. Servile Pál Schmitt, a former presidential member of Fidesz and European Parliament representative, was appointed instead. In addition, the new government saw the 1989 Constitution as a heap of purely technical rules, which Orbán has since shaped to fit the needs of his current political agenda. If any of his new laws proved to be unconstitutional, it was not the law, but the Constitution that had to be changed.

When in the autumn of 2010 the Constitutional Court repealed a statute that had retroactive effect, which it found to be unconstitutional, Fidesz immediately retaliated by amending the Constitution and limiting the Constitutional Court’s jurisdiction. Thus, the Constitutional Court overnight turned from being a controlling body, a real check of the legislature, into a feeble controller of the application of the law. The chairperson of the Constitutional Court had been chosen by the members from within their own ranks, but according to the new rules the parliament appoints him/her. In addition, the number of judges was increased from eleven to fifteen, and the Court was packed with right-wing personalities and former politicians known to be close to Fidesz. The governmental majority did not (despite the long standing criticism of the rule) do away with the possibility of re-appointing the judges, and hence they may continue to be kept under check politically.

The propaganda of the government aims to equate Fidesz voters with “the people.” Thus, it justifies the arbitrary decisions of the government by referring to the “mandate” it has from voters. Public institutions, for instance, have been renamed “government” institutions. Furthermore, the Orbán administration has introduced laws that have made the immediate dismissal of public employees without cause possible, and the cleansing of the entire government apparatus. As a result, central and local public administration offices have quickly become politicized, riddled with conflicts of interest.

All important positions, including those in the independent institutions, have been filled with loyal active Fidesz activists. As Attorney General, they appointed an activist who had previously been a Fidesz political candidate, and who subsequently, during the first Orbán government, was the “trusted candidate” for the job. As President of the Court of Auditors, they appointed a person who until May 2010 had worked as a Fidesz parliamentary representative. Another former Fidesz representative became the President of the Media Authority, and the spouse of an influential Fidesz representative was appointed to head the newly-created National Judicial Office, which serves as the administrative body of the judicial branch. Similarly, the Hungarian Financial Supervisory Authority and the Budgetary Council came under political party influence. A Fidesz politician became the President of the National Cultural Fund, who simultaneously serves as the President of the Parliamentary Cultural Committee Consequentially, the person oversees his own job. A right-leaning government official took charge of the ombudsman office, forever doing away with the independence of the institution. Most of the above-listed party activists have been appointed for nine to twelve years. Therefore, they can stall or indeed prevent subsequent governments from implementing policies that go against those of the current one.

State-backed media replaced public radio and television channels. Their programs heavily underrepresented opposition politicians and intellectuals leaning towards the opposition. The media laws of 2010 created a media supervisory authority, and the individuals who are in the decision-making positions of this body are all close to Fidesz. The media authority can issue financial penalties at its discretion not only to radio or television programs that fail to abide by the media laws, but also to print or electronic media, even to bloggers. The sum of the penalties can be so high that they silence media outlets. The government does all it can to influence the media, ranging from personnel policies through state-led advertising. Measures aimed to curtail press freedom, such as controlling the policies of news agencies and state television, editing culture including outright forgery and manipulation, as well as the mass dismissal of employees have created an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship among journalists and television reporters. The European Parliament judged that the media policy violated press freedom. Widespread European protests ensued. Under pressure from the European Commission, the Hungarian government withdrew some of the provisions of the media law, and the Constitutional Court repealed some of the other provisions. However, the power to limit the freedom of the press remains on the books. The broadcasting operations of Budapest’s last opposition radio station, Klubrádió, were suspended. In its aftermath, television reporters carried out a hunger strike, calling for honest and transparent public media to be restored.

The minimal requirement of every democracy is holding free and fair elections, which allows for a peaceful change of the government, and this enables an incoming government to implement policies that are different from the ones of its predecessor. The Fidesz government, after coming to power, filled the National Electoral Commission, the body which is responsible for conducting clean and smooth elections, with its own people. The government majority, shortly before the municipal elections of fall of 2010, changed the electoral laws to make it more difficult for smaller parties to gain seats in local government. New laws have been passed for parliamentary elections, next scheduled for 2014, intended to advantage the ruling party. Overall, the new electoral law aims to filter out smaller parties and political opponents, to make it more difficult for opponents of the new order to vote, including the poor, especially the Roma (i.e., the victims of the policies of the Fidesz administration).

Snapshot of society and political culture

Fidesz’s sweeping electoral victory at first sight seemed to many as a populist reaction to the previous “weak” governments. After all, Fidesz promoted economic nationalism and “unorthodox” economic policies, by levying taxes on banks, launching anti-bank campaigns, attacking foreign investors and multinational financial institutions. In an effort to balance the budget, the government levied “crisis taxes” on banks and primarily foreign-owned large companies. At first sight, these measures may appear as typically “left wing” economic policies. This, however, is a misleading interpretation, because Fidesz’s “unorthodox” economic policies were complemented with distinctly “anti-Socialist” social policies. For example, the government now grants tax benefits to families with children of working parents, which in effect means that by definition, families where the parents are unemployed and who live in deep poverty (most notably the Roma) are excluded. Moreover, social spending on the homeless and the unemployed has been decreased. What is more, homelessness as such has been criminalized. The timeframe for disbursing aid has been reduced, meaning that recipients should receive aid quicker; however, more money has been allocated to those mothers, who temporarily leave the job market to remain at home with their child. These measure have been justified with the notion of a traditional, patriarchal family values. The Orbán administration openly defends its anti-Socialist policies. This is rare on continental Europe, where the majority of countries since World War II have aimed foremost to establish a social market economy, which they have since labored to protect.

The government took several steps to prevent people from expressing opposition or dissatisfaction in a formal and organized fashion: it made the Labor Code stricter, which hurt workers, and it abolished the traditional forms of dialogue between employers and employees. Moreover, unions were forced to merge with an emerging corporate structure. Limiting union rights curtailed the rights of workers to call for a strike. Furthermore, government-supported media outlets launched a smear campaign against the new, more radical generation of union leaders.

Shortly after coming to power, the government established a new, so-called “Counter-terrorist Center,” partly to guarantee the personal safety of the new prime minister. The annual budget of the organization exceeds the amount set aside for the National Cultural Fund. One year after, it seems that the strengthened security services cannot sufficiently guarantee the safety of those in power, either. The Minister of Interior has proposed to establish a new secret service, though this is still under debate in the cabinet, because this measure arouses controversy, as the leaders in power could thereby keep each other under check.

The new law ensures that public education is managed and controlled by the central government. Local government and foundation schools are being nationalized, and a significant number of these schools are being placed in the hands of churches. Moreover, the government, through these new laws, is homogenizing the curriculum of public schools, and it has reduced the age until which students must attend school from 18 to 16 years. The law on public education merges the anti-liberal traditions enshrined in the dogmas of Communism and Catholicism. It is no longer about education, but rather about discipline, and it declares that the state has the right to intervene in the lives of children and parents. The self-proclaimed “family-friendly” government strives to “re-educate” families, to enable them to become “worthy” of participating in the system of national cooperation.

Similar patterns can be observed in higher education. The proposed new bill on higher education aims to radically limit admissions, with financial aid from the state, to universities and colleges. The new laws would even require that students retroactively repay tuition fees should they choose to live abroad after completing their studies. On top of all this, the Orbán government proposes that some university degrees can only be pursued upon payment of full tuition, which will make the more lucrative professions available to only the wealthy. It is the unspoken goal of the government to reduce social mobility, to bring the process of the change of the elite to a close, and to entrench the social hierarchy that has emerged through a “revolutionary” process in the post-Communist era.

Though the government stresses that it does not wish to return to the past, it nonetheless feeds nostalgia towards the period between 1920 and 1944, characterized by Admiral Miklós Horthy’s nationalist and revanchist policies. Following the script of right wing nationalism, Prime Minister Orbán has proclaimed that the day of the Trianon Peace Treaty that concluded World War I as the “day of national unity.” The government is politically absolving individuals extolled during the Horthy regime, by conferring new awards upon them. Under the guise of “national unification,” Orbán is granting citizenship and voting rights to Hungarian minorities living outside of Hungary, based on the unfounded hope that he will thereby increase the number of right-wing voters, given that the majority living in the diaspora tend to vote for the right-wing parties (and will perhaps return the favor for receiving the automatic right to Hungarian citizenship). Orbán declared that he wishes to politically deal with the extreme rightist party Jobbik the same way that Horthy dealt with Nazi “nyilas” (arrow-cross) movements back in the day: “give them two slaps on the face and send them home.” Meanwhile, various extremist right, paramilitary organizations have appeared in villages across Hungary, bearing a range of eerie names, such as “Magyar Gárda” (“Hungarian Guard”), “Véderő” (“Protective Force”), and “Betyársereg” (“Outlaw’s Army”), each echoing Fascist symbols. These organizations take away the government’s monopoly on force and launch racist campaigns aimed at the Roma. Courts that ban these extremist paramilitary groups are unable to prevent them from reorganizing under different banners.

In the area of culture, the right and the ultra right, the policies of Fidesz and Jobbik overlap: both have an exclusionary interpretation of the idea of “national values.” Under this label, both parties go against the policy of equal opportunities of the past years. Though the government protected the National Theater’s director against homophobic and extreme-right attacks, compensation was not forthcoming. In exchange, they appointed an extreme-right wing actor as director of the New Theater, where he will now be working alongside István Csurka, the former President of Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja (MIÉP), (“Hungarian Truth and Life Party”), a former extreme-right party. To the helm of the Opera, Orbán (deceiving his own minister) placed a government commissioner, who through his deeds and declarations within a few weeks came into a confrontation with the major representatives of Europe’s cultural scene. Within a year and a half, all theater directors across Hungary were replaced. In many towns, relatives of the Fidesz clientele have become the directors of the theaters. By stopping the activities of the public foundation for film, the government in effect ended one of the most successful branches of Hungarian cultural life: film production. Thus, producers dependent on the government have secured the “right to the last cut”, and as such, censorship in filmmaking has become institutionalized yet again. The government even decides which religion is “established” or traditional (Islam and Mormonism, for instance, are not), and it has the authority to conduct a complete data search on all “non-established” congregations.

The Orbán regime considers some of the most outstanding artists and scholars to be its enemies, including: András Schiff, Imre Kertész, Ádám Fischer, Iván Fischer, Ágnes Heller, Bélá Tarr, János Kornai, Mihály Vajda, Zsuzsa Ferge, Sándor Radnóti, and many others.

The government has commissioned its artist friends to create illustrations for the new basic law, so that it may leave its visual footprints of the historical periods of its preference next to the text, displayed on the mandatory “basic law tables” in government offices. They are redesigning Kossuth Square, the large area just in front of the Parliament, to restore the “conditions of 1944.” Their actions are full of contradictions. They laud Chinese Communism and the anti-Communist neo-conservativism in the United States simultaneously. They banned pro-Tibet protests during the Chinese Communist Party Chairman’s visit, and at the same time, they put up a statue of President Ronald Reagan, who had called Communism the “Evil Empire”. They turn away from previous symbolic figures of Hungarian democracy, such as István Bibó and Imre Nagy, turning instead towards the successors of Li Peng, with whom they “forge an alliance.” In addition, they declare that the Communist Party of the past is a “criminal organization,” including its predecessor and successor organizations. However, they welcome the former members of the Communist party in the government. And further, they have these former members write parts of the basic law. The central propaganda machine rises to protect nationalism, patriarchal family values, power politics and “law and order.”

It was surprising that the steps of the Fidesz government (despite its qualified majority in parliament) were followed by Blitzkrieg tactics, especially where legislation is concerned. If a government announcement of a new law is expected, parts of it are leaked days before, and thus the government can “prepare” public opinion for its receipt. The party’s parliamentary faction leader, or the prime minister’s spokespersons thereafter duly delivers the announcement, which is then immediately submitted to parliament, and by way of an individual representative’s motion, the representatives vote the bill into law. The Minister of Justice, who in theory should be responsible for legislation, in effect has no say in the legislative process. There is no society-wide debate, no professional talks, no impact assessments are conducted, and there is no need for other such procedures considered “conventional” in a democracy. The opposition’s voice is divided and it does not filter through the state-sponsored media. Furthermore, one modification of house rules limits parliamentary debate explicitly: proposals deemed important by Fidesz pass through parliament smoothly. This clearly contradicts the notion of a parliamentary democracy, which is based on idea of holding public debates. During the past year and a half analysts, journalists and commentators hopelessly chased after events as they unfolded. The remaining democrats could barely keep track of the chaotic pace of legislation, which had been intentionally accelerated. By the time the involved parties and non-state controlled media outlets realized what had happened, the event had already concluded.

At first this gave the impression of a government determined to govern. Yet, it has become clear that the goal is to centralize power. When criticized, the government has regularly responded by saying that the “most important talks” with society had already taken place, namely at the polling stations in 2010. As such, the government claims that its policies reflect the will of the people. Yet, if indeed the majority stands behind the government, why does it govern in a coup-like fashion? A constitutional coup has unfolded in Hungary, and the speed of this coup was dictated by Viktor Orbán and his cronies.

The new basic law

The icing on the constitutional coup was the approval of the new basic law. Armed with a super majority in parliament, Orbán provided only two months for parliament and society to consider the issue. The democratic opposition parties, MSZP and LMP (the Hungarian Socialist Party and Lehet Más a Politika, or “Politics Can Be Different,” respectively) were not included in the parliamentary debate. However, Jobbik did participate, though in the end it voted against the new basic law. Under the label “society-wide debate,” Fidesz circulated a survey. Professionally speaking, this survey was of low quality and impossible to process. That said, Fidesz called this survey a “national consultation.” Only a fraction of voters responded to the survey.

The Constitution approved by governmental majority in April 2011 was the result of a unilateral governmental process, which did not reflect a national consensus. The text of the new basic law kept several portions of the 1989 Constitution. However, the way it protects individual freedoms is deeply problematic. Individual freedoms are lumped together with communal interests, and as a result, individual freedoms are not valued. The basic law openly refers to Hungary as a country based on Christian values. This is not only exceptional for Europe, it is also unusual among the neighboring Visegrád countries. Though the basic law (in one sentence only) formally maintains the form of a republic, it breaks with the essential notion of a republic, by changing the name from “Republic of Hungary” to simply “Hungary.” The new basic law increases the role of religion, traditions and the so-called national values. While it speaks of a unified nation, certain social minorities are not given due recognition and respect. In its definition of equality before the law, it mentions gender, ethnicity and religion, yet it does not extend this definition to include legal protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The 1989 democratic Constitution was ideologically neutral; by contrast, the 2011 replaces the two preambles of the 1989 text with one of the longest preambles in Europe, composed of a whopping 26 paragraphs. This serves as an expression of a “national religious belief system.” It is a vow, in which the Hungarians list all of their sources of pride and hope and pledge to join hands and build a better future, parallel to Orbán’s “system of national cooperation”.

The new text stresses the role of Christianity in gluing the nation together, which is debatable in a largely secular country. It does not respect the belief system of other religions, and it only respects the “traditions” of other religious. Therefore, it views them as important to the extent that they form part of Hungary’s history. The wording of the new basic law says a lot about contemporary Hungarian politics: it speaks extensively about Christianity, taking sides with the founder of the state, St. Stephen, who promoted European integration and took sides with the West, vis-à-vis General Koppány, who has remained a “eurosceptic” (the two were in conflict over a thousand years ago). This may in effect be a positive aspect of the new law. However, the text visibly turns its back on atheists and agnostics, who were purportedly unable to contribute intellectually to Hungarian national culture, and as such, they have shut themselves out of the system. The text sees “culture” as synonymous with the unified and indivisible Hungarian national culture, because the notion of cultural pluralism does not even emerge.

The ideas of democracy, republic and human rights are missing from the preamble of the new basic law; however, the traditional notion of the “true rule of the people” appears, which is not based on rights, but on duties of the state. The text is classic Orbánian in its ending: “We, the citizens of Hungary stand prepared to base our country’s order on national cooperation.” This sentence mirrors the Stalinist Constitution “the Communist Party is the leading power of our society.” Since no one knows for sure what the “system of national cooperation” is exactly, it is Orbán himself, as chief leader, who is entitled to determine how it is to be interpreted.

Opposing autocracy?

Despite the destructive efforts of the government, Hungary at the beginning of 2012 still retains a few of the basic characteristics of a multiparty democracy. Liberal democracy, however, has been replaced with a wrecked version of “majority” rule, in which the freedom of speech is limited by self-censorship (people do not speak up, for fear of losing their jobs), and press freedom is clearly being reduced to blogs, or to the blogosphere, as it were. The state-run television channels have taken a turn towards the tabloid. The aim is to depoliticize the news, or remove political issues from media reports. State-sponsored media outlets, for instance, either did not report, or underreported, anti-Orbán mass rallies and demonstrations. There is no denying that during the next general elections, Fidesz will have a clear advantage.

To ensure that elections continue to be fair and free and to guarantee a return towards liberal democracy, strong opposition parties, willing to cooperate, are needed, along with movements and an independent press, civic organizations and heightened international attention. By the end of 2011, the main opposition points had already begun to appear, including independent unions and increasingly active civic groups that overshadow the dispersed opposition parties, which today remain unable to join forces.

The group calling itself “One million people for the freedom of the press!” in January 2011 sent ten thousand protestors to the street; by March 15th, and October 23rd, two of Hungary’s most important national holidays, their number had swollen to 30,000 and 70,000, respectively. Labor unions organized larger gatherings in April and June. On October 1st, the Hungarian Solidarity Movement was formed, which organized a demonstration of 30,000 people in front of parliament, and in December, it announced that it would become a countrywide organization. On Christmas 2011, representatives and activists of opposition party LMP chained themselves around the parliament building to prevent parliamentarians from entering. They aimed to draw attention to the legislation that was being passed by parliament that threatened the rule of law. The police, Ukrainian- and Belorussian-style, accused the protestors of “restricting personal freedoms.”

If the society is unable to balance the system against the governmental leadership, democracy is in danger. The proponents of autocracy, however, cannot cement their power, and they cannot stop the clock, adjusting the present moment, which is favorable for them, to eternity. It is an important lesson for those who believe in democracy that they cannot pretend as though all is well, as they have in the past decades. Democratic action is required. That there has been such action in the past year is a hopeful sign.

Hungary’s most recent past demonstrates that history did not end with the transition to democracy. Democracy is never a complete condition; rather, it is a dynamic process, full of tension. In essence, it is but a fragile balance of forces and counter-forces. If Hungarian democracy survives the authoritarian challenges, thanks to resistance from society, there is a good chance that it will subsequently be stronger than ever. The political crisis calls attention to the fact that democracy cannot be narrowed down to institutions, because institutions can be easily hollowed out by leaders, who do not respect the ideals of freedom. Democracy can only be preserved if, along with its values, a plethora of dedicated people help it thrive.