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Democracy in Hungary Takes a Right Turn

By Saim Saeed

BUDAPEST–If there ever was a peaceful march, this was it. There was no smiling, no shouting, and no dancing. People were silent, somber, and dignified, wearing black woolen overcoats and leather gloves. In fact the most colorful items on display were the Hungarian flags fashioned into scarves and capes. There were families pushing infants in plastic strollers and old couples holding hands, candles and torches, but there was no one younger than 40. Nobody spoke.

But to have a hundred thousand people walk down Budapest’s busiest, most iconic boulevard, not a murmur between them gave the rally an almost eerie feeling. The eerie feeling reinforced because they were there to celebrate the ruling party and its increasingly autocratic hold over the nation. There was little mention of the resurging authoritarianism: mostly signs decrying the EU, comparing it to the former Soviet Union; ostentatious (and sometimes ridiculous) displays of national pride, with a banner that said Hungary has outlived Russia and the United States (the first king of Hungary was crowned in 1000CE), and plenty of pictures of the current Prime Minister, Viktor Orban. While there were few outright displays of prejudice, there were plenty of red and white flags of the far-right anti-Semitic political party, Jobbik. They marched across the heart of Budapest against European Union criticism of new legislation that is said to undermine democracy in the conservative state.

After a landslide victory in 2010, Orban and his center-right party, Fidesz, have set about revising Hungary’s Communist-era constitution. Critics allege that this series of constitutional amendments—which moved the judiciary branch and central bank under the jurisdiction of the Fidesz-controlled parliament and created a council to “regulate” the press—are a throwback to Stalin-era authoritarianism. The European Union has threatened punitive measures if Hungary doesn’t scale back these laws to comply with democratic standards. EU criticism of Orban’s government has been well documented, but the western media has missed the overwhelming amount of support Fidesz enjoys at home.

The West may want to pretend that 100,000 people didn’t rally in support of their right-wing government in Budapest last week. Just like they want to pretend Islamists didn’t walk into the Egyptian parliament this week with a spring in their step, Hamas didn’t win a free and fair election in Gaza six years ago, the Swiss didn’t vote to ban minarets in a national referendum, or that the Orange Revolution in Ukraine wasn’t reversed in 2010 when Kremlin-supported Viktor Yanukovich returned to power and imprisoned the incumbent Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

But all of these instances did happen, and they remind us that democracy is merely a means to put the most popular candidate in power—not to advance democratic ideals. What a party stands for matters less than how people feel about it. Fidesz secured its two-thirds supermajority in Parliament fairly, and had the procedural green light to make changes to the constitution.

The New York Times didn’t report the rally, even though an anti-government protest(with far fewer numbers) that took place a few weeks ago made it into the headlines. What it did publish was a Paul Krugman blog post in which Kim Lane Scheppele scrutinizes the popular mandatethat Fidesz claims it has, citing an Ipsos poll showing that Fidesz’s approval rating has plummeted. Firstly, incumbents anywhere have been known to suffer in the polls during midterm. Second, Ipsos polls tend to favor the left. That Orban was able to mobilize such a mass after the constitution was passed also clearly highlights that a lot of people approve, even if they had little say in the process.

There are a few reasons why Orban still enjoys a massive amount of support. When the Socialist Party was in power it failed dismally to address the souring economic climate. In came Fidesz with some down-home populism to get the people behind Orban. First, he granted ethnic Hungarians abroad the right to vote. This was a shrewd move because the Hungarians that are now eligible to vote are partial to him. In fact many of the participants at the rally were from Lithuania and Poland, taking a weekend jaunt to Budapest. Other than that, Orban has mixed socialist policies that Hungarians had under the communist state during the Cold War and are nostalgic for, with nationalist rhetoric. He has fed into political fears of depopulation, immigration (even though it is a nonissue in Hungary), and imperialism with strong rhetoric against the IMF and the EU. Job insecurity, unemployment, and economic and social malaise that have plagued Hungary since democratization have compelled political parties to call for a return to a more traditional welfare state with a nationalistic political culture. He even changed the name of the country from the Republic of Hungary to just Hungary, removing its previous secular identity; all the while alluding to the 946 years of monarchic Christian rule that Hungary had when it was a ‘great power’.

And so we arrive at an uncomfortable situation where the government is deliberately styling Hungarian politics to be more authoritarian, with a more entrenched, nationalistic, and opaque government structure. That such overtures are unfair and, to an extent, illegal is not in doubt. (They even edited the constitution presented to the EU to make it appear more Euro-friendly, while doing the exact opposite in the Hungarian parliament.) But the one thing that diplomats and experts fail to acknowledge is that this is being done with the consent of the people.

As for how dire the consequences the political developments are for Hungary and the region, a banner at the rally, was quite succinct, “Europe watch out!”



Saim Saeed is a former intern at the World Policy Institute. He is currently studying Political Science at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

[Photo courtesy of Lenny B. Simon]

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