Jeopardizing democracy in Hungary

Last week, I wrote about the result of “elections” in Belarus: Having failed to achieve a majority, President Alexander Lukashenko beat up the other candidates, arrested journalists and falsified poll results to take power. Belarus’s transition from communism to democracy has not merely failed: It has never taken place at all.

This week, I’m writing about the result of elections in Hungary, a country different from Belarus in almost every way. Hungary is a fully paid member of NATO and the European Union, a country with functioning political parties and a 20-year history of free elections. Hungary’s transition from communism to democracy has been an unmitigated success.

Yet in the past few months, Hungary has provided Europe with another example of how fragile democracy can be – even in a place where it works. If Belarus is cursed with a leader who is not popular enough to stay in power without violence, Hungary is now cursed with a leader who is too popular – or has too large a majority – and who can change his country’s laws and constitution to keep himself in power without any violence.

Indeed, when the authors of the American constitution worried about the “tyranny of the majority,” they might have had Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, in mind. Orban is no rogue: He is an intelligent and accomplished politician, a former anti-communist activist who has been prime minister before, and his center-right party, Fidesz, controls more than two-thirds of the Hungarian parliament for a good reason.

For the previous eight years, the country had been run by one of the most incompetent governments in Europe. Hungary’s Socialists ran up debt, evaded reforms and squirreled away money in foreign bank accounts. At one point, the former Socialist prime minister declared that he knew he had “lied” to the voters, and that only “divine providence, the abundance of cash in the world economy and hundreds of tricks” had kept the country afloat during his years in office. After a tape of that speech became public, there were riots in Budapest. In April, Hungary’s voters threw him out.

But victory wasn’t enough for Orban, who used his years out of power to plot his revenge against the journalists who didn’t support him, against the chattering classes who didn’t vote for him, and above all against his corrupt and incompetent opponents. Since taking office he has appointed a council to rewrite the constitution, deprived the national audit office of funding and stripped some of the powers of the country’s supreme court. More recently, his parliament passed a set of laws governing the media. It’s hard to say how they will work, given how vaguely they are written, but that is precisely the point: A new, state-run media council, composed entirely of Fidesz appointees, now has the right to impose fines of up to $1 million for journalism it considers “unbalanced,” whatever that means.

The council is also tasked with protecting “human dignity,” whatever that means. The law seems to aim to control not just Hungarian media but media available to Hungarians on the Internet or anywhere – a task that is impossible, as one watchdog points out, but that will require the creation of a massive system of surveillance and control anyway. There is even a government-mandated cap on “crime-related news,” which cannot take more than 20 percent of airtime – though the law does not define “crime” or state whether it includes government corruption.

Orban seems impervious to foreign criticism of this stunningly bad law, possibly because he’s been criticized too much in the past. I was in Budapest this month – I won a prize from Hungary’s museum of totalitarian history – and heard many complaints about unflattering coverage of Hungary in the international media. What Fidesz supporters really hate are stories that make liberal use of the word “fascism,” as well as those (usually in the German press, who love this kind of thing) featuring photographs of mustachioed men in elaborate uniforms, waving the national flag – as if all Hungarians looked like that.

I take their point: In fact, the real problem with this government is not its “fascism” but its uncontrolled contempt for its “liberal elite” and its “mainstream media.” This problem is not unique to Hungary. I can imagine plenty of American politicians would love to punish “unbalanced” journalists who oppose “human dignity.” The impulse to control what people are allowed to hear and to monitor what they write have their roots in the old left in this part of the world, not the new right. A friend, now suspended from his job at Hungarian national radio for opposing the media law, says the chilly atmosphere at a recent editorial meeting was “like the [Stalinist] ’50s” – except, of course, that it was funny, not scary, and no one was tortured afterward.

Orban grew up in a one-party state. His sense of history should prevent his party from building another one.

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