14 May 2012

Doomsday in Hungary?


Since Christmas several reports and opinions have appeared in the international media painting a bleak picture of the state of democracy in Hungary, heaping heavy criticism on the government. The objects of the concern and the attacks are the new Constitution passed by the National Assembly in 2011, the media law of 2011, the amendments to the judicial system, the law on the National Bank, and the law on minorities and on the religious denominations. (The EU procedure about excessive debt is not a political issue, but an economic one, and it will be settled when we prove that the budget deficit does not exceed 3 per cent.)

The best way to understand what is going on in Hungary, why there were many laws passed in a rush, and why all that led to such a worldwide campaign is to look at recent history. Reference to that background is practically absent from the coverage of the recent events. Today Hungary is a highly polarized country, the division between the “Socialists”, who use leftist slogans, and the present conservative government, which emphasizes national interest, is getting ever deeper. Why?

In the 1970s and 80s, Hungary was often called “the merriest barrack in the communist bloc”. The peasants were forced to enter into Soviet-type collective farms, but were allowed to keep a small household plot, and there they produced food enough to fill the stomachs. People could get extra income by way of moonlighting in the grey economy, and were able to travel abroad once every three years, unless one openly criticized “the system”. Education and healthcare were nominally free, retirement age low. Living standards were also low, but higher than among most of our neighbours, thanks to Western loans. Practically we were like a dog on a longer leash, permitted to bark and given enough food. Looking back on the 1980s, the last decade of communist dictatorship, many people feel nostalgia for its full employment and care-free albeit poor living conditions. When in the late 1980s the whole Soviet bloc drifted to the verge of economic collapse, the Hungarian political leadership came to a hard fought agreement with the growing unofficial opposition movements on the peaceful transition to a multi-party democracy and the market economy. The three heroes of this process were Imre Pozsgay (on behalf of the reform communist government), József Antall (Prime Minister after the free elections of April 1990 till his death in December 1993), and the representative of the young generation, Viktor Orbán (the present Prime Minister). The example of Hungary led to the fall of all the communist dominoes in late 1989, in rapid succession.

In all of these “transition countries”, former Soviet satellites, voters became gradually disappointed in the early 1990s, not with democracy, but with soaring inflation, loss of jobs, and great discrepancies in income – which were all unknown in the oppressive and dreary communist (erroneously called “socialist”) system. At the next Hungarian elections in 1994, the reform communists, now calling themselves Socialists, were voted back into power. They were clever enough not to return to the old slogans, they endorsed capitalism with enthusiasm, transferred their loyalties from Moscow to Washington and Brussels, and rapidly became rich.

Unfortunately the Socialist-led governments in Hungary, especially between 2002 and 2010, mismanaged the economy in a disastrous way (nobody, including the Socialist party, denies that), and here we arrive at the direct antecedents of the current story. Socialists allowed the national debt to rise from 53 per cent of the GDP to above 80 per cent in eight years. Crime and government corruption grew by leaps and bounds. Economic stagnation set in well before the financial crisis hit the world in 2008; bankruptcy could be avoided only by turning to the IMF for a huge loan. Hungary, the former front-runner, became an economic laggard. In 2010 public outcry led to the sweeping victory of Fidesz, a centre-right party, and its Christian Democratic ally.

Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister for a second time after 1998–2002, saw an opportunity to realize his old vision: a prosperous and proud nation, built on traditional Christian Democratic values, such as the family, social justice, the eradication of crime, alcoholism, and drug addiction – and also triumph over a more recent Hungarian failing: a lack of self-confidence and faith in the future. With that, he hoped to complete the “regime change” of 1989, and to obliterate the vestiges of Communism, including its mental legacy. (The latter was summarized by the late Czech President Havel: “It is the worst in us which is systematically activated and enlarged–egotism, hypocrisy, indifference, cowardice, fear, resignation, and the desire to escape every personal responsibility.”) Orbán’s programme is strongly opposed by the “post-communist” elite, by Left-Liberal intellectuals, and also by the radical Right (“Jobbik” – “For a Better Hungary”). The foremost aim of the Government was to kick-start economic growth, to reduce unemployment, and to create educational possibilities and jobs for the Roma and other people who live in utmost poverty. Orbán’s first plan was to institute a flat tax of 16 per cent and to allow for 2011 an even higher deficit – a typical Keynesian policy, similar to what was recently adopted by the new Spanish government. Brussels vetoed the deficit, which compelled Orbán to introduce “unorthodox economic policies”, to levy extra taxes on banks and telecommunication companies, and to re-nationalize the wasteful pension funds. Strict constitutional rules have come into effect to ensure a balanced budget and prevent overspending. The reduction of parliamentary seats from 386 to 199, the creation of constituencies having equal number of voters, increasing the rights of the non-Hungarian national minorities, measures to reduce crime and corruption – are all part of “the system of national cooperation”. These laws and programmes would be hard to object to, and should not be overlooked when judging the performance of the current government.

Criticism is an essential feature of freedom and democracy, and the Hungarian government is grateful for all fair and objective comments on its performance. Most of the recent writings, however, are biased, not based on a thorough consideration of the facts, and are full of exaggerations and misinterpretations. Let us take the case of the Constitution. The previous one goes back to 1949, to the imposition of Communism. It was radically modified in 1989, but even the altered version was meant to be provisional. Preceded by a broad range of consultations (including the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe), I am confident that the new Fundamental Law is in conformity with European constitutional traditions, satisfies all the conditions for a State under the rule of law, and meets the commitments Hungary made at the time of its accession to the European Union. It preserves the traditions of Hungarian parliamentarianism within the framework of the republican form of government, and it gives proper emphasis to fundamental rights and freedoms. Practically all objections are directed at the Preamble, a solemn recording of historical vicissitudes and social goals. It starts with the first line of our National Anthem: “God bless the Hungarian”, acknowledges the role of Christianity in sustaining the nation, and deplores that Nazi German and Soviet aggression suspended independence between 1944 and 1990. The importance of the family and the protection of children (beginning with conception) is also emphasized. (Abortion and same-sex cohabitation remain legal.) As Prime Minister Orbán said in the European Parliament on 17 January: “People like me and our community have to acknowledge that the ideals we represent do not enjoy majority support even in this house. Undoubtedly, our ideals are Christian, built on individual responsibility, we consider the national sentiment to be important and positive and look on the family as the basis for the future. It is possible that many think differently, but this position still remains a European position. We might be in the minority with this in Europe, but it still is a European position and it is permissible for us to represent this position. You might not agree with what I am about to quote, but I personally agree with the statement of Schuman, who said that European democracy will either be Christian or it will not exist. This is a European position, Ladies and Gentlemen.”

It can be safely said that most Hungarians, including the non-religious, share the values expressed in the Preamble. Two large pro-government rallies have testified to that.

The Media Law is another subject of controversy. It was passed a year ago, and was amended in accordance with the recommendations of the European Commission. In addition to the public media (which gives ample room for the views of the four parties of the parliamentary opposition), and a number of purely commercial radio and television stations (which show no political preference), there are two daily papers, five weeklies, several monthly periodicals, many local newspapers and at least one TV channel and numerous internet sites which vie with one another in their criticisms of the government. Anyone who examines the Hungarian media can only acclaim its diversity and liveliness. The charge of censorship and intimidation is ridiculous and totally baseless. It was the media which started the recent campaign against the President of the Republic with the charge of plagiarism, which led to his resignation. The new law simply tries to regulate the distribution of the channels and frequencies (giving them to the highest bidder) and aims to prevent abuse, the violation of personality rights, incitement against race, child pornography, etc. Freedom of assembly flourishes in Hungary. On 2 January a large enough crowd demonstrated against the conduct of the government, and on 22 January a smaller one protested against the decision of the media authority not to renew the broadcasting contract of a radio station – without any incident. (The station, Klubrádió, is still on the air, and in fact won its case against the Media Authority in the courts.)

On 21 January a huge crowd (by conservative estimate two or three hundred thousand) filled the streets of Budapest in support of the government. On 15 March, the anniversary of Hungary’s constitutional revolution in 1848, parties and civil organizations held rallies simultaneously (the pro-government one attracting by far the largest number, approaching half a million) – again without any incident. In which European capital could that have happened without shop windows broken, or cars set on fire? So where is the end of democracy? (In contrast, on 23 October 2006, on the orders of the previous government, the police brutally attacked peaceful demonstrators with rubber bullets, leading to serious injuries, without the world press uttering a word!)

As to the reform of the judiciary, the government agrees that its independence should be assured. The critical opinion of the European Commission and of the “European Commission of Democracy Through Law”, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional issues, has been given serious consideration and modifications have been submitted to Parliament. According to the government the retirement age of the judges should be the same as that of all public officials. It is hard to say what is wrong with that. The National Bank is an independent institution. Since 1991 successive Governors (and the members of the Monetary Council) were nominated by the government of the day. The term of the present Governor, appointed during the term of the previous government, will expire in 2013 and his successor will be elected by the National Assembly. Here the issue contested is whether the Governor of the National Bank should swear an oath to the Constitution, like all public servants.

Hungarian citizenship is based on two criteria: ancestry and residence. The law passed in 1990 restored citizenship to those who fled from Communism before or after the

1956 Revolution, many of whom had been deprived of citizenship by the communist authorities. So Hungarians residing abroad can obtain Hungarian citizenship upon request if they prove their own or their ancestors’ Hungarian citizenship with documents. In addition to the refugees of 1956 and their descendants, a large number of Hungarians live abroad, people who escaped later, and those who found employment abroad since our accession to the EU. Until last year, however, citizenship was not available to the 2.5 million Hungarians who, as a result of the 1920 Trianon Peace Treaty, live in the states neighbouring Hungary. This was discrimination, and it applied even to those (and their offspring) who settled in the US or in an EU country. In 2011 this form of discrimination was abolished, and now anyone whose ancestors held Hungarian citizenship can apply for it, provided the person speaks Hungarian and feels an attachment to the nation. Dual citizenship is increasingly common in Europe, the free movement of people inevitably leads to that, as a leading article in The Economist (7 January 2012) explained as part of an argument for its general recognition. Since the modification of the law last year about 150,000 Hungarian individuals have obtained Hungarian citizenship. Like most European countries we give the right to vote in the national elections to all citizens, whether they happen to be in or out of the country at the time of the elections. (That is the pattern all over Central Europe, in fact in many countries co-nationals may vote even without citizenship, or citizenship is granted them practically automatically, unlike in the case of Hungary, where it must be proved by documents.)

As to the Hungarian government’s policy towards the national minorities and the Roma (Gipsy) population, this is also often criticized. The new Fundamental Law of Hungary declares in its preamble: “The nationalities living with us form part of the Hungarian political community and are constituent parts of the State.” (By contrast the Constitutions of Slovakia and Romania declare that the country is a “nation state” of the dominant national group, not recognizing the minorities as constituent parts of the State.) Hungary’s national minorities have individual as well as communal rights, including cultural autonomy (both on local and national level), and rights related to education. Despite their small number (2–3 per cent of the population, nowhere forming even a local majority) their representation in Parliament has been resolved and is now guaranteed. Poverty among the 6–800,000 Roma in Hungary represents a serious social problem (going back to centuries rather than to decades), one that exists in all the countries where they live. The root of the problem is not prejudice and intolerance (which does exist in Hungary, as in every country), but their insufficient education and the resulting high percentage of unemployment. Last year the Government drew up an extensive programme for Roma emancipation and inclusion, which became the basis of an all-European Roma strategy adopted by the EU during the Hungarian Presidency. Tellingly there is only one Roma Member in the European Parliament, Ms Lívia Járóka, and she comes from Hungary’s main governing party.

Freedom of religion is very precious in Hungary, all the more so after decades of persecution during Communism. Due to widespread abuses by pseudo-religious organizations, support from the budget is now available only for those denominations which are recognized by Parliament. Their number has recently been raised from 14 to 32. Historically, however, the Catholic, the Calvinist, the Lutheran and the Jewish faith have larger number of adherents, to which we can add the Baptists and one or two neo-Protestant groups. You would not hear them complaining about their rights. It is important to point out that there continue to be no restrictions to the practice of any religion; regardless of state recognition, religious groups can operate as associations, but they cannot claim automatic budgetary support. Finally, there is a general concern (in Hungary, too) about extremism, about the radical Right in Hungary. Regrettably that is a phenomenon not restricted to Hungary. In fact in several European countries violent acts and tragically even massacres have been committed, caused by prejudice and intolerance. The existence of Jobbik, a right-wing party openly holding extremist views, is indeed regrettable, and its anti-Semitic language is repellent. Its support (around 17 per cent of voters) comes mainly from the “rust belt” of laid off industrial workers and villagers affected by crime, attributed by Jobbik to jobless Roma. It is grossly unfair to suggest any link or cooperation between that party and the government parties. Jobbik and even more radical fringe groups on the Right are anti-American. They demand Hungary’s withdrawal from NATO and the EU, which are the cornerstones of Hungary’s foreign policy. The far Right advocates close cooperation with Iran and an alliance with Russia, hardly aims of Fidesz and the government.

One thing is certain. Hungarians are a law-abiding nation, but they do boast a considerable national pride (despite the lack of self-confidence), and they have a history of not tolerating oppression and foreign interference for long (like other nations). We staged anti-Habsburg risings in defence of our laws and for religious tolerance in 1606, 1703–11, 1848–49, and most notably against Soviet domination in 1956. Well-meaning criticism is most welcome by Hungarians, but talk of the end of democracy and even of “fascism” in connection with Hungary, the constant flow of mostly ignorant diatribes against its government, is grossly unfair and counter-productive.

The radical Right uses a misleading but popular slogan: “The [Soviet] tanks have left and the [Western] banks have come in.” Like all countries, Hungarians, too, need banks, help from the IMF, EU solidarity, consultation and cooperation with allies and partners. But their confidence in these institutions may evaporate if the campaign against Orbán’s moderate democratic government continues – and extremist parties, present everywhere in Europe today, may gain from that loss of confidence in the coming 2014 elections. But it should reassure all observers that at the next elections the Hungarian electorate will have a fair chance to make a judgment on the performance of their government – in accordance with the procedures of all democratic states.




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