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Hungary: Democracy Distorted

a radio feature produced by Michael Shirrefs
Ultra-nationalism, anti-Semitism, censorship and intimidation of opponents. How has Hungary gone from having one of the most admired legal systems in the world, to becoming the most worrying symbol of democratic decline within Europe?


European Union was founded on the belief that all members wanted to distance themselves from the sorts of conflicts and closed regimes that defined much of the 20th Century. But Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is presiding over a Hungary that is proving that this assumption was naïve, and that Europe is ill-prepared for the cascading side-effects of a crippling economic crisis.

Viktor Orban has been here before. He was Prime Minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002. But this time it’s different. In 2010 his right-wing Fidesz Party was able to gain a more than two-thirds majority, due to some strange quirks of the country’s electoral system. The result is that he has been able to unlock the Hungary’s constitution and reconfigure it to fit his ideological agenda. A two-thirds majority means that he can effectively bypass the opposition.


Hungary specialist Kim Lane Scheppele from Princeton University says that this combination of events was never anticipated by the authors of the Country’s post-Soviet electoral system back in 1990:

They designed this highly disproportionate election law which means that you can turn a plurality into a majority government.So Fidesz at the time of the 2010 election had about 40% public approval, and then because of relatively low voter turnout they got a 53% share of the party list vote, and then the election law gave them 68% of the seats in the Parliament. So when he runs around saying he has two-thirds, it’s literally true if you count the parliamentary mandates, but he’s never had anything close to two-thirds support.So that was one design defect and that interacted badly with another design defect which was that anything in the Constitution could be changed by a single two-thirds vote. So you combine those two things and suddenly he was given the keys to the castle.


The result has been a dramatic loss of openness in Hungary, and a new belligerence towards Brussels. Rui Tavares is a Member of the European Parliament. He was the rapporteur or author of a report to the European Parliament, spelling out the full extent of Hungary’s constitutional changes and the worrying implications of these shifts.


They changed 12 times the old constitution,” says Rui Tavares, “Then they drafted a new one completely, so it was a creation of the ruling party itself. And after this Constitution came into force, which was January 2012, the Constitution has already been changed five times. They wanted to constitutionalise most of what was their own political platform.


And Rui Tavares says that, when changes were then made to the Ombudsman positions, to the Supreme Court and the Media Authority, party loyalists being installed in all the key roles.


All these appointments are for nine years. And if at the end of the nine years there is not a two-thirds majority to appoint the new person, the person that was appointed now stays, which means that theoretically some of these people can stay for up to 18 years or even more.


Sándor Fülöp was, for four years, Hungary’s Ombudsman for Future Generations—a mainly environmental watchdog role. But he says that the position was abolished by the Fidesz Government.


Actually two ombudspersons’ positions were eradicated with the new Constitution, and the other one was the minority protection. And no one in the political science and no one among the thinking people in Hungary understood how, why. You know, Hungary has so many Hungarians in the neighbouring countries. My understanding was that our vested interest [was] to show the best possible gestures to our own very small minorities within Hungary in order to be able to claim the same outside our borders, but instead this. I think the minority protection provisions of the new Constitution should have been a much stronger.


The Tavares Report is a direct, unambiguous and damning rebuke of what’s been happening. And Kim Scheppele says that when it was debated in the European Parliament and a vote for action against Hungary was called, that some of Viktor Orban’s ideological allies from across Europe either abstained or voted for the action.


I was amazed at how little support there was for Orbán. Remember that Orbán’s party Fidesz is affiliated with the European People’s Party, and the conservative parties hold a majority in the European Parliament. And until the Tavares Report, the parties had always stuck together.


Viktor Orban has been playing to a domestic audience and fuelling a rising mainstream Nationalist sentiment. But at the edge of this he’s been engaging in a dangerous game with the Country’s far-Right Jobbik Party and the myriad racist militias that swirl around it. As a result, in addition to the sorts of endemic anti-Roma and anti-refugee violence and intimidation that have plagued the whole of Europe, Hungary has displayed the sort of public anti-Semitism that hasn’t been witnessed since the end of the Second World War. It’s the worst sort of nightmare, for a Europe that had hoped these spectres had been well-and-truly exorcised. Kim Scheppele:


He’s [Viktor Orbán] been blaming the banks, and by the way when you blame the banks, the way he does it is with this coded ‘and you all know who the bankers are, they are the Jews’. He doesn’t say it but it’s all this rhetoric that everyone knows exactly what this means. So the banks are a very convenient target for whipping up nationalism.In fact, Jobbik had a 10-plank platform, and Orbán has done all 10 things. So a lot of times Orbán says to Europe, you know, ‘be lucky you have me, you could have them’. But actually he is doing the same program that Jobbik actually wanted. And in Hungary it’s very clear that he is playing under the table with the far-right rather than actually opposing them. So he opposes them with English, he plays with them in Hungarian.


The problem for the European Union is that no one ever anticipated that a country could backslide, once they had jumped the high entry bar of membership. Rui Tavares:


We were very naive about progress towards democracy. Everybody thought at the time that this was a one-way road. You had either dictatorships or democracies. And when you went from one pole to the other then you were a democracy and you stayed a democracy.Now in the new century we know that you have many things in between, what sometimes we would call majoritarian regimes such as Putin’s Russia and others. The closest example in the EU would be Mr Orbán’s Hungary.


This poses a huge problem for the European Union. And European Commission Spokeswoman Pia Ahrenkilde Hansen says they are very reluctant to sanction a member state—a move that’s referred to as the ‘nuclear option’.


That is a very complex and major procedure, you know, it’s also a very dramatic step, [So] whether in between that step and then our normal legal means of ensuring compliance with the rules through the so-called infringement procedures, we don’t need something a little bit more systemic but which is not as dramatic and major as Article 7 in our treaty that precisely stipulates that we can sanction member states or suspend their rights, as it were, if they breach consistently our rules. So that is what we are looking at now.


However, Rui Tavares is worried that whatever the EU does, it might not be enough.


You just have to follow the trend with your mind and then you start to worry with what can be down the road in five years or even ten years from now. And of course, you know, saying that these things don’t happen in Europe, it is just fooling yourself because Europe is actually where these things happen. There is nothing except us taking very seriously what is happening, but other than that there is nothing stopping it from happening again.


Listen to the program here …

Law ReportHungary: democracy distorted?
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