Beyond the Arab Spring, the European Winter; Hungary becomes third European state to suspend democracy
By Richard Cottrell
Contributing writer for End the Lie
A great many Hungarians are immensely concerned that from January 1st, they can longer say with any confidence that they are living in a democratic state.
But there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. Largely ignored by the world, and even by the other 26 member states of the European Union, this small country at the heart of Europe has been the subject of a rolling putsch by the right wing Fidesz (or Civic Union) party for the past eighteen months.
On New Year’s Day a new constitution comes into force. It means the end of Hungary’s brief twenty-year flirtation with democracy that began with the fall of the communist bloc.
With Italy and Greece, this now makes three member states of the EU that have joined the ranks of manipulated or sham democracy.
Even the Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Kruger, who can trace family roots in Eastern Europe, has descended from Olympus to pronounce that Hungary is slipping into authoritarianism. And he even got the New York Times to take notice.
However, the leaders of EU states, the mandarins of the European Union and very noticeably the United States, who between them became so excited about the Arab Spring, are noticeably silent on the subject of democracy’s European Winter.
For Hungary the drift began at the spring 2010 election in which Fidesz charged to power, winning a two-thirds majority in the national parliament, and 227 seats.
The election marked the end of a period of chaotic and largely corrupt rule by the socialists who ruled previously, whose origins lie in the former communist party.
Virtually immediately, the incoming Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – the man his opponents how deride as the “Viktator” – began a radical overhaul of the entire political and social landscape.
One of his first steps was the abolition of true independence of the media, by appointing a board of censors packed with Fidesz stooges.
In the first year after the election, Orbán amended the constitution no less than ten times. This was an essential element in the process of chipping away at the fabric of a state has known only a short spell of what might be called freedom after the collapse of the communist bloc in 1989.
In fact, the new regime resuscitated many of the practices of the former Iron Curtain state, most noticeably by choking dissent and criticism.
Take the “media board” as a depressing example. It is stuffed with commissars who are all nominated by the prime minister himself.
They can look forward to seven years of cozy superannuated comfort gagging any impudent journalist who steps out of line.
Of course no-one connected with this august star chamber talks about censorship. Gracious no, it is all about making sure that broadcasters and editors observe vague guidelines about fairness and political balance.
Those who do not comply will be served with whacking great fines. So, already the media are censoring themselves, since the fines are theoretically limitless.
The clever take on making anything, no matter how innocuous, a fineable offence or insult to the regime ensures virtual total compliance.
The independence of the judiciary was destroyed by making all appointments to the courts on the basis of sympathies to the Great Viktator’s approval.
This is very close to the vetting system followed in such enlightened forbears as General Franco’s Spain, the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and of course the former Hungarian socialist state.
We may add those present bastions of liberal values, the People’s Republic of China and Putin’s Russia. The quid pro quo is the certainty of decisions favorable to the ruling authorities.
Do all these things and you can then pause to think about the glaring defects in the grossly unfair electoral system, which has a tendency to make room for rival political forces.
Early on Orbán partly got around this by giving all ethnic Hungarians who are also citizens of foreign domains, such as neighboring Romania, the vote.
Sure, other countries have similar practices, but Orbán made the calculation that most non-resident Hungarians were inclined to the Right.
So, in future he could weigh the votes for Fidesz instead of going through all the bother of counting them.
Plaques appeared on all public and state buildings reminding Hungarians that they had voted for a new “revolution,” which is exactly the sort of phraseology that one normally expects from demagogues.
The word “revolution” is emotionally highly charged in Hungary. The brutal crushing of the popular rising in 1956 by troops of the Warsaw Pact, and the subsequent murder of the Prime Minister Imre Nagy in a KGB Moscow jail, stunned the world.
Now the wheel has turned full circle. On New Year’s Day the gerrymandered replacement constitution comes into force.
Essentially every new provision has no other objective than prolong the regime’s grip on office indefinitely.
Buried in the small print, which most Hungarians understandably skip because of the complexity, is a seemingly obscure provision concerning the public finances.
These will be supervised by a national budget council, which to the surface seems to be a reasonable provision given the country’s habitual failure to keep deficits on a leash, much less reduce them.
But wait a moment. This is yet another smart extra-parliamentary fix. The new constitution endows the council with the power to veto any budget proposal that increases the national debt.
As this will likely always prove the case then the members of an unelected quango can take over parliament’s job.
Surely you say, Fidesz might leave themselves with no alternative but to increase the deficit? Yes, but in appointing the members of the supervisory authority, Orbán can easily ensure that some extenuating circumstances come into play.
The provision is expressly political. Its real task is to frustrate the ability of any rival political force to run the country.
It may be argued that the government acted with the example of the former socialist government’s ruthless mangling of the truth about the country’s public finances.
But the plain facts are that the new budget supremo is in effect an ex patria chamber of parliament.
This is a very dangerous innovation. The members of the budget council have been chosen by Orbán’s office to serve for six or twelve years.
This means they are securely embedded in the system. Their replacement can be brought about only if the parliament can agree on new candidates, and only then if their terms of office are over.
So what need of a parliament, except as a rubber stamp? In 30 years of being active in politics and political culture, I have never seen a smarter ruse to bring about a one party state by the back door.
Hungarians will still go the polls, but they may well tire of the habit. The new constitution – or usurpation, as it should be properly called – effectively ensures that Fidesz will always secure a majority of votes and seats. There may be a token opposition, at least for a while.
The constitution bans the communist party from seeking office. Irrespective of what you think about communism, it is a recognizable – although by now, entirely marginal – trend everywhere on the European continent.
Thirty years ago there were 1.5 million communist voters in stoutly Catholic Italy, and about a quarter of a million in France.
Today communist supporters in both countries can be numbered in the low thousands. Influence: zero.
The European Parliament, where of course Hungary sends elected representatives, is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of political banners.
There are two typically quarrelsome communist coalitions, the Left Unity faction with fourteen members and the slightly larger Group of the United European, with 28. The Parliament itself has 736 members, so there is scarcely a popular revolutionary uprising in prospect.
Hungary elects 24 Euro MPs. Not one of them is a communist. In the country itself, the party has vanished.
So why all this bother of banning a political force which to all practical purposes, doesn’t actually exist?
The answer lies in the Viktator’s ambitions to reduce the institution of the parliament to nothing more than a servile rubber stamp of an authoritarian regime.
The Fidesz caucus regards the Hungarian socialist party, the only possible source of an alternative government, as the legal successor to the former Communist Party of Hungary.
Therefore the real target is actually the socialist party, which is at risk of being banned, thanks to the new constitution, because its antecedents lay in the former totalitarian political system.
Actually, Orbán has a double barreled shot gun in mind. The second barrel is aimed at the Jobbik (Hungary First) party. This is a populist nationalist outfit, which has similar counterparts in France, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and the UK.
In general Jobbik espouses free markets, national religion and eyes ethnic Hungarian lands in bordering states as suitable targets for annexation. Its members tend to smile warmly on Hungarian pre-war fascists.
It is difficult however to pin down these new trends as openly anti-democratic or neofascist and such like.
The success of Jobbik in Hungary (and like-minded movements elsewhere) suggests a growing attraction towards hard-line nationalist conservatism drawing on disillusion with establishment parties of the Right.
This presents a potentially disturbing obstacle to Orbán’s grand schemes. A backlash from the “Further Right,” so to speak, could seriously unhinge this new Hungarian Revolution.
The European Union’s queen charged with guarding justice, human values and citizenship, the veteran Luxembourg politician Viviane Reding, has indicated some nervousness at Hungary’s steady slide into authoritarianism.
Her remarks would be all the more impressive but for the fact that EU commissars are such frequent and highly flattered guests at the annual secretive Bilderberg bun fights.
Moreover, Herman van Rompuy, the president of the EU Council of Ministers, is himself a famous frequent flyer to Bilderberg summits.
When Orbán introduced his first draconian measures that came into force on the 1st of January this year, the miniature Belgian (who looks like one of the wizard bank clerks in Potterland) galloped straight to Budapest to shake the Viktator’s hand.
The previously obscure and unknown Van Rompuy secured the top EU job by acclamation after first gaining approval from a specially convened meeting of Bilderberg big shots.
For now, one finds smoke and mirrors scattered everywhere. The EU grumbles about the plans to smother the independence of the Hungarian Central Bank.
So what? The entirely contrived and artificial “euro crisis” that we have been reading so much about was all along nothing more than a smash and grab to make off with the independence of the 17 central banks inside the euro currency zone, and then eventually all the remaining survivors in the 27 member bloc.
Ditto, the Standard and Poor’s recent downgrade of Hungary’s debt to junk level. Ignore all the gratuitous hand-wringing that investors will be scared away if the central bank is lobotomized.
Sure it’s junk and who knows that better than Viktor Orbán? What he needs to do is get rid of it.
The downgrade is nothing less than a preliminary clue that Hungary plans to default by means of a slow-descent parachute. Remember, you read it here first. It really is quite clever, when you think about it.
Finally, who will be next to surrender the precious goblet of democracy within the glorious union of European peoples?
My money is on another former Soviet client state, Poland, as the leading contender.
You might recall the extraordinary plane accident (if that is actually what it was) that killed no less than a hundred members of the Polish elites after going down in a Russian forest in April last year.
Leading figures in the Polish Jobbik-like Further Right including the country’s president Lech Kaczyński (from the Law and Justice Party) also perished.
Earlier this year a veteran populist politician Andrej Lepper was found dead in his Warsaw apartment, a case of suicide so it was said.
I dare say that you may agree with me that the eradication of so many leading Further Right opponents to the increasingly autocratic rule of Premier Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Platform, seems rather more than pure coincidence.
Edited by End the Lie