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Hungary and the End of Politics | The Nation

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Hungary and the End of Politics

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, leader of the Fidesz party, April 6, 2014

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, leader of the Fidesz party, April 6, 2014

“Hungary, An Election in Question” (in five parts, February 28, 2014); “Legal but Not Fair (Hungary)” (April 13, 2014)
By Kim Lane Scheppele.
Krugman Blog, The New York Times

Statement of Preliminary Findings and Conclusions, Hungary–Parliamentary Elections, April 6, 2014
By the International Election Observation Mission, Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

A New EU Framework to Strengthen the Rule of Law, March 11, 2014
By the European Commission.

Opinion on the New Constitution of Hungary, June 20, 2011
By the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission).

Opinion on the Fourth Amendment to the Fundamental Law of Hungary, June 14-15, 2013
By the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission).

European Parliament Resolution of 3 July 2013 on the Situation of Fundamental Rights: Standards and Practices in Hungary (pursuant to the European Parliament Resolution of 16 February 2012)
By Rui Tavares, Rapporteur.

On April 6, Hungarians went to the polls and re-elected their government. In most countries, such an outcome would be a reaffirmation of the political status quo. But Hungary is no longer like most countries. The re-election of its government marks the collapse of politics in Hungary.

Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party first came to power in 2010 with a clear majority of the vote. In April, the party won a second term with just 45 percent of the vote, yet a set of Fidesz-friendly changes to the election laws enacted by Orbán during his first term as prime minister transformed this plurality into a two-thirds parliamentary mandate, giving him the power to continue to amend the Hungarian Constitution at will. Still, the April results should not be taken as a vindication: Orbán has maintained his grip on the Parliament with 21 percent fewer domestic votes than Fidesz garnered in 2010, reflecting a decline in its overall margin of victory and a drop in turnout.

Despite his weakened position, Orbán could not be effectively challenged by other parties, in no small part because the deck was stacked against them. A coalition of left parties led by the Socialists, Hungary’s largest left-leaning party, outpolled their 2010 results but won only 26 percent of the vote. Given the disproportionate allocation of mandates in the new election system, the opposition alliance received only 19 percent of the parliamentary seats. On the far right, Jobbik garnered 21 percent of the vote, a near 4 percent gain from 2010. Though it performed poorly in Budapest, it was the second-largest vote-getter in much of the countryside, but the new rules skewed its presence in the new Parliament. As the third-largest party, its share of seats sank from 17 to 12 percent. LMP, a tiny, vaguely green party, squeaked over the 5 percent threshold and entered the Parliament with almost 3 percent of the seats.

While it may be tempting, it would be a mistake to draw lessons from the election about the future of the left in Hungary or the rise of the far right. In the long run-up to the vote, Orbán enhanced his control over all public institutions, whipped up nationalist sentiment, nationalized parts of the economy, and—in a move designed simply to win votes—lowered utility rates. He acted not as the conservative he claims to be but as a populist radical. The Socialists had presided over an IMF-mandated austerity program begun in 2008, when they were last in power, and could hardly be said to represent the left. Their smaller counterparts in the coalition were liberals of various indeterminate stripes who had little discernible ideology. Jobbik captured the protest vote because it campaigned in sheep’s clothing, running on a kinder, gentler conservative platform that tactfully concealed its anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiments.

What is clear is that with his re-election, Orbán has consolidated a well-orchestrated constitutional coup that has rattled the European Union’s complacency about being a club of well-behaved democracies. Since 2010, Fidesz has rewritten the Constitution without engaging any opposition parties and has granted overwhelming and unchecked power to its party leader, who in turn wasted little time in wresting control of every state institution from opposition hands, entrenching his political allies everywhere, bringing the judiciary to heel and radically centralizing political authority. The Fidesz constitutional “reform” has spawned a Frankenstate, a form of government created by stitching together perfectly normal rules from the laws of various EU members into a monstrous new whole. The component pieces of the Hungarian Frankenstate might have operated perfectly well in their original contexts, but combined in a new constitutional system, these once-normal rules produce abnormal results. As government spokespeople have said every time there is criticism of a particular aspect of the new constitutional order: that rule exists in Greece. Or Germany. Or the United Kingdom. It’s normal. End of story. But nowhere do all those rules exist together, except in the Hungarian Frankenstate.

The laws that provided the framework for the 2014 electoral system are a case in point. Orbán combined Germany’s much-criticized rules for drawing electoral districts with Britain’s highly disproportionate first-past-the-post rules for constituency elections, and topped it off with the widely used d’Hondt system for deriving proportional representation from party-list votes, a system that marginalizes small parties and bulks up plurality ones. The 2014 Hungarian system also allowed for blatant gerrymandering, an unusual new system of vote aggregation, and double and even triple standards in the way that different categories of citizens were treated (see my “Hungary, An Election in Question” and “Legal but Not Fair” for details). Those who supported the government found it easy to register and vote from abroad, while those who opposed it had to contend with red tape and misleading instructions circulated by new Fidesz-installed election officials. Unless the allied opposition had garnered at least 6 percent more votes than Fidesz, it could not have won even a bare majority of the parliamentary seats. All told, the election system had been altered to turn a bare plurality into a bare supermajority—hence Orbán’s apparent landslide.

Almost immediately after the polls closed on April 6, Orbán tipped his hand about what lies ahead by reneging on a promise he had made to Jewish groups to discuss a controversial memorial for the “victims” of the German occupation in 1944–45. Widely seen as denying Hungarian complicity in the Holocaust, the memorial will be built in Budapest’s Szabadság Tér (Freedom Square), and it will depict Hungary, represented by the Archangel Gabriel, being attacked by the German imperial eagle, a spectacle that lumps together the very Hungarians who sent Jews to Auschwitz with the Jews who never returned from the camps. It is a nationalistic celebration of victimization, pure and simple. Only two days after Orbán’s victory was secured, workmen appeared at Szabadság Tér to ready it for construction. Those who opposed Orbán understood the signal: the prime minister recognizes no constraints on his actions; his promises are made to be broken.

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