Viktor Orbán: Amateur or Autocrat?

Hungary’s prime minister is doing everything to cement his power. In the process, he is gambling his country’s prosperity and democracy, and its place in the EU

Opinion | Anton Pelinka | February 2012

It is difficult to decide where to start: Is Hungary’s government to be criticized first for its dilettantism, or for its authoritarianism? Is Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government first and foremost a government of – sometimes embarrassing – amateurs, or is it more to be seen as a government trying to establish a tyranny of the majority?

It is certainly dilettantism how the government is leading the Hungarian economy towards bankruptcy. Last year, claiming to defend Hungarian sovereignty, the government stopped regular negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Now, some months later, Hungary is begging the IMF for help.

Last year, some prominent representatives of the governing party FIDESZ (Young Democrats) lectured the world that "the West" has lost its role as a model – for Hungary. At the same time, in the first half of 2011, Hungary held the rotating EU presidency. The EU presidency distancing itself from the West?

This is the adolescent behaviour of a government which tends to re-invent the wheel. It is even more astonishing if we consider that FIDESZ has been in parliament since 1990, and was in power between 1998 and 2002. The Prime Minister during that period? The same Viktor Orbán who is the head of the Hungarian government now.

The result: The Hungarian economy is on the verge of collapse. Among the four Visegrad countries – the countries with the best economic and political standing of the former communist states in 1990 – Hungary has by far the worst performance. Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have much healthier economic indicators, especially higher economic growth and lower indebtedness.

The Orbán government tries to hide its dismal results by blaming its predecessor – and by playing the card of symbolic, nationalist politics. Since 2010, Hungary has an additional official day of mourning: to commemorate the 1920 peace treaty of Trianon when Hungary lost significant parts of its territory. It is impossible to imagine a German government deciding in 2010 to introduce a day of mourning for the Versailles Treaty, or an Austrian government for St. Germain, the treaties declaring their defeat in the First World War.

Yet what is truly dangerous for Hungary’s democracy are the specific steps initiated by Orbán to weaken independent checks and balances of government power. The media are under the authority of a newly established administrative body that is appointed by the government. Radio and TV staff have been the victims of cleansing. The power of the constitutional court has been reduced. The independence of Hungary’s central bank is threatened. For religious denominations, the number of members necessary for official recognition has been significantly raised – excluding over 300 denominations, such as all versions of Islam and a number of major Protestant denominations, with debilitating consequences for their tax status, among other things. And, of course, the electoral system is being tailored to favour the present government.

Orbán justifies all these "reforms" with his mandate – the Hungarian voters have given him and his party a two-thirds majority in parliament. FIDESZ, therefore, needed no partners to pass the new constitution which came in force on New Year’s Day, and which defines the country no longer as a republic but simply as "Hungary".

Every individual measure FIDESZ has taken can be debated. But it is the sum of its ambitious policies that creates the feeling that Orbán’s understanding of democracy hardly matches that of other European countries. There is a clear strategic principle that the FIDESZ government is trying to enforce: All its "reforms" are about reducing the autonomy of institutional checks and balances.

Orbán and his government frame the new constitution and all their "reforms" as the decisive step necessary to break with Hungary ́s communist past. After more than two decades of a functioning, pluralist democracy, of free elections and peaceful transfers of power, the Orbán government has created an atmosphere in which Hungary is reverted back to 1990.

Belittling the successes of peaceful democratic transformation, disregarding even Orbán’s own role in this process, Hungarian society is being told it must overcome communism all over again. But this time, it is an established democracy which could become the victim of the transformation.

Hungary is becoming more and more isolated in the EU. The nationalistic conflicts with Slovakia about the rights of its Hungarian-speaking minority, and Hungary’s attempt to provide all ethnic Hungarians living outside the country with Hungarian passports very much contradict the basic values the EU stands for.

Is Hungary’s democracy in danger? Not as long as Orbán and his party are interested in staying in the EU and keeping friendly ties with the European People’s Party, the family of conservative parties in the European Parliament to which FIDESZ belongs. This gives European actors some leverage to stop the Hungarian government from encroaching on the basic political freedoms that are the very essence of democracy.

Hungarian democracy has its best friends among those European actors who are the most outspoken critics of the current developments in Budapest.

Anton Pelinka is professor of European Politics at the Central European University, Budapest, and co-editor of the book Global Austria: Austria’s Place in Europe and the World (2011)

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