The Hungarian Shock: Transition from Democracy?

Tr@nsit Online

Hungary has been among the greatest successes of the postcommunist era but - faced by new challenges in the twenty-first century - the thriving democracy achieved in the 'negotiated revolution' of 1989 is facing unexpected threats.

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 many 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

Tr@nsit online, 2011
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