Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hungary Is Becoming a Right-Wing Paradise - A Glimpse Into the USA's Future?

The 1930s and 40s are coming back in style in Hungary.

Hungary, that little country in Central Europe with the funny language, holds a special place in my heart. I lived in Budapest for several years while working with and among the Roma in Central Europe, and I also went to graduate school there. I liked living and working in Budapest a great deal, and though my wife would probably never agree to it, somewhere I had always toyed with the idea in the back of my mind that I/we might return to Hungary one day.

Well, I don't think I'm toying with that idea any more. The little country that I used to love has gone seriously off its rocker, morphing from a struggling but stalwart post-communist European country into a hateful, anti-democratic right-wing paradise.

Although the transition has been underway for more than a year now, the "something rotten in the state of Hungary" has come into the news this past week thanks to Paul Krugman, who summarized the situation in an op-ed last week:
[I]n at least one nation, Hungary, democratic institutions are being undermined as we speak.
One of Hungary’s major parties, Jobbik, is a nightmare out of the 1930s: it’s anti-Roma (Gypsy), it’s anti-Semitic, and it even had a paramilitary arm. But the immediate threat comes from Fidesz, the governing center-right party.
Fidesz won an overwhelming Parliamentary majority last year, at least partly for economic reasons; Hungary isn’t on the euro, but it suffered severely because of large-scale borrowing in foreign currencies and also, to be frank, thanks to mismanagement and corruption on the part of the then-governing left-liberal parties. Now Fidesz, which rammed through a new Constitution last spring on a party-line vote, seems bent on establishing a permanent hold on power.
The details are complex. Kim Lane Scheppele, who is the director of Princeton’s Law and Public Affairs program — and has been following the Hungarian situation closely — tells me that Fidesz is relying on overlapping measures to suppress opposition. A proposed election law creates gerrymandered districts designed to make it almost impossible for other parties to form a government; judicial independence has been compromised, and the courts packed with party loyalists; state-run media have been converted into party organs, and there’s a crackdown on independent media; and a proposed constitutional addendum would effectively criminalize the leading leftist party.
Taken together, all this amounts to the re-establishment of authoritarian rule, under a paper-thin veneer of democracy, in the heart of Europe.
In the last couple of days, Krugman has posted two guest blog posts by Kim Lane Scheppele, a constitutional scholar who has been following the developments in Hungary closely. These in-depth posts paint a bleak picture for the future of Hungarian democracy. From the first post:
In a free and fair election last spring in Hungary, the center-right political party, Fidesz, got 53% of the vote. This translated into 68% of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s current disproportionate election law. With this supermajority, Fidesz won the power to change the constitution. They have used this power in the most extreme way at every turn, amending the constitution ten times in their first year in office and then enacting a wholly new constitution that will take effect on January 1, 2012.
Under the new constitutional order, the judiciary has taken the largest hit. The Constitutional Court, which once had the responsibility to review nearly all laws for constitutionality, has been killed off in three ways. First, the government expanded the number of judges on the bench and filled the new positions with their own political allies (think: Roosevelt’s court-packing plan).... The old Constitutional Court, which has served as the major check on governmental power in a unicameral parliamentary system, is now functionally dead.
The independence of the judiciary is over when a government puts its own judges onto the bench, moves them around at will, and then selects which ones get particular cases to decide.
The new election law specifies the precise boundaries of the new electoral districts that will send representatives to the parliament. But the new districts are drawn in such a way that no other party on the political horizon besides Fidesz is likely to win elections. A respected Hungarian think tank ran the numbers from the last three elections using the new district boundaries. Fidesz would have won all three elections, including the two they actually lost.
Virtually every independent political institution has taken a hit. The human rights, data protection and minority affairs ombudsmen have been collapsed into one lesser post. The public prosecutor, the state audit office and, most recently, the Central Bank are all slated for more overtly political management in the new legal order.
And all of this has happened while the press operates under day-to-day intimidation. A draconian set of media laws created a new media board – staffed only by Fidesz party loyalists with a chair who is appointed by the Prime Minister to a nine-year term. This board can review all public and private media for their compliance with a nebulous standard of political “balance” and has the power to bankrupt any news organization with large fines. It is not surprising that the media have become self-censoring. This new media regime has been severely criticized by the European Commissioner for Communications, among others.
The new constitution also accepts conservative Christian social doctrine as state policy, in a country where only 21% of the population attends any religious services at all. The fetus is protected from the moment of conception. Marriage is only legal if between a man and a woman. The constitution “recognize(s) the role of Christianity in preserving nationhood” and holds that “the family and the nation constitute the principal framework of our coexistence.” While these religious beliefs are hard-wired into the constitution, a new law on the status of religion cut the number of state-recognized churches to only fourteen, deregistering 348 other churches.
In a democracy, the population can “throw the bums out” and replace the government with a different one that can change the policies that do not have public support. But that will be nearly impossible under this constitution. In addition to compromising institutions that are necessary for a free and fair election – like a free press and a neutral election apparatus – the new constitution embeds Fidesz control even if another political party defies the odds and wins an election.
The new constitution makes huge swaths of public policy changeable only by a two-thirds vote of any subsequent parliament. From here on, all tax and fiscal policy must be decided by a two-thirds supermajority. Even the precise boundaries of electoral districts cannot be changed by simple majority vote, but only by a two-third supermajority. If a new government gets a mere majority, policies instituted during the Fidesz government cannot be changed.
According to a proposed constitutional amendment, the crimes of the former communist party will be listed in the constitution and the statute of limitations for prosecuting crimes committed during the communist period will be lifted. The former communist party is branded a criminal organization and the current opposition Socialist Party is designated as their legal successor. It is still unclear, legally speaking, what this amendment means. But it is probably not good for the major opposition party.
The Fidesz government has accomplished this constitutional revolution by legal means after a democratic election. But though Fidesz was democratically elected and has accomplished this program through constitutional change, Hungary is not a constitutional democracy. Instead Hungary is, as Paul Krugman said, sliding into authoritarianism.
So, what's the list of the Hungarian right wing's accomplishments?
  1. Get rid of "activist" judges who "legislate from the bench" in ways the right wing disapproves.
  2. Enshrine gerrymandered districts into the constitution so that the right wing has a practically permanent electoral majority, in spite of what the actual will of the Hungarian people might be.
  3. Enforce "balance" in the media though a partisan panel of only right-wing political hacks.
  4. Get rid of protections for minority groups.
  5. Enshrine conservative Christian ideology as state policy, including protecting fetuses from the moment of conception and delegitimizing all non-Christian and non-Jewish religious bodies.
  6. The left-wing party might be, quite literally, criminalized and outlawed.
Perhaps I'm being uncharitable, but much of this sounds like the Republican political agenda for the USA - I would imagine that not a few Republicans would be ecstatic if they were able to pull off this kind of constitutional coup in the USA too. Maybe U.S. Republicans seeking a right-wing paradise should move to Hungary - if any of you do, let me know how that works out for you, and for Hungary in general.

Kim Lane Scheppele's second post talks more about the background to the changes in Hungary and points out that Fidesz's approval rating currently stands at about 20%, with the vast majority of Hungarians opposed to Fidesz's new constitutional order - but Fidesz is bulldozing through their sweeping changes anyway. Everything they're doing is perfectly legal, and it might be impossible for even a super-majority of Hungarian voters to undo these changes.

I am greatly saddened to see Hungarian democracy deteriorating in this way. Until things change, I probably won't even visit Hungary, let alone toy with the idea of moving back there. As a foreigner, I would never subject myself to the whims of the kind of semi-lawless and anti-democratic regime currently in power in Hungary. I wish the Hungarian people the best, and I hope they find the power to undo these changes peacefully, if the majority does not want Hungary to go down this dark path.


  1. It's surprising to see their approval rating so low, since in the election they annihilated everyone else. Not only in the party-list vote (where they had a majority) but in the single-member district vote, where they won a staggering 173 out of 176 districts (without gerrymandering). Apparently it's not like an MMP system where the member wins are subtracted from the party-list allocation.

    My question is: Was all this not on their platform? Or is this a case of the opportunity making the thief?

    Either way, the plus side of conservative rule is that people get to see them for who they really are, and that undermines the dogged conservative efforts to get ordinary people to feel like they're one of them.

    Also, letting a parliament by itself enact a new constitution is ridiculous on the face of it. It's the 21st century.

    Even if the Hungarian Socialist Party is banned, it's not like they'll put everyone in jail (well, I say that now...). And in my opinion, European left-wing parties need to ditch the Socialist brand. It's a sclerotic relic and it orients the left to the past when it needs to be looking to the future.

    -Andrew M.

  2. Andrew,

    The short answer is no - Fidesz did not run on a platform of completely rewriting the constitution. See this post for more info -

    One might point out that Fidesz HAS been fulfilling the platform promises set out by Jobbik, the far-right party and junior partner to Fidesz in the current government:

    Incidentally, the blog at is probably the best source for English analysis of the Hungarian political scene, and its coverage of the recent constitutional changes has been excellent.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat

  3. I've been here for almost 20 years and I think I was a glutton for punishment. Hungarians have always been a morose, scapegoating bunch. We are excited to get the hell out of here and leave them and their dictatorship behind. There is a conspiracy of silence going on now here - no one wants to lose their job or connections. God forbid anyone stand for a principal. But I guess that the luxury of more developed nations.

  4. Anonymous,

    I definitely understand that sense of frustration, especially after living in a place for 20 years that has seen so many ups and downs and now seems to be sliding backward significantly.

    The fact that tens of thousands of people came out to protest the new constitution at the beginning of January gives me a touch of hope - but not much, honestly, as even tens of thousands are only a tiny percentage of the 1.7 million people who live in Budapest proper (or the 2.5 million who live in the Budapest metro area). I'll continue to observe with interest whether the Hungarian people manage to take control of their country back from Orban/Fidesz.

    Not surprisingly, Orban/Fidesz is unapologetic:

    Perhaps what I find most telling (which I omitted from the original post) is that "Republic" was dropped from the country's name - its official name is no longer "The Republic of Hungary," but rather just "Hungary."

    Telling, and horrifying.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat

  5. Paul Krugman is a lier..

  6. Krugman the liar.

  7. The socialists and the liberals from Hungary are crminals. Many of the criminal socialists were/are jews (Bela Kun, Szamuely Tibor, Konrad Gyorgy, Rakosi Matyas).

  8. Anonymous:

    You, sir, are so ignorant and/or racist that I'm not going to dignify your comments with a real response. But I will leave your comments up here as a warning to others about the dangers of a poor upbringing and bad education.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat

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  11. Due to persistent right-wing trolling on this post, I've unfortunately had to disable further comments on it. Anonymous troll, if you are indeed Hungarian, you are one of the reasons that Hungarians can't have nice things.

    -The Angry Bureaucrat