What's next in Hungary?

The Orban regime combines the extreme centralization of economic assets and the monopolization of power in a single party that intends to dominate every aspect of social and private life, turning citizens into subjects. 

The critical state of Hungary has recently prompted several commentaries in the globe's leading newspapers. It seems the world has only now awakened to the fact that in a European Union member country a single-party based authoritarian system has been built that defies the values Europe claims to stand for: liberty, state of law, democracy.

The fundamental reorganization of society promised by Fidesz when it won the April 2010 elections took the form of a political tsunami sweeping over Hungary. The existing regulations and institutions were dismantled, new Fidesz-appointees were named to leading positions (usually for nine-year terms) and pushing aside qualified advice, the governing party's policies were implemented from economic policy to the judiciary, from the health system to municipal governments, from education to the arts. More then three hundred laws and regulations were hastily created (or modified) and pushed through Parliament, many of which the deputies did not even have time to read before voting. Opposition parties have been reduced to a role of figurants.

The Orban regime combines the extreme centralization of economic assets (including the expropriation of the private pension funds, of several public foundations and the forthcoming centralization of the municipal governments' assets) and the monopolization of power in a single party that intends to dominate every aspect of social and private life, turning citizens into subjects. The improvised nature of many of the new laws creates a wide margin for arbitrary decisions that increase dependence and insecurity. As is customary in authoritarian regimes, the system's ears are sharp and its hands are long; numberless stories circulate about tax-auditors sent to control citizens who voiced dissent, people loosing their work due to their political views, abuses of power by incompetent new bosses delegated by Fidesz. 

In addition to a frontal attack on civil liberties, the government has redistributed economic assets (particularly through the tax system and investment allocations), in favor of interest groups close to Fidesz and a restricted layer of the well-to-do. This group zealously defends the party's power and executes its guidelines. At the same time, through the unilateral rewriting of the Labor Code, the restriction of union action and collective bargaining rights, the radical dismantling of social welfare nets and independent social care institutions, the government exposed the most vulnerable social groups - the poor, the unemployed, Roma, pensioners, sick and handicapped - to the unfolding economic crisis. Life has been made precarious for those who live on wages and have no reserves or additional revenue.

By 2012 Hungarians had to realize that their dreams of 1989: freedom and decent living had fallen into pieces. No wonder they are disillusioned.

The world's leading newspapers reported on the massive protests Fidesz' policies prompted in Hungary in recent months, including an approximately 70,000 strong rally in front of the Budapest Opera House, where the system's dignitaries held a sumptuous gala to celebrate the entry into vigor of the new "Basic law" (Constitution) and related laws. While many in the world saw the images of the cheerful crowd of young and old, well-dressed and poor, workers and intellectuals, the average Hungarian who watches public television and reads journals close to the government saw a quiet square around the Opera and learnt next day that a heterogeneous crowd gathered in front of the Opera shouting chaotic slogans (incited by "external forces" irritated by Hungary's independent policy-making, according to one of the commentators.)

Thanks to the government's media law, there is only one independent-minded TV channel and one independent radio station left in Hungary, and the latter, Klubradio, already lost its right to broadcast as of March 2012. There were several waves of purging both at public TV and radio; thousands of employees were dismissed. The remaining few independent-minded newspapers and magazines struggle for survival, due to the radical cuts of state subsidies and the massive drop of advertising revenues; most of their former clients are afraid to do business with them. As is customary in authoritarian regimes, the system's ears are sharp and its hands are long; people think twice before signing a petition, a newspaper article or taking part in public actions where they can be identified by the system's informants.

Against this background the multiplying manifestations of civil courage have an extraordinary value. The hunger strike of two employees of public TV against the new rules that force them to falsify facts and mass-produce government propaganda; the 33-hours poetry reading marathon by artists and citizens to prevent the removal of the statue of Attila Jozsef, one of Hungary's greatest poets from Kossuth square; Bela Tarr's call to fight for the autonomy of Hungarian filmmaking, circumventing the state-sponsored and controlled national film agency; the creation of independent public cyber-spaces that document and contest the government's actions; the mobilisations of firemen, public workers, doctors, teachers, university students to reclaim their basic rights, massive participation in the meetings organised by various civil society organisations, are acts of courage and resistance.

Since last December, when a small group of university students protested publicly against the dismantling of the state of law, popular demonstrations have grown and became more articulate. On the 15th of March approximately 30,000 people descended to the streets to defend press freedom. At the October 23 demonstration that mobilised approximately 100,000 people, the key slogan was: "We don't like the system!" At the January 2nd rally at the Opera, people demanded the removal of the Prime minister. However, as one of the speakers underlined, Orban's eventual departure would not be sufficient; the whole system, with its "Basic law", related laws and regulations must be abolished. Otherwise Fidesz' nearly exclusive power would be reproduced, thanks to the new election law, the redrawing of election districts, the reshaping of public posts and institutions and last, but not least, the criminalization of its political opponents.

According to a recent poll by Szonda Ipsos, the number of Fidesz voters has declined from 34% early last year to 18%, but only a very wide coalition of Parliamentary opposition and civil movements that at some point would have to turn themselves into political parties would be able to win the 2014 elections and start to reconstruct the country. A moderate conservative formation is also likely to emerge and eventually join in, but its contours are still invisible, since Orban holds his party with an iron-fist and strives to monopolise the voice of the right-wing. In addition to Fidesz, this would-be coalition will have to face the extreme right Jobbik, that benefited both from Fidesz' mistakes and the weaknesses of its political opposition and solidified its support base. Since 2002, when Fidesz started its fight to regain power from the socialists, it tolerated and encouraged the extreme right and once in government, even though they had some public clashes, it made several significant gestures towards it. In October Budapest's mayor named two representatives of the extreme right to direct a theatre, Uj Szinhaz. In line with Fidesz' personal choices that favor political loyalty over professional competence - from school headmasters to the President of the country - he discarded the professionally sound proposal of the present director for a political manifesto that pledged to salvage the "oppressed" national values.

The EU's unprecedented ultimatums that call on the Hungarian government to change certain laws, show that the Union has learnt from the fiasco of Austria's 2000 boycott and envisages strict criteria for compliance and calibrated measures in case of non-respect. However, the issues that the EU singled out are the tip of the iceberg. The removal of judges over 62 and the ombudsman for data-protection is part of measures that dismantle the state of law and include a thorough remodeling of the judiciary system from the supervision of the judges to the changed status of the Constitutional Court. The attack on the independence of the central bank comes together with new economic legislation, which, among others, changed the status of major economic institutions, like the Monetary Council and gave the government free hand to execute its disastrous economic policy. The laws on religion and media are part of the comprehensive brain-washing exercise that stretches from the renaming of the streets to the overall reform of the education system. These are just some aspects of the machine Fidesz constructed to stay in power for decades.

Confronted with an avalanche of external critics, tough negotiations with the IMF and the EU's move, the government declared to be ready to negotiate about everything. It is to be seen whether this means the end of Fidesz' uncontrolled made race or it is just a maneuver to gain time and access to badly needed financial injections. Up till now the government has either bluntly rejected external criticism as “interference in its internal affairs” or made cosmetic changes and minor concessions, without touching the essence of its policies. According to interviews he gave in recent days to his Hungarian public, Mr Orban “did not hear yet any reasonable advice on economics” and reacting to the EU's critics, he said that "if there are sound reasons to change the legislation the government is ready to modify, but for the time being these are mostly political views that one can not do much about".

One of the speakers of the January 2 rally said: “We are Europeans. We believe in European values.” She certainly did not call for placing Fidesz-imposed austerity with a Greek-style austerity package. She meant a community of people based on genuine representative democracy, sustainable and equitable development and fundamental human rights;the Europe we all wanted to belong to in 1989. That Europe, and not only that of a common market should continue to respond to the challenge Hungary represents today, firmly insisting on respect for its fundamental laws and norms. By helping Hungarians to rebuild a free, just and prosperous country, Europe can confirm its funding principles and start to envisage new models worthy of dreaming about.

(A shortened version of this article was published under the title Viktor Orbán has crushed Hungary's 1989 dream in the Guardian 17 Jan 2012).

Yudit Kiss

Yudit Kiss is a Hungarian economist based in Geneva