Hungary's Hard-won Democracy Under Threat?

By Salon Staff

Published January 13, 2012 5:00PM (EST)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — He paid youths to attend his speech and clap. He championed laws to silence critical journalists. He rammed through a constitution aimed at remaking Hungary on conservative Christian values.

Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who made his name protesting Hungary's communist dictatorship, is now confronting protesters chanting "Viktator!"

As a student radical, Orban wrote a stinging analysis of the dirty tricks communists used to cling to power. He now faces accusations of playing by a similar handbook as he consolidates power for his right-wing party and erodes the democracy he once fought for with zeal.

Orban's Hungarian critics are alarmed by a creeping move in the EU nation toward centralized one-party rule under his Fidesz party.

"Orban is a big threat to Hungarian democracy," said Jozsef Debreczeni, the author of two biographies of Orban and a former adviser who broke with him in the 1990s because he felt Orban was even then beginning to abandon his liberal principles. "I am convinced he is ruining the country."

Debreczeni is now also a vice president of the Democratic Coalition, the party headed by Orban's archrival of the past decade, former Socialist Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany.

Since Orban's party swept to power in 2010, it has used a two-thirds majority in parliament to reshape the country's laws in a way that has startled political opponents, the EU and the United States.

The overwhelming victory was the result of deep disillusionment with the former Socialist government, which mismanaged the economy so badly that Hungary became the first European country to need a bailout when the global financial crisis took hold in 2008.

But Orban declared his victory a "revolution in the voting booth," and took it as license to push through a new constitution and hundreds of new laws that fit into his vision of a conservative Christian state.

The constitution recognizes "the role that Christianity played in preserving the nation" and vows to protect the life of human fetuses from the moment of conception, while defining marriage as a union between a man and woman.

Some liberal Hungarians fear that enshrining those beliefs into the constitution could pave the way for restrictions on abortion and same-sex legal partnerships, both of which are now permitted in Hungary.

Orban argues that a sweeping overhaul of the country's institutions was needed to finally free the country of all influences of former communists, many of whom continued to hold sway in Hungary in the 22 years since communism's collapse, putting their print on laws and institutions.

The transformation plays out in Orban's leadership style.

Last year, young people were paid around 2,000 forints ($8) each to attend and applaud a speech that Orban gave on the March 15 national holiday, according to reports in independent media.

In a meeting with foreign correspondents this week, Orban said he long shared the frustration of millions of Hungarians and their longing to "finally complete the change of regime."

"What we wanted to do in 1989, we were never able to," Orban said.

Taking full advantage of an unassailable legislative majority, a record 213 laws made their way through Parliament in 2011 alone, some within days or even just hours with limited public debate. The constitution itself was created and passed by Fidesz, with the opposition parties boycotting the vote.

The way laws have been fast-tracked, and the fact the constitution reflects the conservative world view of one party, have drawn criticism even from some traditional Fidesz supporters.

"Before, everything was changing too slowly and now it's become too fast," said Akos Balogh, the chief editor of Mandiner, a political website that traditionally supports Fidesz's nationalistic stance but which has criticized some of Orban's recent moves.

Hungary's Foreign Minister Janos Martonyi defended his government's new laws in a letter sent to EU foreign ministers on Jan. 6, as international criticism was growing.

He said reports questioning Hungary's democratic commitment are "based on flimsy evidence or even hearsay and are teeming with factual errors."

A key step in the centralization of power was a much-criticized media law that has allowed the party to influence reports in the state media. Critical journalists have been fired and the threat of massive fines has pushed others into self-censorship. A private radio station, Klubradio, which was critical of the government, has been stripped of its frequency — and will go off the air in weeks.

Fidesz has also changed laws to assert its control over the courts, the central bank and many other institutions which — in a fully democratic system — should operate with much greater independence.

The heads of many institutions, from the chief prosecutor to a new judicial chief who will appoint all judges, have been named for terms of nine years and sometimes longer. Even if Fidesz loses the elections now scheduled for 2014, it will nonetheless be able to exert its power for years to come.

"Fidesz should limit themselves and not take advantage of every possibility they have," Balogh said. "I was expecting more self-control."

Last June, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed her concerns during a visit to Budapest about the perceived threats to the independence of the judiciary, free press and governmental transparency.

But these days, foreign leaders rarely visit Hungary. And the EU said this week it might take legal action against Hungary over the disputed constitution.

Opposition at home is also mounting, emboldening civic opposition groups and prompting fired journalists to wage a hunger strike. It has also fueled repeated street protests, like one on Jan. 2 that caused more than 30,000 to gather outside the State Opera house while Orban and supporters were inside attending a classical music gala celebrating the new constitution.

In what was meant to be a crowning moment for a leader who views himself as the father of the nation, protesters jeered and chanted "Viktator!" — causing a ruckus that forced him and others in attendance to leave from a side door.

Orban denounces criticism, both domestic and foreign, as "attacks" on Hungary itself.

In the speech where students were paid to applaud, Orban said defiantly that Hungarians would not let themselves "be dictated to" by the EU or anyone else.

In 1989, his enemies were different. Orban emerged as a leader with a now-famous speech that electrified the nation by calling for free elections and the departure of Soviet troops from his country. Communism was soon to collapse, but it hadn't yet, and the words he spoke at the ceremonial reburial of heroes of Hungary's 1956 anti-Soviet revolution were radical and brave.

Adam Michnik, a leader of Poland's own anti-communist movement and today the editor of the respected daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, says Orban, whom he has known for 22 years, "used to be a completely different man."

The lesson, as Michnik sees is, is that "the path toward democracy is not irreversible."

Michnik recalled other cases of anti-communist dissidents who developed populist, authoritarian stances once they got to power — including Poland's own former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

"We see this kind of evolution in our part of Europe," Michnik said. "Great tectonic movements bring to power all kinds of people and they can bring to power people obsessed by the mission, by the need for power. And I suspect that that is the case with Viktor Orban."

Already in 2005, Vaclav Havel, the late Czech anti-communist icon, issued a stark warning over Orban and other populists in the region.

If they come to power, he predicted: "Central Europe could be soon ruled by a rather suffocating atmosphere."


Monika Scislowska in Warsaw, Poland, and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

Salon Staff

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