The Hungarian Shock: Transition from Democracy?

With all of its problems, Hungary after 1989 has been a success story, but now the success is challenged in ways that are very much unexpected.  From the happy story of the transition from dictatorship to democracy, there is a looming potential tragedy, a transition from democracy.  In the second part of 2010, we Hungarians have been witnessing something that I, for one, never expected.

We grew up in a soft dictatorship which slowly but surely opened up in response to the pressure of civic movements, the increasing weakness of the structure of the party-state and also external pressures.  In the 1980s, the post-totalitarian regime slowly devolved, culminating in the dramatic democratic changes of 1989. Although the “negotiated revolution” of 1989 was elite driven, most people happily endorsed the new regime of freedom.  They could travel, watch foreign movies, start their own enterprises and speak freely about their lives in public.  Free elections and a representative government, a constitutional court, and democratic opposition were all firmly established.  The last twenty years were far from being unproblematic, prime examples: a widening gap between the winners and losers of the regime change, between the living standards of the capital city, Budapest, and the rest of the country, and between the life chances of educated classes and the Roma population.  But still, what we all experienced was a genuine liberal democracy.  Governing parties lost elections.  The media aggressively criticized politicians. Democracy was consolidated, and the country successfully joined the European Union.

But then there was the revolutionary victory of Fidesz at the polling booths in April 2010, and a reversal of the above developments.  I cannot believe my eyes: Is it possible to roll back history? Is it possible to take the oxygen of democracy away within a few weeks and months? Moreover: Is it possible to make a reverse transition, back to a semi-authoritarian regime within the European Union?

Although Fidesz received 53 per cent support from voters at the general elections, due to the oddities in the proportional electoral system, this translated into a two-third majority in Parliament.  With such a super majority, the ruling party now is willing and able to change all fundamental laws, including the Constitution.  Its leader, the new Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, conceives of this victory as revolution, declaring the need for fundamental political changes, purportedly as the will of the people.  Orbán even announced the installation of a new “System of National Collaboration” that sought to replace the troubled decades of liberal democracy of the past 20 years.  He announced a “declaration on national collaboration,” a text which had to be put on the walls of all institutions of public administration.

Although the electoral campaign of Fidesz said nothing about these steps, the governing majority started a fundamental restructuring of the political system.  Public offices have been renamed as government offices.  Those in the civil service became easily and legally dismissible.  Central and local public administration has become heavily politicized.  All leading positions in the purportedly independent institutions were filled by Fidesz party-cadres. Retroactive taxation regulations have been introduced to punish the personnel of the previous governments.  Central campaigns have been initiated against the “criminal elements” of the previous governments, as well as some groups of the intelligentsia.  The government press has fiercely attacked philosophers of the Lukács School including Ágnes Heller, Mihály Vajda and others, who allegedly received overly generous state funding for their research.

As opposed to common European standards, a rare combination of anti-social policies have been enacted.  By introducing a flat tax system, the cabinet has aimed to win the support of the wealthy against the interests of the poor.  Welfare benefits for the homeless and unemployed have been cut, while more money has been given, in “the national interest,” to stay at home mothers for raising more children, promoting a traditional, patriarchical concept of family. New laws on public and higher education control high school and university students more strictly, aiming to significantly reduce the number of university students.

Strict regulations on trade unions effectively have limited the right to strike, and the government has campaigned against some trade union leaders, seeking to discredit the unions.  A so-called anti-terrorist organization was set up, mainly to defend the personal security of Viktor Orbán and people of his government.  Electoral laws have been changed before the municipal elections (held last October) in order to narrow the chance of smaller parties to enter local governments.  The broad powers of the Constitutional Court have been significantly curtailed. Citizenship has been given to ethnic Hungarian who lived outside Hungary in order to gain more potential voters for Fidesz in the next elections. The private pension system was nationalized, forcing people into the state pension system.  By doing this, Fidesz kept the annual deficit under 3.8 per cent to get close to correspond to the Maastricht criteria of the European Union. Importantly, while Fidesz pursued scrupulously restrictive fiscal policies to please the EU technocrats, in the terrain of politics, they took steps that drove Hungary away from the rest of democratic Europe.

Procedurally, all bills have been proposed, as “modifications” of previous regulations, by individual MPs of Fidesz, and not by the government, to avoid democratic public debates and to speed up legislation.   Commentators, analysts and the press hopelessly lagged behind this breathtakingly speedy legislation.
An attempted constitutional coup d’etat

There has been an attempted “constitutional coup d’état” of sorts, by a single person, Viktor Orbán.  Government controlled public media (radio and television channels) do not give a chance for opposition figures to tell their opinion.  Central propaganda machine transmits messages of nationalism, Christian and patriarchal family values, with demands for law and order.  In the meantime, the governing majority changed the Constitution nine times in the past half year already, which effectively destabilized legal security, responsiveness and accountability.  The next step of the governing majority is to change the Constitution (to be completed by late April 2011), which supposedly will emphasize Christian values, national history, and state interests.

Orbán spent already four years in power between 1998 and 2002. Since that time he was defeated twice: In 2002 he lost to the socialist Péter Medgyessy, and, in 2006, to another socialist, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Especially his second defeat was humiliating and since that time he is driven by the feverish wish for revenge. Strangely, these defeats did not weaken his unquestionable leadership position within Fidesz, which he transformed from a democratic to a highly hierarchical, centralized party which is controlled exclusively by him. He is simply transplanting the logic of a boss-controlled party to a leader-state ( called Führerstaat in the German press). People are scared and silent since nobody wants to lose his or her job. The popularity of Fidesz is still relatively high because the new taxes did not directly target ordinary people, but banks and multinationals.

The international press often compares Orbán to such leaders as Putin (Russia), Lukashenka (Belarus), Kaczynski (Poland), Chávez (Venezuela), Meciar (Slovakia), Berlusconi (Italy), Atatürk (Turkey), De Gaulle (France), Tudjman (Croatia) and others. Some of these comparisons might seem to be tempting but most of them miss the point and include exaggerations. Orbán is not like Putin or Lukashenka, because Hungarian authorities do not kill journalists, and do not jail, or force to exile, anti-government protesters. Despite the fact that both love European soccer Orbán is not Berlusconi as the latter had already owned several TV channels before he entered government while Orbán used his newly acquired government position to capture the media. Kaczynski established the „Fourth Republic” in Poland but did not change the liberal economic policy of the country despite his nationalist rhetoric, and he failed very quickly due to the existence of a strong democratic alternative. Chávez nationalized certain industries and campaigned against foreign investors but he favored the lower classes in Venezuela while Orbán prefers promoting the upper middle classes and the national bourgeoisie. De Gaulle established the „Fifth Republic” in France but did not break the rule of law. Tudjman was an uncompromising nationalist leader, the self-elected founder of a “new Croatia”, while Orbán is much more like an opportunistic populist who mixes leftist and rightist economic policies with nationalism, just as he is ready to mix traditional values with far right ideas. He pursues unorthodox policies like Meciar did in Slovakia, but he is more consistent in attacking democratic institutions. The Turkish dictator, Kemal Atatürk re-established and modernized Turkey by Westernizing his country in several aspects (e.g. by separating state and religion) while Orbán sometimes gives the impression that he aims to „Easternize” Hungary. He is not afraid to praise the effectivity of China’s communist capitalism while on visit in Asia, but by the same token, he equally encourages and utilizes anti-capitalist and anti-communist sentiments at home.

Despite all efforts to the contrary, Hungary still has a multiparty system, though its democracy is increasingly non-competitive because of a rigging of the political and media systems. Freedom of the press is increasingly restricted to the blogosphere (Facebook and the like) and to opposition leaning journals – but it still exists. There were free and fair elections in 2010, so the Fidesz-government enjoys a democratic “input legitimacy” (even if it has not been followed by a democratic “output legitimacy”). There is still hope for democratic elections next time. There is a need for visible, prevalent and consistent democratic, liberal resistance to the authoritarian tendencies.  Hungarian civil society, including employees, students, workers and others, should wake up from their long sleep. If Hungary survives this authoritarian challenge, with broad resistance, it is even possible that democracy may become stronger than it was before. The current Hungarian situation clearly demonstrates that democracy cannot be reduced to certain institutional frames, because those can be compromised. It can survive only if it is supported by committed active people.

February 2011


András Bozoki is Professor of Political Science at the Central European
University in Budapest and an IWM Alumnus. His most recent book is Diversity
and the European Public Sphere: The Case of Hungary
( with R. Sata, A.
Selmeczi and B. Huszka), Bergen 2010. In 1988 he joined Fidesz, at
that time a liberal opposition party, and in 1989 was a negotiator at the Roundtable
Talks. In 1990, he was spokesman for Fidesz. He also served as Hungary’s
Minister of Culture in 2005 and 2006.

Thanks to Jeffrey C. Goldfarb and his Blog Deliberately
Considered
.

Tr@nsit online, 2011
Copyright © 2011 by the author & Transit – Europäische Revue. All rights
reserved. This work may be used, with this header included, for noncommercial
purposes. No copies of this work may be distributed electronically, in whole
or in part, without written permission from Transit.

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    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Bird White Housum Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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