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Is Hungary Backtracking On Democracy?

  • Charles Recknagel

A man holds a banner with a sinking ship of the ruling Fidesz party in front of the state opera in Budapest on January 2.

A man holds a banner with a sinking ship of the ruling Fidesz party in front of the state opera in Budapest on January 2.

Tens of thousands of Hungarians have taken to the streets of Budapest over constitutional and other changes they say dramatically roll back democracy in the country.

The target of their anger is Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has used his two-thirds "supermajority" control of the parliament to steadily tighten government control over the judiciary, central bank, and the media.

The protesters, shouting "Orban, get lost," massed outside Budapest's state opera house late on January 2 as Orban's ruling Fidesz party held a gala celebration inside.

They also called the prime minister "Viktator," as they accused him of leading the European Union and NATO member nation toward dictatorship.

One of the protesters, trade union leader Kornel Arok, said the constitutional changes and a host of new laws passed in recent months are moving Hungary away from multiparty democracy.

"The main problem with the constitution is that it is destroying the constitutional order, and the new Basic Law is basically a one-party Basic Law," Arok said.

Ignoring Criticism

The changes, which went into effect on January 1, have drawn sharp criticism outside the county, particularly from Budapest's Western partners.

When Orban pushed through new legislation curbing the power of Hungary's independent national bank president and giving more power instead to a government-appointed monetary council, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso requested he reverse the measures. Orban ignored the advice.

A man holds up a sign during a protest in central Budapest.

A man holds up a sign during a protest in central Budapest.

He similarly ignored warnings from both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and Brussels over new regulations giving the government the power to appoint bank deputies.

The government equally brushed off international criticism when it forced scores of the country's judges to take early retirement. The power to replace the judges now rests in the hands of just one person, Judge Tunde Hando, who is the wife of a European Parliament member from Orban's Fidesz party.

The government has weakened the media by using its control of the Media Council to award the frequency of a popular opposition radio station -- Klubradio -- to another company. Journalists in many organizations now complain they face increasing pressure from pro-government editors to limit criticism of the prime minister.

The tightening government control over the judiciary and press prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week to write a letter saying Washington has "significant and well-founded concerns" over trends in the country. She urged Orban to protect individual liberties and checks and balances.

Orban's Hungary

Orban, who rose to prominence as a popular anticommunist, has defended his changes as necessary to complete the country's transition to a fully functioning democracy.

But some amendments have raised charges that he is seeking to permanently imprint his own values on Hungary.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban

The controversial changes include renaming the country from the Republic of Hungary to simply Hungary and citing the influence of God and Christianity.

Another provision essentially withdraws official recognition and tax-exempt status from more than 300 religious denominations, denying any official place in society for Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu congregations unless they have operated in Hungary for at least 20 years.

At the same time, the amendments appear to try to preempt debate over abortion by stating that life begins at conception, and to preempt debate over same-sex marriage by declaring marriage a union between a man and woman.

Tumbling Support

In the face of street protests, the question is how long Orban can hang on to the popular support he rode to power in 2010, when he won a landslide victory by promising "a new social contract" and to create 1 million new jobs.

Those 1 million new jobs have yet to materialize, and last month Fidesz's public support fell below 20 percent. Hungary's foundering economy shows little sign of improving. Just before the new year, the international ratings agency Moody's downgraded Hungarian government bonds to "junk" status, indicating investors have lost faith in Budapest's ability to reliably repay future loans.

That makes Budapest more dependent than ever upon the IMF and EU to get through its economic crisis. But both have broken off talks with Orban's government over a new bailout, as they oppose the prime minister's tightening control over the Hungarian National Bank.

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