Hungary and the End of Politics

Hungary and the End of Politics

How Victor Orbán launched a constitutional coup and created a one-party state.

Facebook
Twitter
Email
Flipboard
Pocket

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.

* * *

The election results were a foregone conclusion because the united left opposition failed to present a united program, even though at least half of the voters polled before the election said they desired a change of government. The Socialists collapsed in 2010 after eight years in power and have wallowed in scandal and debt ever since. The various other left-leaning parties had either split from the Socialists—and therefore were not particularly eager to work with them again—or emerged from the wreckage of the Free Democrats, the former liberal party that had disbanded before the 2010 election. Several new upstart parties on the left, eager to demonstrate their purity, refused to form alliances.

After protracted squabbling, reported in depth by the government-dominated media, five parties of the self-styled “democratic opposition” formed a coalition in January under the banner of the Unity Alliance. Yet no sooner had the campaigning started than the allied opposition disappeared. Its vanishing act was partly managed by the government. Fidesz had written the election rules to block virtually all advertising on television and radio by political parties and candidates during the campaign period, even though the same rules allowed the government to broadcast its accomplishments everywhere. Because oligarchs close to Fidesz dominate the media space, from broadcast to print to display advertising, the allied opposition could not count on disseminating its message through those outlets. Still, there were some avenues that the allied opposition could have taken to communicate its message. It could have put volunteers on the streets distributing fliers. It could have sent mass mailings. It could have put banners on supporters’ cars, or urged homeowners to put signs in their yards. It could have organized rallies early and often. Not easy, of course, but possible. Virtually none of that happened.

Even if it had, however, the allied opposition would have been hard-pressed to say what it stood for. It never had a coherent party platform or catchy slogan. Even its name was baffling: several weeks after picking “Unity,” the alliance discovered that the name had already been used by a party that had run in 2010 and was planning to run again, so it had to rename itself. It became Kormányváltás, which means “change of government” and echoes rendszerváltás, the term used for the “change of regime” that occurred in Hungary after communism ended in 1989. This name change was confusing, but it didn’t matter, because the allied opposition immediately ran into a new problem: the new name had been chosen too late to appear on the ballot. In the end, the ballot featured no name for the allied opposition, just a collection of logos of the separate parties. Journalists started calling it the party “that cannot be named.”

To complicate matters further, Unity—the name under which the allied opposition started its campaign—did appear on the ballot, but in reference to the previously existing party. There was also a new party called Together 2014, which had been the name of one of the most visible groups forming the allied opposition—but the Together 2014 appearing on the ballot had nothing to do with that alliance. In the end, the allied opposition had a new name that was not on the ballot, and multiple old names that were on the ballot but affiliated with other groups. Voters intending to cast their ballots for the allied opposition had to be savvy enough to not vote for the names with which the alliance had been publicly affiliated in the recent past and to cast their ballot instead for the party with no name. But since the allied opposition ran a virtually invisible campaign, it had no chance of conveying these ballot complexities to potential voters. In the end, the name confusion was crucial in at least one district, where the number of votes allotted to the other Together 2014 party was larger than the gap between Fidesz and the left alliance.

Throughout the campaign, there were many signals that the opposition had already thrown in the towel. Denied access to the conventional media by legal restrictions, it announced that it would make its case online. With the name change, however, it got off to a bad start: a Facebook page called Kormányváltás 2014 already existed but was dormant. (The last entry was from 2012.) In the run-up to the election, Kormányváltás had no digital presence at all.

Nor was the allied opposition present on the campaign trail. Before the campaign officially got under way, the candidate at the top of the allied opposition ticket, Socialist leader Attila Mesterházy, made a series of lackluster appearances in Hungary, promising shorter waiting lines at the national health service, wage increases for law enforcement and jobs for the unemployed, but without offering details on how he would enact these changes. Then Mesterházy decided to absent himself from the campaign trail to tour the United States, where he told an audience in Washington, DC, that there was no need for election monitors because the election would be free and fair.

Gordon Bajnai and Ferenc Gyurcsány, two former Socialist prime ministers who broke with the Socialists to form their own parties, and who signed on to the opposition alliance, both made energetic campaign appearances. But their efforts couldn’t mitigate the fact that the candidate at the top of the ticket was Mesterházy, who seemed to have no plan at all. People inside and outside the campaign started whispering that the Socialists had agreed to lose the election to Fidesz in exchange for Fidesz covering the party’s extensive debts. A surprising number of people provided some evidence for this accusation, and even more believed it. Stinging from criticism that the left alliance had failed to get its message out, one insider to the campaign told me that the smaller parties had been trying but, “sadly, the Socialist Party’s HQ just forgot to campaign.”

When the leaders of the five parties making up the allied opposition appeared at a press conference to concede the election, their mutual hatred hung thick in the air. Despite calls to step down after two disastrous elections, Mesterházy vowed to remain the Socialist Party’s leader. Bajnai relinquished his parliamentary seat and announced that opposition actions were best conducted outside Parliament. The left seems in complete disarray, more disunited than ever.

* * *

During the campaign, the only party that seemed clearly determined to unseat Fidesz was Jobbik, whose right-wing politics are so extreme that its leaders have been called “Europe’s new fascists.” While Jobbik has been criticized by the left opposition and by foreign observers for its allied paramilitary group and its frequent anti-Roma and anti-Semitic outbursts, it ran in 2014 as a photogenic right-wing party. With a “60-step program” condensed into six thematic posters, it outlined a comprehensive conservative plan of action that provided convincing detail on every conceivable topic, from youth to energy policy to local government, religion and sports. And the campaign was visible: unlike the allied opposition, Jobbik was able to mount billboards around the country, and eager volunteers passed out fliers at major transportation hubs in Budapest. Jobbik campaigned with an effective organization and palpable energy. It should not be surprising that the party performed better than in 2010.

The Jobbik campaign did not appear threatening or beyond mainstream conservative politics in Europe. For example, a Jobbik advertisement about the “demographic revolution” explained that the state could encourage families to have at least three children by offering financial incentives and enacting restrictions on abortion. This position was not terribly different from Fidesz’s successful effort to constitutionalize the protection of fetal life from conception and its promise to provide extended maternal leave and more nurseries. Neither was Jobbik’s proposal to assist homeowners with underwater foreign-currency mortgages by fixing the exchange rate at favorable terms and letting the banks eat the difference. Fidesz’s version of the policy has been highly popular in a country reeling from a housing bubble that burst in 2007, leaving a trail of financial destruction whose causes were easily traced to the Austrian, German, Italian and even American banks that benefited from the IMF bailout.

Despite having run a robust campaign, Jobbik saw its efforts dwarfed by those of Fidesz, which was ever-present across the media. While the campaign rules ban political parties from paid advertising on television and radio except for a small amount of time set aside on public television (which is mostly ignored), those same campaign rules permitted the government and civil-society groups to run ads anywhere at any time. And so they did. A Supreme Court decision during the run-up to the election chided the government for placing ads on a prominent television station, TV2, that used the same campaign slogan as Fidesz. But given that the law specifically exempts government communications from the campaign rules, the Supreme Court could not stop the endless barrage of pro-government messages on the commercial channels.

Election monitors from the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR, pronounced “oh, dear!”) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe tracked campaign coverage between March 11 and April 4. They found that three of the five television stations they monitored “displayed a significant bias towards Fidesz by covering nearly all of its campaign in a positive tone while more than half the coverage of the opposition alliance was in a negative tone.” ATV, the only opposition-friendly station, covered the alliance positively, and the fifth channel, though more evenhanded in its reporting, hardly reported the campaign at all. Journalists told election monitors that they had engaged in self-censorship out of fear. Overall, ODIHR monitors found that the campaign and election had breached numerous OSCE standards.

Fidesz’s friends also advertised on larger platforms than its opponents. It was impossible to miss the huge billboard ads that appeared all over the country as soon as the election was announced in January. They featured three or four men holding placards with their names, looking like suspects in a lineup. The men were Mesterházy, Gyurcsány and Bajnai, the three candidates who headed the allied opposition ticket, plus (where the ads featured four men) Miklós Hagyó, the former deputy mayor of Budapest, now awaiting trial for corruption. Hagyó did not run for office, but his appearance on the billboards was designed to show the criminal company that the allied opposition allegedly keeps.

Then there was the clown, leaning on Gyurcsány’s shoulder in the advertisement and taunting the candidates with a friendly smirk. Just as campaign seasons always promise bread and circuses, clowns are famously two-faced, but the billboard clown represented the campaign’s dark side. A few days after the ad went up, the clown tried to ambush Bajnai at a campaign stop, injuring the candidate’s bodyguard. Shortly thereafter, he attacked someone trying to film him. The clown was eventually tracked down and exposed as a government loyalist from the small city of Szombathély, in western Hungary. No charges were brought against him for the attacks.

Most billboard space in Hungary is dominated by three companies owned by important friends of Fidesz—most prominently, Lajos Simicska, the ex-treasurer of Fidesz, and Zsolt Nyerges, an oligarch close to the party. At first, allied opposition leaders were reluctant to buy billboard space during the campaign because it would have put money in the pockets of their opponents. Then they realized that worse things could happen. But by the time the parties finally set aside their very public differences to organize a coalition and fight Fidesz, they discovered there was no billboard space available; it was sold out for the duration of the campaign.

The clown billboards were placed by the Civil Összefogás Fórum (Civil Unity Forum, or CÖF in Hungarian), a civil-society group that seems to have unlimited amounts of funding, though the leaders of CÖF refuse to identify its sources. How it amassed the funds to pay for the campaign is anyone’s guess. The billboard campaign is estimated to have cost at least $2.5 million in US dollars, in a country where the average annual salary is less than $14,000. CÖF is an AstroTurf group, proclaiming its grassroots origins but withholding information about its members, funding and political affiliations. In fact, there is little separation between CÖF and Fidesz. Fidesz campaigners distributed CÖF literature to voters, and the CÖF billboards were so ubiquitous and unambiguous that most people assumed they were Fidesz ads.

Civil-society groups that backed the allied opposition could have bought billboard space as well—but “civil society” is largely a misnomer in Hungary. Virtually all of the major groups, including churches, are funded by the state, either through the National Civil Fund (now known as the National Cooperation Fund) or direct allocations by Parliament. Few groups have independent or private funding. Since 2010, the Orbán government has presided over a general defunding of left organizations, and none of the groups in the opposition camp have the funds to sufficiently support their favored political parties. Besides, in the absence of any regulation to the contrary, the government-allied billboard companies allocated all of the space to their friends.

* * *

On a damp, chilly evening in late January, a small group of determined Hungarians gathered in a narrow street behind the Great Market Hall in Budapest to protest against Orbán. The prime minister was nearby at a dinner for the Friends of Hungary, an international group of Hungarophiles who have been mobilized by the government to defend Hungary’s interests abroad. Wherever Orbán goes, he is greeted by such protests; he usually stands at a safe remove, watched over by the TEK, the prime minister’s new security police.

Though rarely reported in the Hungarian press, small demonstrations occurred almost daily in Budapest before the campaign started. One day, there was a flash mob in Szabadság Tér protesting the government’s plans to erect the memorial to the “victims” of the German occupation. The next day, artists staged a performance on the steps of the Mûcsarnok (the Palace of Fine Arts): Orbán had designated a government-friendly group of artists to manage its affairs, and dissenting artists had been frozen out. Then there were the small demonstrations organized by environmentalists and dissidents opposed to the roughly $14 billion agreement that Hungary recently signed with Russia to upgrade and expand Hungary’s existing stock of nuclear-power plants. These demonstrations were persistent and varied, but they typically attracted only handfuls of protesters. And they were largely uncoordinated, even once the campaign began.

At the Friends of Hungary dinner, well-heeled Fidesz supporters listened to Orbán explain the accomplishments of his last four years in office. But the speech fell flat: Orbán spoke without passion, and the audience listened without obvious enthusiasm. The applause at the end was polite, and lasted only long enough to fill the time it took the prime minister to walk from the podium to the head table. Orbán was a charismatic orator when he burst on the public scene in 1989 with a memorable speech at the reburial of Imre Nagy, the executed leader of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. During the intervening years, he has become a 50-year-old sullen public man.

The Friends of Hungary dinner, with a knot of protesters outdoors and its unenthusiastic guests inside, symbolized the state of democracy in Hungary. There is neither broad support for the governing party nor vigorous protests in favor of an alternative. The government presides over a public in which the “don’t knows” have dominated opinion polls for most of Orbán’s time in office. Fidesz has gloated about its overwhelming support, because it polls higher than any other party. But after plummeting to a low in the vicinity of 20 percent after the passage of the constitutional “reforms,” Orbán has again claimed a two-thirds mandate of parliamentary seats with the votes of only 28 percent of Hungarians behind him. Fully 37 percent of voters stayed away from the polls, and 35 percent voted for other parties. During the late Communist period, Hungary was the land of “anti-politics,” or the principled avoidance of political space. People retreated to their social circles and private lives, leaving politics to the politicians. After 1989, politics returned to Hungary in a vigorous contest among the six parties that entered Parliament. In Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, anti-politics has returned just as genuine choices in electoral politics have become scarce.

* * *

Those who are engaged in politics, however, have to fight their fears. What frightens them are not the harsh tools of Cold War authoritarians—the knock on the door in the middle of the night, the confiscation of unauthorized writings, detention without charge, brutality in custody and worse. Instead, they fear the creative methods of the new authoritarians, who have figured out how to use the weapons of neoliberalism against their opponents. What are those weapons? Market forces, politically targeted.

Markets can wreak havoc on the lives of individuals, especially when times are tough. But even when an economy is humming, market forces are hardly gentle or egalitarian. They award prestige and power to some, ruin and poverty to others. In a textbook market economy, rewards and punishments are distributed according to economic criteria like competitiveness, efficiency and making all the right bets. A generous welfare state softens the blows and grinds down the market’s sharp edges.

But when a state is required to engage in austerity, it can no longer deflect the cruelty of markets. In fact, states under austerity are handed new tools that can compound the damage caused by them. In states under austerity, people who are suffering must seek private cures, and the privatization of pain may turn them away from public life.

By now, the bleak landscape of austerity is familiar. People lose their jobs in large numbers, and businesses falter and die. The poor, never comfortable at the best of times, sink deeper into desperation. Students find they can no longer afford to attend university. Grant money to artists evaporates, and the coffers of civil-society groups empty without replenishment. Those nearing pension age are pushed over the edge by budget cuts into pensioner status, which makes their lives ever more precarious, while school graduates trying to enter the workforce find it nearly impossible to find paying work. When austerity is the order of the day, poverty, unemployment and existential wreckage stretch as far as the eye can see.

But not all austerities are created equal. In some, budget cuts fall across the board (think: sequester), but in most cases they are dictated by elected officials. Politically guided austerity comes in two varieties. Governments may decide in a high-minded way where to invest their scarce resources to overcome the crisis or buffer its effects, or they may simply choose to reward their friends and hurt their enemies. The latter is the new weapon of neoliberalism.

Hungary was the first country in the European Union to be bailed out by the IMF during the global financial crisis. Its economy collapsed in 2007, and by 2008, just as the rest of the world was experiencing the crash, Hungary got its bailout, coordinated by the IMF with the European Union and the World Bank. The deal came with the usual austerity conditions. Under the caretaker government of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai, Hungary was forced to institute immediate austerity measures.

The $25 billion loan that Hungary received from the IMF went largely to foreign-owned banks. To pay for the loan, the government agreed to make sweeping budget cuts, with the largest ones realized through pension caps, public-sector wage cuts and a freeze on social benefits. No government that presided over such a disastrous crash and such radical austerity could possibly be re-elected. The election in 2010 that brought Fidesz to power pronounced a verdict on the government of general austerity. The Socialists were trounced.

But a change of government produces no change in the conditions required of loans. The Orbán government inherited the austerity agenda of its predecessor, but it quickly determined how to use austerity to its political benefit. It shifted the cuts from wages, pensions and social benefits across the public sector to the livelihoods of its critics.

Since Fidesz came to power, critics of the Hungarian government have been losing their jobs at an astonishing rate. The first to be fired were people who worked in the state sector. Jobs always change hands as governing parties come and go, but the civil service is typically protected from widespread political retaliation. Not so in Hungary. As one of its first acts in office in May 2010, the Fidesz government altered the labor law that applied to the civil service. Suddenly, state workers who once had substantial job protections could be fired for any reason—or no reason at all. The thousands of state workers who lost their jobs in the aftermath of this legal change were disproportionately those who opposed the governing party. In February 2011, the Hungarian Constitutional Court found the change in labor law unconstitutional, but it nullified the law “prospectively”—which meant that the government enjoyed an additional five months to fire people before having to modify the law to restore some semblance of due process to the dismissal procedures. By May 2011, the state sector had been almost completely purged of opposition supporters. But then, following the Constitutional Court decision, the government temporarily restored some civil-service protections to the remaining state employees, who just happened to support the governing party.

Since the first year of massive job losses, firings have spread beyond the state sector. Private businesses that sought government contracts were told in a whisper campaign that they had to purge all government opponents from their workforces in order to be eligible contractors. This rule applied to projects funded by the European Union as much as to ones supported by Hungarian taxpayer money. Since roughly 50 percent of GDP is taken in and redistributed through the state in Hungary, either through public-sector employment or public contracts to private businesses, the insistence by the Orbán government that all private-sector businesses fire opposition supporters to make themselves eligible for state contracts spread the economic pain far beyond the boundaries of the state.

* * *

How can one confirm that Hungarians affiliated with the opposition have been fired at higher rates than others? The opposition has believed for years that their jobs are precarious, and many Hungarians know someone who has been fired for overtly political reasons. Even if it weren’t statistically true that unemployment is systematically higher for the parts of the population opposed to Fidesz, the fact that the opposition believes it to be true has had a serious debilitating effect on organizing. As American sociologist W.I. Thomas is famous for saying, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” Fear keeps people in line. In a public lecture in Washington, DC, last December, former Soviet-era dissident (and post-communist mayor of Budapest) Gábor Demszky said that the current Hungarian government has created a system that is more repressive than the communist government of the 1980s. When challenged by Anna Stumpf of the Hungarian Embassy, who asked how he could possibly make that comparison, Demszky answered simply, “I have lived in it.”

In the Soviet Union and those Eastern European states that existed in its totalitarian shadow, governments learned that dissidents were often fearless about their own fates. They could be blacklisted, fired, threatened and jailed—and still they would oppose the state. But then the government learned a more effective way to silence them: it threatened their families. If dissidents insisted on visibly opposing the government, their spouses would be fired from their jobs. Or their children would not get into university. Or their parents would lose their apartments or pensions. Such tactics caused many dissidents to fall silent, writing “for the drawer” instead of samizdat publication or keeping quiet in internal exile in exchange for the opportunity of a career for parents, spouses or children. In that spirit, Fidesz has applied the cruel logic of markets to the family members of its opponents. Given important similarities between other communist-era practices and the current government’s political strategy, this should not have been surprising. But it is shocking nonetheless, because the government so loudly proclaims its opposition to all things that smack of Soviet communism.

If one travels in opposition circles, the economic devastation is obvious. The staff of Hungarian public television, most of whom had not expressed support for Fidesz, were culled in the purge. Nearly all the state employees in the National Development Agency, which allocates EU funds, were fired and replaced by Fidesz loyalists. The entire 300-strong staff of Gábor Demszky, the liberal mayor of Budapest, was fired when he left office, even though most of the workers were not affiliated with the mayor’s party and had many years of experience running the city.

After the purges in the state sector, the firings continued on a more targeted basis, directed at the family members of particularly vociferous opponents of the government. A journalist for an opposition newspaper told me that his mother had been fired from her schoolteacher position explicitly because he was opposed to the government. But that was just the leading edge of a purge that extended to schoolteachers and principals across the country. A Fidesz critic with a safe job outside the government’s reach said her husband was told that he was fired from his public-sector position because of her political stance. Family businesses containing just one opposition figure have been shuttered; an underground economy is growing again in which people work off the books for cash, leaving no trace of themselves for the state to see. Because of the spread of the economic pain through family ties, there are cases where every adult member of a family—wife, husband, parents, sons and daughters—are all unemployed, even though only one of them was an outspoken opponent of Fidesz.

Even wavering Fidesz supporters have learned to be wary of economic threats. A Fidesz loyalist who has benefited from a high-level public-sector job provided by the party confessed to me during a recent trip to Budapest that he no longer supports the party. He is a Christian with typical conservative values who felt at home with Fidesz. But after four years of the Orbán government, he can no longer defend it. He has seen the system from the inside and knows that if he speaks out against the government, he will lose his job. He asked me to help him find another one. So did a Hungarian foreign-policy official based in a foreign country who no longer believes he can return to Hungary and continue to support the Orbán government.

* * *

When Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, Hungarians took advantage of the new opportunity to migrate, but they did so in smaller numbers than most of their counterparts in the new member states. Recently, that pattern has changed. Faced with targeted austerity, Hungarians who are able to survive outside the country (because they speak a second language, have marketable skills or have good contacts elsewhere) are leaving in droves and looking for work. The population of Hungary is around 10 million. By the government’s own official estimates, at least 300,000 Hungarians have left the country in the last four years; one official estimated that as many as 500,000 have left. Statistics from receiving countries confirm the size of the exodus. In 2012, Germany took in about 55,000 Hungarians, 31 percent more than in 2011. Recently, the British ambassador to Hungary implied that over 150,000 Hungarians live in London alone. Surveys show that about one in six Hungarians still living in the country wants to emigrate. Many opposition members have kept their permanent residence while living abroad; they have one foot in Hungary and another outside it, so they may not even appear in emigration statistics. But opposition supporters must seek ways to earn money abroad, and the government has benefited from their predicament in two ways: not only are its opponents leaving the country, which diminishes their presence in the Hungarian political space, but the government has also managed to lower Hungary’s unemployment rate by counting nationals who work abroad in domestic employment figures. As a current joke making the rounds goes: “Orbán promised 1 million new jobs. He just never said they would be in Hungary.”

The European Union not only approves of labor migration, but European law specifically protects the ability of citizens in the EU member states to move anywhere in the union to find work. So the large number of Hungarians suddenly on the move is not a red flag, unless the particular countries to which Hungarians are moving greet them with prejudice. That has not happened thus far, especially as so many younger and more highly educated Hungarians choose to move abroad.

* * *

Europe has objected to many of the Fidesz policies at the root of this mass departure. The European Commission and the European Parliament weighed in against Orbán’s government, and the Commission for Democracy Through Law of the Council of Europe (the Venice Commission), the US government and Human Rights Watch have been critical as well. But this criticism has had only a limited effect.

The European Union has tried for several years to discipline Orbán, but as EU leaders keep saying, their tools are weak. The European Union was founded on the assumption that all member states are constitutional democracies. As a result, the treaties establishing the union did not include disciplinary mechanisms in the event that this assumption was violated. The harshest sanction available to the EU involves removing the misbehaving country’s vote in European institutions. The union doesn’t have a way to exclude a rogue state.

Tough as the EU has been on Hungary in the last year, it was slow to catch on to Orbán’s constitutional revolution. The EU was distracted for much of the time that Orbán was consolidating his power by the euro crisis; it took precedence over everything else for years, and Hungary hardly figured in discussions about the crisis because, although it is a member state, it is not in the eurozone. In fact, when Orbán held the rotating presidency of the EU in 2011, he rammed his new Constitution through the Hungarian Parliament over the objections of the opposition—and from the position of the rotating presidency, he could block any substantial European action against him. On July 5, 2011, five days after Orbán’s term as EU president ended, the European Parliament passed its first resolution condemning Hungary’s new Constitution.

Europe is now having what might be described as a moral crisis over basic principles, a crisis that started in Hungary but is spreading beyond its borders. In the summer of 2012, Romanian Prime Minister Victor Ponta launched a constitutional coup against his country’s sitting president, aping Orbán by openly pressuring the judiciary. In April 2013, the government of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt followed Orbán’s lead by lowering the retirement age of judges, which made the most senior judgeships targets of political replacement. The provisional government of Ukraine established in March did not fear international criticism when it allowed the far right to play such a large role in the new government, precisely because Orbán was able to get away with playing openly with the far right for years.

Last summer, the European Parliament passed a strong resolution condemning the actions of the Hungarian government. It called on Hungary to restore the powers of the Constitutional Court and the independence of the judiciary, to restore parliamentary procedure so that the opposition could participate in lawmaking, to re-establish media pluralism, to decriminalize homelessness and protect vulnerable minorities, and to restore the hundreds of churches that had lost their legal status, among many other things. Previously, the European Commission had tried a variety of strategies for sanctioning Hungary, from bringing infringement actions to suspending cohesion funds for development projects in the country. But Orbán’s government was able to avoid all serious sanctions by being even more legalistic than Brussels, making only the smallest adjustments to its Constitution in order to be in technical compliance with EU law. Because Hungary’s new legal order is massively redundant, accomplishing the same goal through multiple methods, the specific and narrow changes that Brussels has required do little to blunt the overall effect of Hungary’s constitutional coup.

For example, Brussels pressured the Hungarian government to remove the power from the new politically appointed head of the National Judicial Office to move specific cases to specific courts outside the usual rules about jurisdiction. This, as the EU and the Venice Commission both noted, politicized case assignment and cast doubts on the independence of the judiciary. After amending the Constitution to remove this power following two years of criticism from European institutions, Orbán simply increased the number of judges on the courts he did not already control and had the same political official who used to move the cases name all of these new judges. As a result, the sheer number of judges throughout the system appointed by a Fidesz official made moving cases to particular courts unnecessary. The EU claims it won, but Orbán has packed the courts.

Sensing that its efforts were not succeeding, on March 11 the European Commission issued a new “mechanism” to strengthen the rule of law that, while not mentioning Hungary by name, was clearly designed to discipline the Orbán government. The new framework provides a way for the commission to start enforcing the EU’s requirement that all states honor the rule of law. At the moment, however, the upcoming European elections in May are preventing European officials, yet again, from doing anything more about Orbán’s activities—or about the one-sided election campaign that Hungary just witnessed. Orbán’s rush to construct the controversial World War II memorial may be timed to take advantage of the EU’s current distraction with its own elections.

* * *

Can something more be done to sanction a government that targets the opposition with repressive economic measures? Can a government in the middle of the European Union and a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights attack the opposition by purging it from the economy? Like canaries in a coal mine, dissidents from the communist era have been among the first to call attention to the moral danger that Hungary poses today. In the open letter “The Decline of Democracy—the Rise of Dictatorship,” published after the new Constitution went into effect in January 2012, thirteen veteran dissidents claimed that the Fidesz government was “building a one-party dictatorship at an ever-growing speed.”

True enough, but the European Convention on Human Rights was designed to fight the abuses perpetrated by the one-party dictators of the twentieth century. If a person’s life, liberty or property are taken without due process of law, it constitutes a human-rights violation that can be brought before the European Court of Human Rights. The same is true if there are violations to the rights of free speech, freedom of association, privacy and more. But in Hungary, conventional human-rights violations are not the primary problem. Dissidents opposed to the Fidesz regime are free to speak, free to publish, free to oppose the government, free to take to the streets, free to exercise their civil liberties. Of course, the government-controlled media—which constitute virtually the entire media sector—don’t have to publicize what they say. But dissidents are free to say it. And opponents of the regime have so far been free to demonstrate, as long as they don’t use the spaces reserved for government-friendly groups, which for some time included all the major squares in Budapest.

No, the price that dissidents pay is economic, because the government systematically denies both individuals and families any connection to the legitimate economy. In an age of austerity, however, economic intimidation can be ruthlessly effective without violating conventionally protected rights. Best of all for the government, the cruelty seems inflicted by economics, not politics. If those in the political opposition must leave the country to make a living—especially when the European Union protects the right to do so—how are their human rights being violated?

With his new term in office, Orbán will likely continue his drive to become another nominal democrat who has used a temporary electoral supermajority to entrench himself for the long haul, joining the likes of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Observers expect Orbán to nationalize at least 50 percent of the banking sector, along with major utilities, and to continue his “Eastern Opening,” seeking allies and financial resources from the less democratic regimes of Eurasia. Orbán has already shown some success at shoring up a failing economy by negotiating loans from sources that do not require either austerity or compliance with basic democratic principles and the rule of law, but only political loyalty.

Above all, Orbán seems prepared to stay in power by any means necessary. Before the 2010 election, he gave an uncharacteristically candid speech, one in which he expressed his vision of politics. Speaking in Kötcse, a small village in southern Hungary, in September 2009, he criticized the “divided field of power” that characterized the country at that time, referring to the multiparty system with its competing ideas about politics. Then he dared to dream, predicting that “a large governing party with a central political field of power will be established, one which will be capable of formulating national concerns, doing so without continuous arguments, naturally representing these in its own way.” It would exist for at least fifteen or twenty years without conflict or contention, he promised. The 2014 election shows that Viktor Orbán’s vision at Kötcse will challenge European values for some time.

Dear reader,

I hope you enjoyed the article you just read. It’s just one of the many deeply-reported and boundary-pushing stories we publish everyday at The Nation. In a time of continued erosion of our fundamental rights and urgent global struggles for peace, independent journalism is now more vital than ever.

As a Nation reader, you are likely an engaged progressive who is passionate about bold ideas. I know I can count on you to help sustain our mission-driven journalism.

This month, we’re kicking off an ambitious Summer Fundraising Campaign with the goal of raising $15,000. With your support, we can continue to produce the hard-hitting journalism you rely on to cut through the noise of conservative, corporate media. Please, donate today.

A better world is out there—and we need your support to reach it.

Onwards,

Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

Ad Policy
x