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Hungary’s Government: Imperfect, but not undemocratic

It is difficult to imagine a country in East Central Europe whose reputation in the West has declined more rapidly in recent years than Hungary.

September 12, 2013 - Filip Mazurczak - Articles and Commentary

24.01.2014 Orban

Photo: Flickr. Viktor Orban at EPP Summit, March 2011

In the 1990s, the country was a darling of Western investors and a textbook example of a successful transition from Communism to a market economy. However, since the government of Viktor Orbán took power in Budapest in 2010, Hungary has reached near-pariah status in Europe, at least judging by its harsh condemnations by Western politicians and journalists. Nonetheless, an honest look at Orbán’s government reveals that while it has flaws and some of its economic policies are ineffective, fears of liberal democracy’s collapse in Budapest are exaggerated.

Enter Fidesz

In 2010, the conservative Fidesz, East Central Europe’s largest political party, won Hungary’s parliamentary elections. Fidesz took in 52.73 per cent of the vote, giving it two-thirds of all the seats in parliament, enough to change the constitution, and making a coalition government unnecessary. Fidesz’s leader Viktor Orbán, a charismatic, relatively youthful (then only 47 years old) veteran of Hungary’s anti-Communist underground who had once served as PM in the 1990s, became prime minister. While Fidesz’s support in Hungary has gradually eroded, polls indicate it will win next year’s parliamentary elections (although it will probably need a junior partner to form a majority government). Needless to say, the West has been much less enthusiastic about Orbán’s cabinet.

“As friends of Hungary we express our concerns, and in particular call for a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press, and governmental transparency,” then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lectured Orbán in a 2011 letter. Meanwhile, in an article published by the left-wing American website The Huffington Post the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy wrote: “[Hungary] has revived the most obtuse chauvinism, the most worn-out populism, and the hatred of Tsiganes [Roma] and Jews, transforming the latter in an increasingly open manner into scapegoats for any and all misfortune, much as they were in the darkest hours of the history of the continent.” He also writes that Hungary’s government “criminalises the poor.”

Some media outlets have dealt Orbán below-the-belt blows, with Germany’s Die Welt calling Hungary “Führerstaat”. It is worth asking whether comparing a democratically elected government that respects civil liberties to a regime that enacted policies of genocide and invaded half of Europe in the bloodiest war in world history is tasteless and offensive (especially coming from a German paper), or rather childish and outlandish.

Perhaps the most controversial policy of Hungary’s government has been its media law, which was passed in 2010 and which Clinton alluded to in her letter. The law gives the government the ability to penalise private media outlets if they are accused of being unbalanced in their reporting. Under this law, parliament appoints a media council, which can access materials used by journalists to check whether journalists’ statements are founded on fact or not. And the prime minister appoints a chairperson of the media council for a nine-year term. Critics claim that the media law is undemocratic because it can “gag” anti-government journalists and does not allow for checks and balances.

The media law is certainly imperfect, as it gives the government the ability to intrude too much into the media. Yet while Hungary’s media council is appointed by parliament, its membership can be easily changed when another party takes power in the country. Checks and balances are great, but their relative lack is not necessarily undemocratic. In most European countries, there are only two branches of government, as the role of the presidency is purely ceremonial. Does this mean that most European parliamentary democracies are less free than the United States, which has a tripartite government?

Unfounded insinuations

Meanwhile, Clinton’s insinuation that there is a lack of transparency in Hungary is completely unfounded, as Orbán has fought against corruption like few other European leaders. Under the post-Communist coalition governments of Hungary’s socialists and liberals corruption reached almost pathological levels, yet hardly any Western leftist noticed.

Furthermore, it is worth noticing that anti-government demonstrations have been held in Budapest. Its participants have not been harassed, which seems to disprove allegations of Hungary’s lack of democracy. In this regard it is worth noticing that the anti-government protests in Budapest have been tiny compared to those in favour of Orbán. For example, a notable anti-Orbán rally in Kossuth Square drew 5,000 protestors last year. By contrast, a recent march in defence of the Hungarian government attracted 300,000. If Hungarians are “repressed” by their “autocratic government” (these are the terms used in a recent Freedom House report on Hungary), than why are not the numbers of attendees at the two respective marches not different?

Also, it is worth noting that much of the rancour against Hungary results from sheer ignorance. Levy accuses Orbán’s government of anti-Semitism and hatred of the Roma. This allegation is completely unfounded, as Orbán has worked perhaps more than any other European leader to integrate his nation’s Roma minority. He has publicly condemned anti-Roma prejudices and pursued an ambitious policy of integrating Roma by increasing their access to vocational education, the logic being that a lack of schooling breeds crime and poverty.

By contrast, the government of the former French president Nicolas Sarkozy disbanded a legal Roma camp, deporting its inhabitants. Somehow Sarkozy, a tabloid sensation like few other politicians, never was faced with the same paranoid hatred from a major sector of the media as Orbán.

Meanwhile, although the World Jewish Congress has expressed concern at rising anti-Semitism in Hungary, thatanti-Semitism cannot be attributed to Orbán’s government. Rather, xenophobia and racism are associated with the far-right party Jobbik. However, it is important to note that Jobbik is in opposition to Fidesz in parliament.

Likewise, whereas Levy accuses Hungary’s government of excluding the poor, the opposite is true. In fact, Fidesz’s centre-right orientation – unlike that of the British Tories, for instance, whose main distinction from the Conservatives is related to economic affairs – results more from social conservatism and anti-Communism than from economic factors. In his 2007 manifesto Eg Az Orszag (“There Is Only One Fatherland”), Orbán criticises free market capitalism and Western corporations in terms that should warm the cockles of the hearts of the leftist writers at The Guardian or The New York Times. In the book, he writes: “Currently, the biggest threat to our nation comes from the dogma of the omnipotence of the market… The basic law of the free market becomes a dogma when it obligatorily starts to be applied to life outside the economy. Hungary’s ruling aristocracy does just that.” Furthermore, in his three years in power Orbán has increased social expenditures and tax breaks for the poor, especially for large families.

“Troublesome” social conservatism?

It is tempting to wonder whether the leftist media and politicians’ concerns about Hungarian democracy result from dislike of its social conservatism. Orbán is a devout Protestant, and Hungary’s 2011 constitution includes references to the role of Christianity in Hungary’s nationhood, condemns abortion, and defines marriage as between a man and a woman. If one thinks that it is too much to see a link between dislike of Orbán’s social conservatism and the leftist media’s criticisms of him, one should return to the aforementioned text by Levy: “Today there exists in the heart of Europe a country whose government gags the media, is dismantling the health and social protection systems, [and] challenges rights once considered acquired, such as that to an abortion [author’s emphasis].”

Regardless of what one’s views on a controversial and divisive political issue as abortion are, to link its illegality to a lack of human rights is an exaggeration. Using Levy’s logic, the international community should marginalise the governments of Chile and Malta, respected modern liberal democracies and where the procedure is entirely banned, and put them on the same plane as Iran or Belarus.

As demonstrated above, allegations of authoritarianism in Hungary are exaggerated. In fact, Orbán should be praised for his efforts to assimilate Hungary’s Roma and help poor families with children, the latter being a particularly significant move as Hungary suffers from one of Europe’s lowest birth rates (due mostly to material factors). However, there is much to criticise about Hungary’s government. Above all, its economic policy raises questions.

While Orbán has lowered personal income taxes to a flat rate of 16 per cent and thus stimulated consumer spending and provided tax breaks for small and medium business owners, he has greatly raised taxes on foreign corporations investing in Hungary. In a small country dependent on foreign investors, the logic of such policies is highly questionable. Also, Orbán’s attempt to nationalise private pensions cannot bring positive economic results. Perhaps worst of all, Orbán’s government raised Hungary’s VAT tax to 27 per cent, by far the highest tax rate in the European Union (the European Commission recommends that the VAT not exceed 25 per cent). This is a move that will stifle consumer spending and only further weaken already Hungary’s lacklustre economic recovery (economists estimate that Hungary’s GDP will increase by only one per cent this year). However, economically inept policies and a lack of democracy are two completely different matters.

In conclusion, while Orbán’s government has made some mistakes, especially on economic matters, its record is commendable in other areas. But to accuse it of being anti-democratic is silly at best, irresponsible at worst. Hungary continues to be a successful example of a transition from a one-party state to a vibrant democracy. And instead of lecturing Orbán on democracy, perhaps Ms. Clinton should ask her former boss how democratic keeping open Guantanamo Bay despite campaign promises or his drone war in Pakistan are.

Filip Mazurczak is the Assistant Editor of New Eastern Europe. He studied history and Latin American literature at Creighton University and international relations at The George Washington University.

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