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Democracy on Life Support (unabridged)

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Democracy in Hungary: Why Outsiders Should Care

Alexey Sidorenko, a Future Challenges blogger based, has been observing the rollback in democracy in Hungary under Fidesz. Looking from the outside in, he sees it as one example of a broader rollback in democracy in Eastern Europe. Follow Alexey @sidorenko_intl. This article is an unabridged version of the lead article “Democracy on Life Support“.

The recently released 2012 edition of the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) pointed to a rollback in governance in Eastern Europe – freedom of speech, integration policy, etc. The poster child for this is the nation of Hungary, a Central European state that entered a period of “reforms” after the center-right Fidesz party won recent elections. Ongoing reports from the country are concerning and, sometimes, alarming. The dominant party, led by Victor Orbán, has already introduced changes to media laws, the country’s political structure, and internal and external security policy. Taken as a group, these changes are almost uniformly seen as anti-democratic by outside observers.

Fidesz has introduced serious changes to Hungary’s educational system while the country continues to experience serious economic difficulties. Fidesz’s reforms may be doing more harm than good to the country’s economy. Orbán has also taken a strongly anti-European line, best illustrated by his famous comparison of Europe to alcohol. Of the EU, he said that membership “gives a sense of almightiness but then prevents one from achieving it.”

From the Central European point of view, such a complex decline in democratic and European values in Hungary is surprising. Hungary was among the first to rebel against the Soviet presence in 1956 (reactions in the Czech Republic and Poland followed later), seeking a more democratic and European way of life. The activists and politicians of that time would be dismayed to discover that, half a century later, the dominant party would give up those dearly-bought ideals and seek instead for less democratic forms of governance. (Ed. Note: One of our authors, Kinga Szálkai, notes however that a majority of the well-known revolutionaries of 1956 supported Fidesz in the elections, some of them even campaigning for the party.)

This is how it looks to me, writing from Russia. But the outsider’s and insider’s perspectives might well be different. To get the best perspective on these issues, Future Challenges talks below with four experts.

  1. Citizen X, a Hungarian Fidesz supporter who prefers not to be named.
  2. Hauke Hartmann, of the BTI
  3. Kinga Szálkai, a Future Challenges blogger from Hungary who does not support Fidesz
  4. András Inotai, former Former Director General of the Institute for World Economics in Budapest (video interview – click here to view)

Do you think policies such as those of Fidesz/Orbán are viable in the twenty-first century? Do you think they are appropriate to prepare Hungary as an EU member state in the next 5-10 years?

Citizen X: Some of the most important values of the last 100 years are national self-determination, sovereignty and the freedom of identity. These values are unquestionable in the 21 century. The second Orbán government recognizes these values, and builds its politics on the fact that the member states of the EU have different linguistic, cultural, geographic and economic features, therefore a full economic and political integration among them is not possible. It would moreover lead to a dead end.

Zoltán Latinovits, famous Hungarian actor, claimed in another historical period that „without a nation, there is no internationalism.” The full economic and political integration of Europe is not possible, because there is another layer beyond economics and politics: the layer of language, identity, way of thinking (not to mention economic or political capabilities), that is very different all around Europe. We can integrate each other in the same extent as we understand and accept each other’s language and culture. With China and Russia it is not a problem – or let’s say it is another kind of problem. With its cultural, linguistic and identical features, the EU-integration has a natural limit, and the full monetary and political union is definitely beyond this limit. In the next 5-10 years, the EU has to face and take seriously the question of identities and related values, therefore the debates boosted by the Orbán-government can only help the renewal of the EU.

Hartmann: The approach the Orbán government takes towards democratic processes and political culture constitutes a regression in comparison to the democratic values of the European Union. Fidesz and their rightist partners argue that they have a clear mandate by the majority of the population to fundamentally change the political texture of the country. Radical reform without consensus-building is therefore not only legitimate, but an obligation to the majority of the voters. Minority positions are not considered to be an important element of the political discourse, providing food for thought as an uncomfortable yet welcome antidote to the self-satisfaction of those in power or an intellectual enrichment of the debate, but a disturbance of the reform drive which ought to be disregarded or curtailed. This ideology, ironically shared by some Islamist parties in the Arab world, is called “majoritarianism” and tends to contribute to a further polarization of the political discourse in Hungary. If there is not an active search for a middle ground or compromise, democratic quality and minority protection as understood by the EU suffer. In that sense, the majoritarianism of Fidesz and Orbán certainly are not appropriate to further Hungary’s integration into the EU (a goal decidedly not strived for by the rightist government, after all). If recent BTI results constitute a trend and not just a snapshot after the global economic and financial crisis, a nationalistic, xenophobic and majoritarian style of populist governance may well remain influential or even gain in importance. This, however, does not make it any more viable. In a globalized framework, isolationist postures and recourses to nationalist ideologies might in the short run feel good, but will in the long run weaken not only the political but also the economic standing of a country.

Szálkai: I do not think that looking inwards and turning away from the institutions of the international community can be a viable direction in the twenty-first century. In my opinion, a small, poor and crisis-ridden country in the heart of Europe, like Hungary, cannot and should not stand up against the mainstream integrational processes of nowadays, and can only have a future as a cooperating part of them. I think that the Fidesz government is aware of this fact, and is trying to balance between pleasing the leaders of the EU and satisfying its Hungarian voters as well. However, if and when the question of democratic and European values becomes part of this balancing act, the stable future of Hungary as an accepted and supported EU member state becomes endangered.

Do Orbán’s politics contribute to the broader economic and political crisis in Europe? If so, how? If not, why do you see them as isolated?

Hartmann: The Hungarian economy is neither large enough nor damaged enough to be a (main) contributor to the economic crisis in Europe. However, austerity measures not being taken might set the Hungarian budgeting off balance in the years to come. Also, populist and nationalist regressions in Europe have been dealt with before, so that Orbán’s policies in themselves are not a major crisis factor, but rather just contribute to the overall picture of political regression in Europe. What is, however, an unfortunate development is the slow and lukewarm response which the erosion of rule of law in Hungary has been receiving from Brussels and other European capitals. If the EU is perceived to be a paper tiger when it comes to democracy and human rights standards, establishing standards which it is unable or unwilling to keep up at home, a crisis of legitimacy arises which will be hard to overcome.

Citizen X: In the last ten years, Hungary was a typical instance of budgetary imbalance, state indebtedness and irresponsible economic processes. In this period burdened by a world economic crisis, Hungary, most unfortunately, needed and still needs the help of the international monetary institutions, and the situation necessitates a powerful crisis management as well. The ambivalent negotiation policy of the Orbán government against the IMF does not help the stabilization of the Hungarian economy or the recovery of the trust of the markets, and it has negative effects on the EU as well. It is characteristic of the Hungarian government that it mixes economic interests with political interests – just think about the introduction of the strict flat tax system or the redemption of the MOL shares, or, on the other side, about the new Labor Code. Such behaviours sometimes strengthen, other times weaken the positions of the country and its society. Their contradictions should be eliminated, and then Hungary could play a positive role and become a good example, strengthening the EU as well.

Szálkai: Hungary is a member of the EU, therefore the Hungarian government cannot be treated isolated from it. Hungary represents the EU and influences its international judgement and economic credibility with its political and economic decisions. If Hungary experiences a decline in democratic values, let alone European values, or in economic growth, it definitely contributes to a decrease in trust and credibility towards the EU – and, in this way, it contributes to the deepening of the economic and political crisis in Europe as well.


How entrenched do you think Orbán’s “reforms” already are? Do you think the next government could reset them, if there is a change in political attitudes? Are there any reforms that will be extremely hard to set back to the pre-Orbán state?

Hartmann: In Hungary, there is an unlucky combination of an uncompromising, hard-line government which is entitled with a two-thirds majority in parliament allowing it to change the constitution at will. This has led to a fundamental restructuring of the political and legal system, most noticeable in the curtailment of powers of the Constitutional Court. In a nutshell, Fidesz has seriously weakened the checks and balances originally provided for in the constitution. Any government which wishes to undo these changes will have to secure a two-thirds majority as well, which will require intensive political efforts and a successful coalition-building, as it appears to be highly unlikely that Hungarians will grant any other political party such an overwhelming mandate again as it gave to Fidesz. In a highly polarized society as Hungary is, this will prove to be a very arduous task.

Even if the constitutional changes might be reversed or modified, the political posts of nominally independent state institutions still are filled with loyal Fidesz-supporters. The rightist government thereby firmly anchored its reactionary policies in institutional changes and strategic nominations. Even if voted out of office, the framework it currently sets will be hard to undo.

Citizen X: The ambitions of the second Orbán-government are high, and sometimes even too confident. The implementation of the new constitution was timely and acceptable, the preceding and following institutional changes (the restructuring of the Media Council and the Constitutional Court or other national public institutions) are likely to prevail in the long term as well. In my opinion, the task of a possible new government would not be the re-reforming of the recently implemented and/or reformed basic systems of the state, but rather the qualitative proofing and refinement of them. Instead of the reprivatisation of the private pension funds, an individual account system could be introduced to the state pension system, the personal income tax system could be reformed into a double-rate tax system in case of extra income, and as for education, students should get access to new resources of stipendium. In my opinion, two years of symbolic governance (with giving double citizenship to over-border Hungarians or with the reconstruction of the main square around the Parliament), was enough, the situation of the country now can only be stabilized through a real social and economic recovery.

Szálkai: I believe that Fidesz still has a great chance to win the next elections in 2014, as it does not have a real alternative that is acceptable for the majority of the Hungarian society. Moreover, the second strongest political party is currently the right-fringe, anti-EU Jobbik, the election of which would lead to a more serious decline in democratic and European values in Hungary. Even if the next government will be a committed follower of these values, I am very pessimistic about the resetting of the laws that can only be changed with a two-third majority. The ongoing reform of the electoral districts will contribute to the difficulties in the restoration as well. However, there is another negative change that I find more important and will be extremely hard to restore in the course of time, and that is the significantly decreased trust in democratic institutions.

How is it that Orbán’s party is so popular, despite criticism from outside Hungary? Is it just populism and some sort of economic revanchism, or is it something more? Is it the sense of the ‘big Hungary’ and the post-War order that makes people so prone to the populist rhetoric?

Hartmann: Hungary is a more extreme representative of a development which the BTI 2012 observed throughout Eastern Europe in recent years. There is a pronounced disenchantment with a democracy that does not deliver socio-politically and an EU which is unable to overcome the East/West-divide of living standards anytime soon. Having faced the triple challenge of economic transformation after the fall of the Berlin Wall, of economic integration and the fulfillment of obligations to become an EU-member and of overcoming the effects of the global financial and economic crisis all in just over twenty years, there is a reform fatigue and a general feeling to have contributed a fair share without feeling positive socioeconomic effects. Populist politicians are able to exploit these sentiments by blaming “the establishment” and “Brussels”, benefitting from high voter volatility and the relatively instable and only weakly socially rooted party system. In the easy answers that populist parties provide lies an automatic accelerator: Not being able to find differentiated answers and reform compromises when it comes to concrete politics and daily reform work without being accused themselves of caving in to the establishment, populists must maintain a simplicity and rebellious posture in permanence. This is why Fidesz relies so intensively on – as the BTI-report states – a “Golden Past that Never Was” and is, up to this point, able to maintain popular support by simplification and self-aggrandizement.

Citizen X: On the one hand, it has to be admitted that the party of Orbán is extraordinarily well-organized. Personal relations strengthen this organization: the most intimate friends and colleagues of Orbán are in the most important positions, while other regimes often fail because of collegial relations and rivalry. On the other hand, after Trianon and the communist dictatorship, people have a certain demand on a national and value-oriented governance, which is based on a decent political will, a significant support and an ability to govern. Orbán and his government try to represent the possibly broadest layers of the society and to gain their support – should we call that populist?

The World War treaties have had deteriorating effects on Hungary, and ca. 5 million Hungarians were left over the borders. Handling their situation in the 21 century is a linguistic, cultural, or at most economic, but for no reason territorial question! I think that the Hungarian diplomacy is perfectly aware of this. In spite of that, a more tactful diplomatic direction would be necessary. It is an important initiative to give Hungarian citizenship to 5 million Hungarians, but this does not solve the societal and economic problems of Hungary. The country rather requires exemplary initiatives, best practices, and, most importantly, real cooperation between the political parties, the public sphere and the civil society to solve these problems.

Szálkai: Hungarian people experienced a great disappointment after the regime change and with the accession to the European Union. On the one hand, they expected prosperity from these changes. Instead, the period after the regime change was characterized by mass layoffs due to the restructuring, and the EU could not protect Hungary from the deep economic crisis of nowadays either. On the other hand, many people perceive that they are only ‘second-class’ citizens of the EU, and the comparison with Western European countries makes them even more disappointed. In my opinion, this state of despair makes the Hungarian society so receptive to populist rhetoric that invokes economic successes and national pride, promising a way out from the present situation.

Do you believe a local ethnic conflict is still possible in Central Europe (e.g. with Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, or Slovenia)?  Why or why not?

Szálkai: I do not believe that a local ethnic conflict is still possible in Central Europe. In spite of the hostile rhetoric that occurs time to time between these countries (or rather between the fringe groups of these countries), they are united in many international organizations and local initiatives, and they are aware of the fact that their main national interests can only be achieved by means of cooperation.

Citizen X: Hungary and the other countries of Central Europe should finally learn from the history of the past 150-160-170 years that it is neither possible nor permissible to establish homogeneous nation-states. The ethnic references of the Hungarian revolution of 1848-49 or the two world wars are the best examples supporting this standpoint, emphasized among others by István Bibó, famous Hungarian politician. Nevertheless, the listed countries constitute an important geopolitical unity, and besides the dangers and threats, can offer significant possibilities for each other in case of cooperation, we should never forget about this. But, while it is possible to accept a language law that discriminates Hungarians in Slovakia, and while in case of other countries there are no problems with double citizenship, but in case of Hungary it is treated as a political game, there cannot be a real cooperation between these countries. Still, Central European politicians may act according to bad historical reflexes and habits, but we should not play the role of the scaremonger! Everyone should support the understanding and development of different identities, they should be made acceptable and possible to live with, and no-one should treat them in violent or suppressive ways.

Hartmann: I honestly don’t know.



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Tom Fries Twitter: @tom_friesTom

Erstwhile neuroscientist ('97-'00), rowing coach ('99-'10), business student ('07-'09) and cupcake entrepreneur ('09). Now enjoying international work in the Germany and Washington offices of one of Germany's most prominent think tanks.