The economic crisis in Hungary has evolved into a political crisis, as Viktor Orban's FIDESZ government has passed a number of laws and initiatives that severely thwart democracy. Orban's populism has led his government to restrict press freedoms, undermine the balance of powers and silence opponents in the arts and academia by cutting institutional budgets, while claiming austerity. According to Attila Mesterházy, leader of the opposition Hungarian Socialist Party, the FIDESZ government's reforms do not serve the national interest and have harmed Hungary's reputation abroad during this crucial period when it holds the rotating EU presidency.
Mesterházy admitted that the previous Socialist governments have made mistakes. Now in the opposition, he has been careful to lead his party away from the temptation to oppose for the sake of opposing. In foreign policy, for instance, Mesterhazy said that his party agrees with up to 90 percent of the FIDESZ policy. Despite these areas of common interest, however, Mesterhazy spoke of Orban's unwillingness to cooperate with other parties, claiming that FIDESZ's electoral victory empowers him to act independently. In fact, the Hungarian electoral law is notorious for creating so-called "super-majorities," in which parties gain parliamentary seats in a greater proportion to the number of votes they actually received. While this creates stable governments, it also disproportionately increases the power of the ruling party. Mesterhazy contends that Orban is misusing that power, not just ignoring but silencing public opposition and further amplifying the deep divisions in Hungarian society.
Recent FIDESZ government initiatives have perhaps been most notorious for the new media law. The law created a Media Council (five officials appointed to nine-year terms) to determine whether media reports are balanced, family friendly, and Hungarian, without defining how these categories will be evaluated. The flexibility of interpretation, Mesterhazy claimed, enables the government to apply these norms arbitrarily, or to help them promote their own political goals. More than a blow to the freedom of the press, this law illustrates how the government is dismantling the democratic balance of power and the rule of law.
During the last eight months FIDESZ has been in power, the Constitution has been amended ten times. Recently, Parliament has initiated a project to rewrite the constitution altogether. Although the Socialist Party was initially part of the committee, when Mesterhazy realized that no opposition party would be able to have an impact on the process, he withdrew his party from the process, as did other opposition parties. FIDESZ is now poised to singlehandedly remake the Hungarian government institutions, without input from the opposition and without a national debate.
Mesterhazy argued that Orban's populist policies will do little to address the country's mounting economic and financial crisis, and will impede international investment. He imposed a so-called "crisis tax" which has created the highest taxes in Europe. Moreover, his tax policies are not neutrally applied, with international companies forced to pay larger taxes than Hungarian firms.
Mesterhazy lamented the effects this legislation will have on Hungary and on its image abroad. He intends to rebuild the Hungarian Socialist Party, while opposing FIDESZ's destruction of the rule of law and democracy and its faulty economic policies. Mesterházy quoted President Woodrow Wilson, saying that "The history of liberty is a history of resistance."
In his comments, Charles Gati compared the FIDESZ government to the Tea Party movement in America: "it is angry, upset, and claims that everyone else is either stupid or a traitor." FIDESZ's leader Orbán considers himself to be right-wing, Christian, and "nemzeti," which Gati described as "not as provocative as a nationalist, but not as warm as patriotic." Gati puts Orban in the category of populist-nationalist leaders who have emerged over the last decade in postcommunist Europe, which includes Vladimir Meciar and Robert Fico from Slovakia, and the Kaczynski brothers in Poland. In contrast to Poland, however, the problem in Hungary is that it lacks a true center-right party to confront FIDESZ, Gati claimed.
Although Gati said that he did not share Mesterhazy's ideology and is not a socialist, he did agree with him that the media law is only the tip of the iceberg. Gati characterized Orban as a brilliantly-skilled politician, who is able to adjust to a variety of audiences at home and abroad. He has used his power to punish people who oppose him, and has changed the directors of the National Opera and Theater, as well as shutting down academic institutions, all in the name of economic austerity. Gati said that the implementation of the media law will push Hungary away from being a "Western-style democracy," and toward a "managed democracy." The country's foreign policy orientation, which looks favorably at retrograde patterns, the domestic policy defined by arbitrary tax laws and infringement on freedom of speech, characterize the government as anti-conservative, populist and anachronistic. "If Hungary was now a candidate for the EU or NATO," Gati said, "its accession would be delayed."
Drafted by Kristina Terzieva, Program Assistant and Nida Gelazis, Senior Associate, European Studies
Christian F. Ostermann, Director, European Studies