22 March 2016

Hungarians must unite to save their democracy

By Máté Hajba & Patrick Hannaford

Late February, on an otherwise quiet Tuesday morning, a group of thugs occupied the Hungarian National Election Office. They were there to stop members of an opposition party submitting their referendum proposal.

Such congregations are never a good sign in Hungary. They highlight the growing influence of the far-right, which openly venerates the Nazi regimes of world war II.

But these thugs weren’t connected to the neo-fascist Jobbik party, they were acting on behalf of the governing Fidesz party, which is increasingly taking an authoritarian approach.

This is a serious threat to Hungarian democracy, and if the Hungarian people don’t unite against it, their democracy may be gone for good.

It’s well known that Fidesz opposes western style democracy, defined by rule of law, checks and balances, and civil rights. In 2014, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán openly declared his plan to turn Hungary into an “illiberal democracy”, based on Russia, Turkey, and China – a statement that lead Senator John McCain to describe Prime Minister Orbán as a “neo-fascist dictator”.

Orbán and Fidesz have been strenuously implementing this plan since taking office in 2010. They have tampered with election laws, tailoring the process and gerrymandering constituencies to retain their two-thirds majority in 2014. They have centralized power throughout society, creating new government bureaucracies and nationalizing private industries. Worst of all, they have curtailed the powers of the constitutional court, so that nothing can challenge the government’s frenzy.

This approach is already causing problems.

Thousands of students and teachers are protesting the new national curriculum, which has placed schools under the control of a centralized government agency, eliminating their autonomy and leaving them without basic supplies of pens and paper. The country’s healthcare system is crumbling; hospitals are in disrepair, and patients are more likely to die from an infection in hospital, than in a car crash. And corruption has become so ingrained that even the EU’s anti-corruption funding was embezzled.

Fidesz is still the most popular party, but their proposed laws are increasingly meeting resistance. Plans to tax the internet, for example, were abandoned after tens of thousands took the the streets in protest.

But this resistance hasn’t altered their approach. The government has continued to clamp down on private industry, proposing to ban Uber, and forcing shops to close on Sundays.

It was this Sunday trading issue that caused the latest thuggish tactics.

In order to oppose the measure, the fragmented opposition called for a referendum. However, when representatives of the Hungarian Socialist Party, the biggest left-wing group, went to submit their proposal to the National Election Office, they were actively thwarted by a gang of thugs.

These men were there to ensure the referendum was proposed by a Fidesz loyalist – in this case, the wife of a local mayor – rather than a member of the opposition. This enabled Fidesz to retain control of the process, and even withdraw the referendum when they see fit – since under Hungarian law, the first person to hand in a referendum proposal is allowed to move forward with it.

The current left-wing opposition is unable to combat these tactics. They are preoccupied with infighting and plagued by incompetence, and the opposition parties on the right are even worse.

The far-right Jobbik party, currently second in the polls, are infamous for racism and anti-semitism. In 2012 their deputy group leader Márton Gyöngyösi called for the creation of a list of Jews, because they pose a “national security risk.” Ironically, Gyöngyösi hasn’t been as concerned about the national security risk posed by Jobbik’s own european MP Béla Kovács, who is under investigation for allegedly being a Russian spy.

This collection of disorganized and extremist opposition groups allows Fidesz’s rule to effectively go unchallenged. Hungarian democracy is dying as a result.

Hungary needs a viable opposition that can appeal to all supporters of liberal-democracy. Sensible parties of both left and right must put aside their differences and unite to oppose the creeping authoritarianism of Fidesz, and the outright fascists of the far-right.

There is simply no alternative. Fidesz are already proposing to amend the constitution for the sixth time, granting themselves special powers in the case of a terror threat – a term which is nowhere defined. This would grant the government control over the media, extensive internet surveillance powers, and the ability to ban public demonstrations.

Only a new centrist party, bringing together all parties that favour western democracy, can stop this. Hungarians must resist the growing authoritarianism, or risk losing their democracy altogether.

Máté Hajba is the director of the Free Market Foundation, a Hungarian think tank, and an Advocate with Young Voices. Patrick Hannaford is Editor of Young Voices, and an Australian writer based in Washington DC.