Saturday, May 7, 2011

More on Hungarian Populism

My friend the Hungarian economist Yudit Kiss (Geneva) contributes this comment:

Dear Mario,

You are very right about the parallels between Berlusconi and Orban – Viktor Orban is clearly inspired by Berlusconi but there are several points where he goes much further then any of the populist leaders today.

Since last April the Fidesz-MPP Party, that won a 2/3 majority of the Parliamentary seats in Hungary, started to dismantle systematically the democratic institutional system that was built during the last 20 years. The process started with the drastic curtailment of the powers of the Constitutional Court, then those of the Budget Council, the rights of the media, an attack on the independence of the National Bank, the introduction of a whole series of new laws and regulations, crowned with the hasty introduction of a new Constitution, all written to suit the values and interests of the governing party.

The new Constitution will be followed by the introduction of 39 "fundamental laws" (that need the approval of 2/3 of MPs) that regulate such basic dimensions of life as labour, voting rights, the pension system, party financing or the regional administrative system. These laws will be created within a year, probably by the same method as the Constitution and the other new laws that have been accepted by the completely docile Parliament since last April, i.e. with the exclusion of independent experts, social partners and the political opposition.

According to Fidesz, last April a Revolution took place at the ballot box and this gives them the right to change radically key dimensions of public and private life in Hungary – from the tax system to social welfare, from street names to education, from film-making to the right to vote. Since the new Constitution declared that Hungary is a Christian country and life is sacred since the moment of conception, the prohibition of abortion and the introduction of compulsory religious education might be just a question of time. Another measure with long-term consequences is the increased tenure of key public functions, so that even if it lost the next elections, Fidesz' interests would be represented at the highest levels under future governments. The new Constitution limits further the independence of judges (and abruptly lowers their retirement age, so that a large-scale renewal of the profession's staff and its leaders) making it even more difficult for everyday citizens to fight for their rights. The President of the Supreme Court was not consulted or informed about this measure previously; neither were the Director of the 1956 Institute or the Rector of the Corvinus University, who learnt about the end (the planned dissolution, in the case of the latter) of their institutions from the media.

With the signing of the Constitution by the President, who faithfully follows the governing party's directions, Hungary ceased to be a Republic and became “the country of the Hungarians". Fidesz claims to act on behalf of the "nation" and the nation includes Hungarians living abroad. One of Fidesz's first steps was that of offering citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living outside the country, promising them voting rights for the next elections. If the EU cannot prevent this, Fidesz will indeed reign for 20 years (as its leaders promised before the elections) and a very dangerous precedent would be created inside the Union.

According to the canon of the populist-nationalist rhetoric, Ministries and several public institutions became "National" and the government is in permanent fight against external and internal enemies. In the Prime minister's speeches Hungary is portrayed as an exceptional country that is not acknowledged by the world at its true value. The country's external enemies are international capital, the IMF and the World Bank, and according to Orban's speech pronounced at the 15th of March national holiday, Brussels that intends to "dictate Hungarians what to do from outside" but is doomed to fail. Internal enemies are the representatives of the previous governments, many of whom are subject to criminal charges, including former PM Ferenc Gyurcsany, or those who occupied leading positions under the previous government. (Corruption is undoubtedly a very grave and generalized problem of Hungarian society and there were some very corrupt Socialist politicians active during the last two cycles - together with corrupt politicians from other parties, including Fidesz – but the criminalization of the whole previous political leadership is more a political manoeuvre then an exercise in transparency.) The critics of the system, particularly if they raise their voice publicly abroad, are also labelled "enemies of the country", as shown by the current witch-hunt against the best of Hungarian philosophers.

Fidesz is on its way to build a genuine party-state – changing the management of state and public institutions and extending its control over spheres that enjoyed a considerable autonomy before, like regional or local governments or independent institutions, partially financed by the state. According to a decision taken in December, 35 prestigious independent public foundations, including the world-famous Institute Peto for handicapped children, several foundations defending minority rights or the 1956 Research Institute, have been dismantled. The directors of public media, theatres, academic institutions, schools, many public companies and institutions have been changed, when the institution itself is not closed down. Those who occupied leading positions under the former governments, including school headmasters, hospital directors or elected leaders of independent organizations have to reapply for their jobs and many of them are replaced. Party affiliation often overrules professional competence and, if arbitrary decisions are not accepted meekly, sometimes a whole professional team pays for it. In a recent, utterly Ubuesque episode the President of an intergovernmental committee in charge of deciding about geographical names was sacked, because he disagreed with the government's proposed new name for Budapest Airport that left out "Ferihegy", the traditional name that was used for decades. 20 out of 21 members of the professional committee had the same view, but the government's proposal went through and later the whole committee was dissolved.

In his first speech after the elections last year Mr Orban promised to put in order the economy, strengthen public order and then start work on a new Constitution. The economy was "put in order" in a way Janos Kornai describes in the
NÉPSZABADSÁG article you quoted in a comment to your post on Populism. Many of the country's best economists criticise sharply the government's economic policy, including experts with such diverse backgrounds as Laszlo Csaba, Tamas Bauer, Gabor Oblath, Andras Inotai or Tamas Mellar. Public order was "restored" by a revision of the penal code and the introduction of severe punishments even for minor offences, like speeding, or smoking in certain public places, like bus stops. There are plans to lower the age of legal responsibility to 14.

Beyond the populist rhetoric, however, actual measures do not serve the interests of ordinary people. The new tax system favours the better-off sections of the population, welfare services are being and will be radically cut back, prices of public services are raised, while the new Constitution curtails seriously labour rights.

One of the first conflicts between the government and the Constitutional court broke out due to a new regulation that makes it possible to dismiss public employees without justification. In his pre-election speeches Orban promised 1 million new jobs in 10 years. According to the latest report of the Hungarian Statistical Office, in one year 13,000 new jobs were created, but at least 50,000 jobs were lost. Unemployment stagnated at 11.6%, but was 26.8% among first job seekers (between age 15-24) and reached 10.8% in the age group of 25-54. Average unemployment lasts 18 month, an increase of 1.8 month. The new regulations are also very harsh on the poor, jobless, homeless, marginalised, handicapped, including those on invalidity pensions. Some of these measures are utterly grotesque, but given the general context, one does not feel like laughing; homeless people can be fined for "using public spaces for living" and in some districts of Budapest those who are caught scavenging in the garbage bins also have to pay fines.

The new power's way of dealing with dissent is also very disturbing. After the first months' startled silence, public protests started with a small group of University students who took to the the streets in December with a slogan: "We are the first generation born in a state of law, we don’t want to be the last one." Demonstrations and meetings have multiplied since, including an approximately 30,000 strong gathering in defence of press freedom on the 15th of March national holiday, organized by a small team of civil society activists and a joint, Hungarian and international trade union protest that gathered about 50,000 participants in April. The government usually ignores these massive expressions of dissent, clearly stating that it does not consider necessary to follow a dialogue with its political adversaries, potential social partners or its people. If there is a dialogue it takes the form of choosing one privileged interlocutor – e.g. one particular trade union or one Roma organization – as the only legitimate representative of a certain constituency, with which the government carries out exclusive discussions. Another form is a practically ex-post and formal "popular consultation" that was used in the case of the Constitution; approximately 2 weeks before the final text was presented to Parliament, every citizen received a personal letter with 12 questions about the future text that did not touch any of the crucial points of the document. According to government sources approximately 920,000 persons responded, so the Constitution could be said to have been publicly and democratically discussed and accepted by the people.

In other cases, however, the government's reaction to criticism is harsher. Following recent demonstrations of public order organisations, including firemen, who protested against new measures that take away some of their social gains and worsen their working conditions, the changing rooms were searched and prosecutions were started against several participants, because they marched in their uniform that is not permitted by the current regulations. For this week-end's planned demonstration the firemen plan to borrow uniforms from their Austrian colleagues and hopefully no one will be persecuted. International solidarity helps…

In another, very telling case, the independent mayor of Esztergom, a city some 45 kms away from Budapest, revolted against the Fidesz majority city council that has been obstructing her work ever since her election in the municipal elections in last October. Following the mismanagement of the previous Fidesz leadership, the town is on the verge of bankruptcy and the new mayor wanted to put things into order. Backed by the inhabitants of the town, she asked for help from the government, but had no reply. Finally, she decided to walk to the Parliament, accompanied by a delegation from the city's civil society representatives and sympathizers all along the road. She was not received by any government representative and could only hand over her protest letter addressed to Viktor Orban to a MP at the gate of Parliament. In her absence the city council met, headed by a senior official and passed some new measures without consulting her.

The case of Hungary also demonstrates one of the most serious dangers of the recent breakthrough of the extreme-right; the adaptation of their language, arguments and objectives by mainstream political currents. The Hungarian extreme-right party Jobbik entered Parliament at the last elections. Jobbik is not a coalition partner and Fidesz and Jobbik often display their differences publicly; however, Jobbik's language has entered the public discourse, its arguments are taken up by mainstream politicians and it has been implementing its policy with increasing self-assurance and tacit support. One of the leit-motifs of Jobbik's political agenda is the "fight against Gypsie criminality" and this Spring they started to put into practice their agenda. Since early March Jobbik activists and uniformed members of the "Civil Guard Association for a Nicer Future" (successor of an outlawed, openly racist paramilitary organization, the Hungarian Guard) marched up and down in the village of Gyongyospata, "maintaining order", terrorizing, humiliating and harassing the entire Gypsy population, as a retaliation after a Roma youth was caught stealing wood in the nearby forest. The police stood by, having the order only to intervene if atrocities were committed on either side. Violence broke out in late April, after a stormy Easter weekend that most Roma families spent separately; women and children were evacuated to a youth camp near Budapest, because "Nicer Future" had scheduled a "training weekend" next to the Gypsy settlement. This led to a country-wide scandal (government officials stating that the Roma just left for a holiday and accusing the opposition of wipping up a scandal to discredit the country), and, finally the arrest of some of the leaders of the paramilitary organisation. When they were released a couple of days later and "shared their joy" with the embattled Gypsy community, a massive fight broke out (fortunately nobody was killed) and the government hastily took a measure to forbid "uniformed violence".

I could go on and on. There are some good sites that cover developments in English, see e.g., A site summarising events in Gyongyospata .

You are also right about proposals for solutions. Unfortunately we live in a time of crisis, and the solutions that are being used to tackle this crisis are actually making it worse. People all over the world express their frustration with politics and the present state of affairs, but are not able to offer genuine solutions. New economic and social models are urgently needed!


Branko said...


This is a great and extremely well-documented article. Thank you for writing it. I think that the situation in Hungary has not received sufficient attention in the rest of the European press, and certainly not within the EU. Of course, what is particularly worrisome is, while this is so far the most extreme, it is not the only example of populist-nationalist policies in Europe. It is also worrisome that such policies apparently enjoy the support of (at least) plurality of the population.

This is something which may be worth exploring: why are such (or similar) policies popular? Is it because of the crisis, because of the "democratic deficit" within the EU (remoteness of voters from the Brussels elites), generally disappointing transition from Communism, fear of globalization? In other words, just blaming these parties for the policies they pursue is not enough. Like any political entrepreneur, they pursue policies that people seem keen to vote for. We have to find out why people do so.

D. Mario Nuti said...

Supporting evidence from The Guardian:

I find it all terrible, and a pale picture of what could be Italy's future.

Gianni said...

Very worrying. So now we know where Berlusconi is planning to take us.

Clearly, with respect to Berlusconi, Orban has the advantage of a more accomodating President. But as far as one knows Orban has not been involved in bribing judges and witnesses, or in recruiting MPs from opposition parties as if they were footballers, or indicted for concussion and the prostitution of minors.

Bombo said...

Italian populism is not backed by many people - as Curzio Maltese reminds us in last Friday's supplement to Repubblica.

Berlusconi commands the support of a coalition of no more than 41-42% of the votes, i.e. no more than one third of those entitled to vote.

It is a minority dictatorship, aided and abetted by 1) the most illiberal manipulative electoral law awarding a substantial premium to the winning coalition; 2) an illegitimate TV monopoly; 3) arrogance and intolerance of the ruling minority and, last but not least, 3) the inanity and masochism of the opposition, split four-ways: Casini's centre, Bersani-Vendola-DiPietro centre-left, Grillo's protest vote, and Diliberto's post-communists. One could add to Maltese's list 4) the role of the Church, ready to sell its support or acquiescence for a handful of privileges.

Therefore the opposition might get up to 60% of the votes and still leave government and Presidency in the hands of the unspeakable ancient goat who is ruling us today.