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March 24, 2023

Hungary: Temptation of authoritarianism

The sovereign debt crisis in the eurozone as well as the ‘Arab spring’ with its anticipated or not consequences – including a genuine civil war in Syria which seems to be gaining size, alongside a remarkable shift to Islamist governing in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but also a crisis of considerable proportion in the Iranian nuclear file – has put developments in Central Europe into a shadow cone. This part of the European continent has been a star of international media ever since the end of the Cold War, having experienced a difficult and historically unprecedented transition from communist totalitarianism to liberal democracy and from planned economy to a free market. However, developments like the ones mentioned above have lately moved the focus of attention to other spots in Europe and on the planet.

If it hadn’t been for Hungary and what is going on there, the situation wouldn’t have changed in the near future or on a medium term. And not because this is a place outside history, where nothing happens, but because the big changes are now taking place elsewhere, in countries where the ‘street’ imposes another political leadership and where the price of oil and even the balance in the Middle East are at sake, like in the Strait of Hormuz.

But what is happening in Hungary? Almost without notice – although there were quite numerous initial signs – the policy of the centre-right government headed by Viktor Orban, which, under the Hungarian election law, leads the country with over two thirds of the seats in parliament, although the supporting political coalition won little over 50 per cent in election, has come under international scrutiny. Some of the measures taken by the government in the last year, especially the adoption of the new Constitution where the country is no longer called a republic but simply Hungary and the government takes on unusual powers of control over the media, judiciary and central bank, have set in motion of wave of protest in the international mass-media, inter-government bodies or high-ranking political personalities. One of them is the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, already a few months ago, was characterising the conduct of the Hungarian government that had appropriated a good part of the ruling levers as raising ‘significant and well-founded concerns’ about the observance of democratic rules and balance among the various powers of the state. This huge wave of international criticism also coinciding with mass protests in Hungary in the recent weeks also happens in the context of an unprecedented slump of the national currency. Three international rating agencies have downgraded Hungary’s credit to the ‘junk’ category in the last few days, which gloomily pushes the country in the direction of default, situation that convinced the Orban Government to approach the IMF and negotiate a rescue financial package.

A noteworthy fact is that Viktor Orban was an anti-communism fighter and, yet, his subsequent evolution has been a disappointment. Well-known Polish dissident Adam Michnik who knows Orban well did not hesitate to call him in a column published by Polish ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ newspaper a threat not only to Hungary, but for the entire Central Europe. A threat represented, amidst economic difficulties and financial crisis, by the resort to populism and deterioration of the democratic climate by fostering the emergence of basic political instincts and temptation to hog power of groups devoted to ethnic exclusiveness and fascinated with the phantasms of the past which, prior to the WWII, were responsible for the instauration of dictatorship with various hues and flourishing of aggressive nationalism.

The huge wave of international criticism has been received by some of the political community and public in Hungary as mingling in the country’s internal affairs. Worth mentioning that, in an article signed by Charles Gati, the Hungarian Prime-Minister Viktor Orban is depicted in an imaginary and highly sparkling conversation as someone adored by his fans because he resists such foreign interferences. Orban’s successive political changes are presented in the conversation in the following manner: ‘In the 1990s he was a liberal anti-Communist, but three members of his current eight-man cabinet used to belong to the pre-1989 Communist Party. He was once an atheist, but he’s now a Calvinist. At times, however, he attends a Catholic church. Politically, he now defines himself as Christian, right-wing and nationalist.’

It suffices to read the forum posts by Hungarian readers of various press articles criticising the Budapest government’s sliding down the slope of authoritarianism and populism to realise that the imagined conversation actually captures a few sad realities. Here is one such comment:  ‘Of course some critics are well founded, as there is no perfect government, but saying that Hungary is on the way to autocracy is going way too far. What bothers all those critics is the windfall tax on banks and multinationals. Perhaps it may be feared that other countries could follow suit?’ And the following are comments made on a December 26, 2011’ Washington Post’ article signed by Jakson Diehl and meaningfully titled ‘Autocracy returns to Central Europe’: ‘Mr. Diehl and others in the press should first look at what is happening in the United States regarding an emergent autocracy and the complete eroding of democratic values and practices.’; or ‘A freely elected two third majority government is certainly no autocracy but democracy. Now you call Hungarian people autocrats. Remember the first 3 words: “WE THE PEOPLE’; or ‘We in Hungary have no real opposition to the Orban Government then do we? Please explain what can be done? Maybe Washington should expand their CIA base in Hungary, and start governing Hungary as well? ‘; ’Now I am not saying that what PM Orban is right or wrong, but he has the Audacity to do what he feels will improve the countries chances of survival in this terrible time. Is it going to help?? Nobody really knows, but can it get much worse?’ etc. Many comments have an anti-Semite and xenophobic racist content and were removed by the moderator.

International concerns about today’s developments in Hungary are obviously motivated. Being a part of the European Union means assuming the values of freedom and human rights, turning your back on a past of hatred and war that have caused so much grief to the nations of this continent.

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