When the nationalist party Fidesz swept into power in Hungary last April, one of its first acts was to cut funding for the country’s alternative theaters. One casualty was an annual independent theater festival that was to have taken place in Debrecen in September. When the money was abruptly withdrawn in August, remembers one of the festival organizers, Andrea Tompa, head of the Hungarian Theater Critics Association, she and her colleagues were disappointed, but not shocked. Hungary’s economy, after all, had been in crisis for at least two years. But looking back on that moment now, Tompa sees an early warning of the deterioration of Hungary’s fragile democracy.
“The amount of money in question was minuscule,” Tompa says, especially in contrast to the untouched, much higher allotments for Hungary’s longstanding system of state-supported repertory theaters, with their buildings and salaried staffs. “But the ruling party was sending a symbolic message. They wanted to shut up the independent theater, which is always more free, less conventional, more subversive.”
Then, in November, the institutional theater came under fire as well, and the theater community couldn’t help but link the attacks to Fidesz’s simultaneous tightening grip on free expression in general.
On January 1—the same day Hungary assumes the six-month, rotating presidency of the European Union—a media law, passed by the Parliament on December 21, goes into effect, essentially reinstating state censorship in Hungary. The law establishes a National Communications and Media Authority to monitor all forms of news media—newspapers, television, radio, even individual blogs. It can impose fines as high as $950,000 on coverage it deems unbalanced or “offensive to human dignity,” seize reporters’ notes, search editorial offices and demand confidential business information. An analysis of the draft legislation by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe warned that provisions of the law “simply cannot be described as being compatible with the basic principles of democracy.” Luxembourg’s foreign minister even questioned whether Hungary was fit to lead the EU. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán waved off such criticism as so much unseemly Western meddling, but considered alongside the fate of the theaters, the ominous signs are hard to dismiss.
Elected in a landside in the face of public disillusionment with the failures and corruption of the socialist party that had been in office for the previous eight years, Fidesz won 263 of 386 seats in Parliament last spring and easily maintains the two-thirds majority required to change Hungary’s Constitution. (Banning abortion and defining marriage as between a man and a woman are high on the party’s agenda for constitutional reform.) If that weren’t enough, Fidesz is being pushed from the right by the neo-fascist party, Jobbik, which shocked the world by winning forty-seven seats last April, having run an explicitly anti-Roma and anti-Semitic campaign. (The ousted socialists held on to fifty-nine seats.) One of the new government’s first official acts was to require that public buildings—including theaters—prominently display a “proclamation” asserting the “constitutional revolution” and “new social contract” that Fidesz claims to represent. The proclamation promises a new future based on “work, home, family, health, and order.”
Jobbik exploited this all-too-recognizable rhetoric in November by mobilizing homophobia, anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalism in a putsch against the highly successful director of Budapest’s National Theater, Róbert Alföldi. Though Alföldi has garnered popular acclaim at home and abroad, won awards from Hungary’s critics’ association and from the Budapest city council, and even earned a profit in the first two and a half years of his contract, not slated to expire until June 2013, Jobbik has been denouncing him as a Jew, a homosexual and a traitor, and calling for his ouster. The party seized on Alföldi’s agreement to rent the theater to the local Romanian Cultural Institute for a program on December 1, when Romania commemorates its unification with Transylvania (enshrined by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920), territory that had been part of Hungary until the First World War. Fidesz joined in the condemnation, issuing a statement reminding the director that “for a majority of Hungarians the loss of Transylvania is a cause of deep trauma to this day.”