Book Review: Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism, by Paul Lendvai

With a new constitution and a power-hungry president, the future of democracy in this former Soviet state is unsure

Orbán Über Alles: Hungary at a Dead End

“All this amounts to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule under a paper-thin veneer of democracy in the heart of Europe.” – Paul Krugman

Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán speaking at the inauguration of the Richter Gedeon biotechnology plant in Debrecen, 226 km east of Budapest, on 19 Apr. | Photo: Lajos Soos/EPA

Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections in April 2010. There can be no doubt that Orbán’s successful “revolution in the polling booth” has put an end to the liberal democracy existing in Hungary since 1990 and has smoothed the path to a populist autocracy.

Today, almost two years after Fidesz’s triumph, it is evident that the institutional checks and balances on the executive have practically disappeared. Already in his closing speech delivered at the end of the first session of the new parliament, Orbán could justifiably boast that the “national centre” had achieved more in 56 days than the Socialist-Liberal coalition had in eight years. Looking back on the 20-year history of democracy in Hungary, it is indeed without precedent that the constitution was amended no fewer than 10 times in the government’s first year in office, an achievement crowned, thanks to its huge majority, by the enactment of an entirely new constitution that entered into force on 1 Jan. 2012.

In all, by the end of the 2011 Parliament, “little more than a rubber stamp,” 350 laws – including 25 so-called “fundamental” laws which may be amended only by a two-thirds majority in any subsequent parliament – had been passed in a frenzy of legislation. Even if a new government wins a simple majority, basic policies instituted and key officials appointed (for a term of six to nine years!) by the Fidesz government cannot be changed.

Nobody can doubt any longer that Viktor Orbán, the most experienced and most ruthless Hungarian politician, will strive to achieve the vision he articulated in his notorious speech at Kötcse on 5 Sept. 2009: establishing a permanent hold on power for 15 to 20 years.

Charles Gati, the Hungarian-born U.S. academic, summed up his impressions after a year-end visit to his native country: “Hungary is no longer a Western-style democracy. It is an illiberal or managed democracy in the sense that all important decisions are made by Orbán; it is similar to Slovakia under Vladimir Mečiar and Poland under the rule of the Kaczynnskis.”

How was it possible for Orbán’s party to achieve such an astounding electoral victory? Although only one third of all eligible voters actually voted for Fidesz, because of the disproportionate and distorting electoral system the party was able to win 68 per cent of the seats in Parliament. The 2.7 million votes for the Fidesz party ticket, just over half of all votes cast, amounted only to a third of the electorate in Hungary and a quarter of the entire population. Orbán’s claims that Fidesz represents the “undivided will of the Hungarian nation” is, as Josef Debreczeni bluntly describes, a “falsification of history” built on a tissue of lies.

The two-thirds mandate – Charles Gati’s “voting booth revolution” – has been used day in and day out by the Fidesz propaganda (and believed by most foreign governments) to justify all the radical laws and regulations Orbán and his parliamentary majority have introduced since mid-2010 – even though not one word was uttered about a new constitution, media law, electoral law or religion law during the campaign.

The style of the new system was quickly reflected in a government decree instructing the authorities to hang the Declaration of National Cooperation (in a 50x70cm glass frame) on the walls of all public buildings. The Declaration repudiates the “negative inheritance of the past 20 years”, openly rejecting all the positive achievements since 1989–90. And as economist and MEP Lajos Bokros has emphasised, “none of the Fidesz initiatives implemented so far ever appeared in the party’s election manifesto, and therefore, logically, they have no mandate from the electorate.”

The “historic act of the nation” has subsequently produced dramatic changes:  These have included two new laws which gave ethnic Hungarians living abroad the opportunity to fast-track Hungarian citizenship, even if they lacked permanent residency; and another allowing ethnic Hungarians elsewhere to vote in Hungarian elections. Thus, as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung observed, Fidesz had outflanked the nationalist Jobbik Party in questions of national identity.

Paul Lendvai in the Hungarian capital | Photo: Zsoka Lendvai

This initially met with little resistance in society at large. Polls revealed that a great majority wanted a strong government, which could implement its policies without internal party conflicts. And analysts doubt that the hopelessly divided Socialists will be able to win back the bulk of their traditional supporters in the foreseeable future. A genuine threat to Orbán could only come from the right in the event of an economic crisis.

[This shift to the right emphasizes a string of conservative values:] The Declaration of National Cooperation identifies “work, home, family, health and order” as the pillars binding together “the new political and economic system achieved through the democratic will of the people” and says that “God is the master of history,” [paying] tribute to the Christian roots of the Hungarians, the Holy Crown of Saint Stephen and the inseparable common bonds linking all Hungarians, whether in Hungary or abroad, in a united Hungarian nation. Furthermore, it requires all citizens to behave in accordance with vaguely defined moral standards and Christian values, outlawing abortion and same-sex marriages.

The potentially most devastating blow against the rest of the independent-liberal media was the decision taken by one of the Fidesz-controlled media regulatory boards to award the broadcasting frequency used by Klubradio, the liberal radio station with over half-a-million regular listeners, to an obscure new outfit promising more Hungarian music. The silencing of this immensely popular broadcaster was decided, despite a protest movement launched by private news portals and on Facebook (“One Million against the Media Law”) mobilising tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Budapest on 23 Oct. 2011, the 55th anniversary of the 1956 uprising. This was followed by an even larger demonstration outside the Opera House on 2 Jan. 2012 against the [new] Constitution, which had come into force a day earlier.

Despite the numerous protests of Reporters Without Borders or Freedom House, as well as by the Hungarian opposition as shown in the Budapest demonstrations, the centralised day-to-day control of the bulk of the electronic and print media by the top Fidesz political and financial echelons appears to be irreversible in the foreseeable future…

By the end of 2011, Hungary found itself in the midst of an economic and financial crisis much more serious than that of 2008: Public debt has reached a historical peak of 82.4 per cent, the forint’s exchange rate has slid to a historic low, dropping by almost 20 per cent against the euro; three rating agencies have downgraded Hungary’s public debt to junk status; and its 10-year bonds have topped 10 per cent, far above sustainable levels. Disillusioned writer and former rights activist György Konrad already sees Hungary as “a junk country, with a junk administration and a junk prime minister.”

Faced with the imminent threat of insolvency and confronted with a spirited defence of the independence of the National Bank by its Governor András Simor and the European Central Bank, the beleaguered Orbán government appears, at the time of this writing, to have changed its tactics in favour of a tactical withdrawal from some extreme and untenable positions.

The lasting peace between Paris and Bonn, as well as the durable compromises between Rome, Vienna, Bolzano and Innsbruck regarding South Tyrol, could serve as examples for Hungary and its neighbours as ways of overcoming the barriers between them and jointly facing up to the inheritance of the Treaty of Trianon.

The demons of the past and the chimera of various political systems have to be forgotten in the national interest. Hungary too has to come to terms with the bitter lessons of history.


Hungary: Between Democracy and Authoritarianism (excerpt from final chapter)
by Paul Lendvai, trans.: Keith Chester
published this month by Hurst & Co.
pp. 288

Mr. Lendvai will present this book at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers on:
Wed., 23 May, 19:30
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535 5053

Order this book online

Also see Paul Lendvai’s commentary on Bruno Kreisky in the Feb. 2011 TVR, and a review of his 2010 book Mein Verspieltes Land (My Squandered Country), in the Apr. 2011 TVR.

For past coverage of Viktor Orbán, see here.

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