I hate writing this article. Since I oppose the alarming authoritarian developments in my country and am pleading for the restoration of civil liberties, I might appear to be what I definitely am not: someone who thinks that the 21st-century European variant of liberal democracy is a political order which can and should be kept alive unchanged.
Nobody wants to go back to the world of chaos, poverty, corruption, petty squabbles, servility, venality, commercialism, contempt for the plebs, inequality and hypocrisy ushered in by 1989, that legendary year of our hopes. As one of the founding fathers of the Hungarian Republic, I am far from feeling proud.
Also, I would not want to speak in the name of a nebulous “Europeanness” in the Europe of Sarkozy, Berlusconi, Bossi, Geert Wilders and Horst “multiculturalism-is-dead” Seehofer. Not many people would welcome criticism from the EU with its idiotic policies of impossibly low deficit targets, its imposition of austerity measures, public-sector downsizing and general social-state dismantling and its creation of immense problems for the poorer and weaker member states. The Hungarian story is an educational and cautionary tale which shows how fragile European bourgeois democracies have become at this moment of disarray and decadence. In the absence of social solidarity and cohesion based on justice, citizens can hardly be expected to rise in the defence of liberal institutions, checks and balances, separation of powers and the rest.
Since April 2010, when the Hungarian right achieved its two-thirds majority in parliament, and especially after September, when after the local elections they got to fill 93% of the village, town and city mayoral posts and get a majority on all regional councils, including the capital, there has been feverish legislative action that may have changed Hungary for ever. Mr Orbán’s government – after symbolic actions, for example, Acts of Parliament solemnly condemning the Treaty of Trianon, offering Hungarian citizenship to the Hungarian minorities in the neighbouring countries and obliging all state institutions and public buildings to emblazon on their walls the foundational statement of the new regime, the Declaration of National Co-operation (the regime itself is officially called the System of National Co-operation, and the government is called the Government of National Causes) has changed electoral laws to make it more difficult for smaller parties to stand for parliament, castrated the Constitutional Court, appointed right-wing politicians at the helm of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (for nine years!), the General Accounting Office, all county legal offices; reorganised the secret services and created a new Anti-Terrorism Centre with extended powers, headed by Mr Orbán’s former personal bodyguard. It has changed the leading personnel of all state offices, including permanent, formerly non-political, administrative appointments, especially in the police, tax and customs offices and the army. It has introduced a law according to which all civil servants (functionaries) can be fired at will, without any justification whatever and moreover can be hired without any specific professional qualifications. Corruption investigations and trials have been launched against former officials, actions which in general may be acceptable or even salutary, but the targets here are, without exception, socialist or liberal politicians.
New educational laws are either being passed or are being prepared, which reinforce discipline and make exams more difficult; school inspectors’ powers have been enlarged; there are measures aimed at the separation of elite schools from the others and at the reduction of the number of university students; a national conservative curriculum and agenda are being introduced in the areas of history and the humanities. But national “pedagogy” does not stop here: social assistance can be granted only to those who possess “an orderly living environment” (this allows local government to block social aid to indigent, but unpopular, strata and minorities); in the case of some public employees, the state is permitted to undertake investigations checking their “irreproachable private conduct”, including that of their family members; petty theft is punished irrespective of its insignificant material value, and in such cases even minors are threatened with severe punishment; a “three-strikes-you’re-out” legislation, Texas-style, has also been introduced. As a result, the state had to reopen already closed prisons, including the ill-famed former State Security Prison in Gyorskocsi utca in Budapest’s Second District.
Even before the elections, conservative heads of academic institutions started wholesale, politically tinged purges, and these continue unabated. Two important research institutions previously sponsored by the state, the 1956 Institute and the Institute for Political History, have seen their funds withdrawn; they may well have to close down altogether. All universities are in safe conservative hands. Theatre managers have been replaced with traditionalist conservatives, avant-garde theatre will be replaced by operetta. Alternative and fringe theatres have lost their funding. The complete funding of the Hungarian film industry has been cut. We are told that book publishing is the next in line. All this is being followed by the infamous media law – extensively reported in the international press – that, apart from overt political censorship of content, allows the government to ruin media outlets with fines freely imposed by the new Media Authority whose head, another right-wing politician, is appointed for nine years and who will have the power to distribute radio frequencies (wavelengths) and to censor internet content. But this is nothing compared to what I call positive censorship, that is, the ability of the state to force media to publish or broadcast news and comments pertaining to “matters of national importance” or otherwise face penalties. Fines (in millions) can be meted out to media if they violate the sensitivity of minorities or majorities. The Media Authority will be the judge of this. Public broadcasting is centralised: news for public radio and television will be created exclusively by a new centre located in the state news agency and by nobody else. The new heads of all public channels have been appointed: they are all right-wing journalists, mostly coming from right-wing talk radio and right or extreme-right cable television. Hundreds have been, or are expected to be, fired from public broadcasting.
The right to strike has been severely curtailed. The mediation rights of trade unions are openly ignored. Social legislation is redirecting transfers from the poor to the white and young middle class. A flat tax is being introduced favouring the richest; indirect (consumption) taxes are being brutally raised.
Mainstream criticism of the System of National Co-operation is ineffective, for it is perceived as favouring the previous government characterised by neoconservative social and economic policies (deeply and deservedly unpopular) combined with a liberal façade, a superficial pluralism and tolerance which appear to many as irrelevant and perverse games played by out-of-touch urban elites. There is no mourning of democracy, since almost no one thought they were living in a democracy. The judiciary and the police haven’t just begun today to be unfair, unjust, brutal and inept.
The Orbán government was, it is true, extremely successful in dividing and quashing extreme-right paramilitary groups, putting a stop to an attempt to start indigenous racist and fascist terrorism – albeit with questionable police state methods which were not, of course, in this case criticised by liberals. The Roma question is treated as a problem of criminality, with racial segregation openly advocated by the right (integration programmes in the educational system have been terminated). Questions of race or ethnicity have disappeared from public discussion; the remaining centre-left has given up on them as hopeless. “Anti-fascism is villainy”, declared a leading conservative columnist, university lecturer and editor of a prestigious monthly.
This is where we are at the moment. There is no way back to the unsuccessful and unpopular liberal era, and an alternative to the new authoritarian order is not yet visible.