Viktor Orbán and Wolfgang Schüssel
The former Austrian Chancellor’s recent support of Hungary is all too revealing
"We do not need the unsolicited assistance of foreigners guiding our hands," declared Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on 15 March, the country’s national day. "We are more than familiar with the character of unsolicited, comradely assistance, even if it comes wearing a finely tailored suit and not a uniform with shoulder patches."
It was a low blow, particularly at such a public speech, evoking a lurid and unwarranted comparison between the European Union and the tyranny of the Soviet apparatchik system. But Orbán was in Budapest on his home turf, responding to severe criticism from Brussels.
The verbal confrontation was the latest in a war of words since the several highly contested amendments to the constitution that came into force in January 2012, all aimed at curtailing the checks and balances in the courts, the administration, and the central bank. It probably didn’t help that the initial draft for constitutional reform, which the Hungarian government sent for review to European bodies, was riddled with translation mistakes, which just happened to occur in the most crucial passages and distorting their true meaning.
On top of that, the controversial preamble was originally completely left out and the time period for review was limited to a mere month, not much time for a thorough and penetrating analysis in such a crucial development.
The tone of the debate between the EU and the ruling Fidesz party was therefore tense from the outset, a climate which Orbán seems to cultivate and thrive on, as it enables him to play the nationalistic rhetoric card at home. Most striking in Fidesz’s line of defence was that the drastic constitutional change served to replace an inherently communist one. Yet such a description seems more suited to the current one, with its increasing centralisation, its limits to autonomy – like a government-installed media council that controls the news output – and its general anti-pluralistic tone.
Which makes it all the more puzzling that Orbán has found support from Austria’s former chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP). Last month during a conference reflecting on the Hungarian administration at mid-term, Schüssel took the opportunity to tell reporters that Hungary was "headed in the right direction."
"In contrast to several critics, [I believe] democracy is not jeopardised [under the Orbán government]," Schüssel said, and that the public could count on the cabinet to "act properly, by capitalising on its two-third majority in the parliament."
Considering the constant barrage of criticism of the Orbán administration from across the European Union over the last half-year, these are truly odd words of praise – in effect backing a government committed to the renunciation of democracy. Schüssel is, for the moment, humiliated, like the biblical lodge in a garden of cucumbers. His opinion stands in stark contrast to those of nearly all EU-member countries.
Not that this was a particularly new situation for him, reminiscent of his coalition with the far right FPÖ in 2000, which earned Austria the status of a pariah. Even now, its aftermath is filling the dockets of several investigation commission panels.
Still, it is not only Schüssel’s general support of Orbán that provokes concern. Despite Orbán’s dubious record as prime minister, governing through high unemployment rates, an increasingly divided society and a crippled economy, these circumstances cannot be attributed solely to him.
It is also the Hungarian prime minister’s proposal of such damaging laws in the first place. Schüssel’s labelling the limits on press freedom through draconian fines – unique in the European Union – as "the right direction for the country" reveals quite a bit about the ex-chancellors understanding of what (still) constitutes a proper and functioning democracy.
The abandonment of pluralism under the guise of serving the will of the people is not something for a western leader to endorse; and a comfortable two-third majority in the parliament does not give carte blanche to dismantle core elements of a democratic state.
Although it does tell us more than perhaps we wish we knew about our former chancellor.
Marc Neururer holds a masters degree in history from the University of Vienna, where he is studying political science.