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“Criticism and furious attacks are still coming from abroad because of the new constitution and our economic policy. We have to say without stirring an eyelid that it is none of your business: it is the cause of the Hungarians! Or, we have to tell them into their face with a European look: subsidiarity.” (Viktor Orbán, Hungarian Prime Minister, 31 May 2011)
Probably the most striking characteristic of the populist “constitutional” revolution in Hungary today is the lack of any official ideological background. The one-party government introduces its measures and actions simply referring to its unprecedented supermajority – possessing more than two-third of the mandates in the parliament -, saying, we have the support of the people, we do what they want us to do, we do it, because it is our moral duty to fulfil their wish and to use our political power for change, and so on. There is no common expression or a perfect category to be borrowed from political science literature to grasp the essence of the regime which has been under construction for a year by now. Between 1998 and 2002, when Viktor Orbán and his party, Fidesz held the executive power in hands first time, pressing, the notion taken from soccer, described very precisely the mentality of the young politicians who wanted to “counter-balance” the alleged monopoly of left and liberal forces in the political, economic and cultural spheres of the country.
Ten years after the first experiment, the battle-field has been broadened. Having weak rivals in the domestic arena, as the consequence of an eight year long period of socialist-liberal and minority socialist governments, which failed to govern efficiently and ended up in loud corruption scandals, Orbán opened many new front lines. For a couple of months, the public watched the Sturm und Drang of the victorious political entrepreneurs who got to power after the “revolution at the ballots” without any clear resonance: a big part of the citizens seemed to trust the dynamism of the new rulers, whilst other Hungarians have been totally petrified by the political methods of the government. These included a “freedom fight” against the IMF, the factual renationalisation of the private pension funds, a serious cut in the competences of the Constitutional Court after the judges had annulled retroactive legislation inspired by the government as well as a media campaign against leading liberal intellectuals. Following the approval of the national media law before last Christmas there was an outburst of a wide international protest with an elementary strength as well as a brutally negative coverage of the Hungarian authoritarian tendencies in the European public sphere. Eventually, the new media regulations meant the last drop into the glass in the eyes of numerous former international friends and partners of Hungary, which started its EU Council Presidency on 1 January 2011 as the last member of a Trio including Spain and Belgium.
Now the rules of the game have changed: Hungarian domestic politics, the so-called “internal affairs” have been rapidly Europeanised, or, with other words, politicised on European level, showing an increasing overlap between the national and European political fields often on a partisan ground. This was very good news for all in and outside the country, who have strongly believed that no member state could behave at home as if it had not joined the European family of nations where the respect of common European values was supposed to be a minimum condition for membership. It is very likely that the Hungarian prime minister made a wrong situation analysis: first, he underestimated the degree of development of European integration towards a political union; second, he miscalculated the limits of his freedom believing that the rotating Council Presidency would defend his government from interventions because of a mutual interdependence between the European institutions. But the tactical mistakes are his problems. What is more regrettable that the Europessimistic Hungarian citizens have not been given the unique opportunity to live through that their country had a significant role, even the task of leadership inside the European Union first time since accession.
The issue whether otherwise Hungary has been able to show a professional performance as a driving force in European affairs for a semester seems to become irrelevant because of the political scandals around the country. Orbán himself reacted with defiance in a public speech on the Hungarian national day comparing “Brussels” with Vienna of the Habsburg Empire and Moscow of the Soviet Union saying that Hungarians have never accepted dictates from any of them. By-passing the basic fact that joining the European Union was a voluntary decision of the nation confirmed by a referendum, he also neglected the fact that some elements of the “controversial” media law have been finally amended following the analysis and the proposals of the European Commission. The Prime Minister explained his position also in the national parliament saying that he did not believe in the European Union, he believed in Hungary. It is very likely that the ruling Fidesz comes out from the six months long European adventure with a more Eurosceptic ideological view compared to the attitudes how the party felt about the EU before this period.
In spite of the reluctant adjustment of the government to the recommendations of the European Commission in case of the media law, the noise about the problematic regulations has not been silenced. It was not only the European Parliament which approved a resolution condemning the Hungarian media law – not Hungary, as the government often misinterprets European politics – even after the “technical” amendments, but Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media as well as Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur of the right to freedom of opinion of the United Nations continue to criticise the whole legislative procedure as well as the content of the overregulated bills. One of the most unacceptable features has been the creation of a powerful media authority having members delegated only from the ruling party possessing potential competencies to discipline printed and electronic media punishing them by huge fines. The tradition of self-censorship in a former communist country is very vivid, especially in the public media where the government has changed the management in each institution and concentrated the news production into the hands of the loyal Hungarian News Agency.
Now the one-party “basic law”, the new constitution is in the focus of international attention. As the Hungarian Council Presidency started with a spreading protest on the plenary session of the European Parliament, it might finish its term running into a similar heated debate after the completion of the opinion of the Venice Committee, the advisory board of the Council of Europe on legislative affairs on 17-18 June. The committee already expressed its concerns both about the nature of the constitutional process and the content of the approved texts including the problematic legal status of the preamble (which has been widely criticised because of its romantic nationalism and Christian rhetoric), the legal solutions which might limit the room of manoeuvre of any future governments without a two-third constitutional majority (and might cement the influence of Fidesz once in opposition). The party elaborated a sentence set into the constitution claiming that Hungary’s official currency is the Forint: what a blackmailing capacity when another incoming government would be finally able to introduce the euro in Hungary! The Venice Commission is also aware of the serious risks of the great number of new cardinal laws (requiring two-third of the votes in the parliament), which might mean that special policy instruments like proportional income taxation will be fixed in accordance with the current will of the current regime - until the end of history.
As for the European Union and its institutions, the lesson to be learned from the Hungarian story is to create an early warning system by listening to the voices of opposition forces and civil society groups in case of the emergence of authoritarian tendencies in a member state. It is urgent to take the binding Charter of Fundamental Rights, a part of the Lisbon Treaty as a firm basis when the violation of human rights becomes a (potential) danger anywhere in the European Union.
Meanwhile the rules of the game are changing inside Hungary once again. They are not only the liberal intellectuals who belong to the enemy any more. At the beginning of June, the delegation of demonstrating trade unions of policemen and firemen invited the Prime Minister to talk to the people on the square outside the parliament, but Orbán referred them to the “State Secretary of Clown Affairs”. In response, leaders of the manifestations organise a “revolution of the clowns”: citizens can “withdraw” their mistaken votes for Fidesz - certainly retroactively…. The next real elections are supposed be held in 2014 probably under a new electoral system favouring the ruling big right wing party which would face a divided opposition. Still, by then, much water will be flowing down on the Danube.
chairman of the Hungarian Europe Society, member of Fidesz parliamentary group in 1990-94