Two opinions: a pessimistic and an optimistic

Both appeared today by two people who are actually close associates in the leadership of the Magyar Demokratikus Charta. Yet they see the future differently. Tamás Bauer, an economist and political commentator, is convinced that a one-party system is being built, and where is a one-party system there is dictatorship. On the other hand, Mária Vásárhelyi, although she also thinks that Fidesz is striving to achieve complete dominance, believes that in a democratic system there are certain boundaries that cannot be overstepped. Sooner or later the electorate that didn't vote for Viktor Orbán's "revolution" but for the return of the easy welfare state of the Kádár regime will be disappointed enough to vote Fidesz out of office.

I agree with Tamás Bauer that Fidesz's activities in the last thirty days indicate that Orbán's plan is to run the entire country according to his vision, a vision that is anything but democratic. Bauer starts the list of Orbán's sins with the nomination of judges to the constitutional court. I don't think that the Hungarian people have realized yet that the power of the constitutional court is greater than that of parliament.

Bauer then continues with the possible appointment of a Fidesz insider as the head of the accounting office. I said "possible appointment" because the outcry over this appointment is great and growing. Not just because László Domokos has been a faithful party boss in his district and a member of parliament ever since 1998 but because it came to light that he has taken liberties when it came to accounting. In plain language, his financial affairs are questionable. For the time being Orbán says that he is committed to Domokos's appointment, but that may change if the pressure is too great. However, Bauer says, if Domokos is appointed the accounting office will strongly resemble the Central People's Supervisory Council of the Kádár regime; it will supervise everything except the government.

Bauer continues with the appointment of the president who, according to rumors, will be Pál Schmitt, a devoted follower of Fidesz. He will be like István Dobi or Pál Losonczi who were "presidents" in the Kádár regime. They were appointed by the party and were figureheads. Schmitt will submit to parliament Orbán's choices for chief prosecutor, chief justice of the supreme court, and ombudsmen. It is also unlikely that he will give the government grief by sending laws too often to the constitutional court. Though if the members of the constitutional court are picked by Fidesz, sending the proposed bill for review to the court would be a pretty useless exercise anyway.

Then there is the question of the elections committee. Currently the law stipulates that members of the committee serve for four years, until the next national elections. However, Fidesz is planning to change the law and get rid of the whole elections committee and replace it with new hand-picked people immediately. This newly created body is supposed to oversee the local elections to be held in October.

Currently the party that wins the elections governs but doesn't have unlimited power because of the checks and balances that were built into the political system in 1989. Independent offices are supposed to limit the government's power. They include the president of the republic, the head of the accounting office, the chairman of the national bank, the constitutional court, and the ombudsmen. But if all these positions are filled by the government party there are no longer any checks and balances. And, Bauer continues, where there are no checks and balances there is no democracy.

"In which regime are all the important positions filled by the government party? In a one-party system…. And the one-party system means dictatorship."

Mária Vásárhelyi is a great deal more optimistic, and I tend to agree with her. She doesn't think that in the long run the "one-party system" outlined by Tamás Bauer can be maintained. She bases her argument on the premise that even people who voted for Fidesz didn't want the kind of "revolution" that Viktor Orbán is offering. Moreover, the current government's aggressiveness sooner or later will be rejected by the electorate. "What they are doing now is counterproductive." Fidesz voters didn't vote for what's going on right now. "People voted for the Kádár regime because no one told them yet that the Kádár regime cannot return. If for nothing else because there is no one to finance it. Fidesz duped the electorate and the people fell for it. This show will go on for a few more months but then the voters will reach for their wallets and when they feel that they are just as flat as before they will start thinking."

Vásárhelyi admits that because the media will be in Fidesz hands the awakening may take longer but eventually those on minimum wages, those who took out loans in foreign currencies, those working in the public sector, and the pensioners will realize that they lost out on the deal. They will discover that they aren't living any better than they did a year ago. And one ought to take into consideration the aggressiveness and cockiness of the Fidesz politicians. (I might add that according to analysts the electorate rejected Viktor Orbán and crew in 2002 not so much because they lived worse than they had four years earlier but because they found the government's style obnoxious and actually felt threatened by the language they used.)

There is also the question of freedom. The Kádár regime's existence was based on an unspoken contract between the party leadership and the populace. The people gave up their freedom in exchange for security. Security, according to Vásárhelyi, is perhaps more important than material well-being. The people had modest expectations that were more or less fulfilled. The majority could buy a television, freezer, refrigerator and what not. But Orbán cannot offer that kind of security in exchange for a lack of freedom. Moreover, the younger people take freedom for granted and will be "very irritated" if someone tries to take that freedom away. Especially if the government attempts to interfere with the absolute freedom of the Internet as they are threatening to do.

Vásárhelyi expects an erosion within the party as well as among its followers. She doesn't think that Fidesz is as homogeneous as it seems from the outside. I talked yesterday about the first crack in the unity of the right-of-center intelligentsia when the leaders of "Sólyom for president" movement were rebuffed by Pál Schmitt.

Although Vásárhelyi has no illusions about the influence of the European Union, she points out that after all Viktor Orbán who had earlier defiantly announced that Barroso was not his boss had to crawl back to Hungary with his tail between his legs. Barroso was not impressed with Orbán's bravado. That kind of politicking might float in Budapest but it makes no impression in Brussels. The outside world watches, and even if the leaders of the European Union or the United States cannot directly intervene they can make it clear to Orbán & Co. that certain measures, like the media law, are unacceptable in a democratic country that belongs to the European Union. And, by the way, I might mention here that there are already signs that the government is retreating a bit on the issue. András Cser-Palkovics announced today that they will certainly talk to media professionals about their objections to the bill as it stands currently. Earlier there was no talk about such consultation.

I think Mária Vásárhelyi is right although few people in liberal circles share her optimism. One can add that the very rocky beginnings of the second Orbán government, especially the irresponsible statements by leading government and party officials that roiled markets worldwide, tarnished the prime minister's reputation abroad. I suspect that after this huge gaffe he will be watched much more carefully than he would have been otherwise and that his "undemocratic" moves will be tolerated less than otherwise they might have been. All in all, this honeymoon might be shorter than Orbán hoped for. He was talking about twelve happy years in power, another Fidesz politician muttered something about twenty years. Right now the government is certainly not in danger but we will see what happens in four years, especially if the anti-Fidesz forces get together.

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Odin's Lost eye
When the Lunatics have taken over the asylum it is every man for himself. As we see Fidesz is beginning the formation of a perpetual (they hope) one party state. There are two missing ‘Offices of Control’ which I will outline. The first is a ‘Political Party and Candidacy Office’ which is supposed to prevent the appearance of extremist parties (or anything else/people that Fidesz objects to). The second is a quasi judicial commission to examine all acts of members of the previous government. Hungary has again shot its self in the foot and Europe will have to clean up the mess and pick up the pieces. As our good hostess writes *** “The outside world watches, and even if the leaders of the European Union or the United States cannot directly intervene they can make it clear to Orbán & Co. that certain measures, like the new ‘Media Law’, are unacceptable in a democratic country that belongs to the European Union” **. Whilst I agree with this statement, there are all sorts of pressures they can exert. Unfortunately Orban Viktor, the ‘All Highest of Fidesz’ (and now of Hungary) is blinded by his own ideas of his own importance… Read more »
Pete H.

Eva, can you elaborate on the proposed restrictions of internet freedoms.

Eva S. Balogh

To Pete, As far as I can figure it out the new law would also apply to online papers. That is the on-line editions of printed papers and papers that appear only on-line. And there are many of those. For example, Origo, Index, Stop, Hírszerző and countless more. I also read something about papers with servers abroad but the majority of their editors reside in Hungary. They would have jurisdiction over these publications as well.
But I’m just thinking aloud now. What on earth are they going to do with Hungarian-language papers published outside of Hungary? For example, Hungarian online papers in Slovakia, Romania or even in the United States. I think the whole idea is a nightmare.


I can imagine already what a field day Mr. Bartus, the editor of the Nepszava in New York, is going to have with this law.
He is not one to trifle with and his paper is outside of any and all jurisdiction Fidesz could possibly vindicate to itself.

Odin's Lost eye

Thanks to the other contributors I have had second thoughts about Fidesz’s recent legislative activities. Since they have a hyper majority they have either forgotten to think things through or they are so egocentric that they believe that world outside Hungary does not exist. Is this attitude something a left over from the old Austro-Hungarian Empire? Apart from The All Highest of Fidesz and now Hungary (Orban Viktor) who spent a few weeks in Oxford how many of the other Top Brass have lived (not Holidayed) in the West?
If Fidesz is not careful they will make Hungary an isolated country akin to North Korea. Will they threaten to bombard Bratislava, sap Sap or curry Kormano if Europe does or says something the All Highest of Fidesz and now Hungary does not like?

Eva: “What on earth are they going to do with Hungarian-language papers published outside of Hungary? For example, Hungarian online papers in Slovakia, Romania or even in the United States.” This, of course, is where the law can be circumvented by an enterprising anti-FIDESZ publisher. The European Union guarantees the free and unrestricted movement of products. Therefore anyone who wished to circumvent this law could simply move their printing presses, and place of publication outside Hungary, and there would be nothing – at least not without breaking their accession treaty to the EU – that the government could do to stop them. However, print is a dying medium, and it is likely to be circumvented more by Hungarian sites located out of Hungary. I lived in Hungary during the Antall-Boross administration when cable television was used as a means of by-passing state control of MTV. Everyone decided MTV was a government mouthpiece and simply switched to the small cable providers. Given the net and the ability to locate editorial offices beyond the scope of the law the opportunities to do this are much greater. What FIDESZ is most likely to do is, of course, to kill of the domestic newspaper… Read more »
“They will discover that they aren’t living any better than they did a year ago.” At the moment most of the population is giving the government the benefit of the doubt, but this is their problem. There remains considerable anger related to the economic situation, and even the government is beginning to admit what we have long known: that the Hungarian economy is in a difficult situation, and there is very little scope for anything other than policies that lead to further reductions in average living standards. Matolcsy admitted as much on Thurday: The second problem they face is anger at corruption, and the sense that politicians have ruined the country. This, for the moment, plays against the MSZP, and in Budapest at least, the remains of the SZDSZ. But from the perspective of say, Debrecen, the extent of responsibility for the crippling indebtedness of the municipality lies with the local FIDESZ administration. And it is not only in Debrecen where FIDESZ controlled local authority have “supported” businesses close to them; or engaged in questionable financing mechanism to support infrastructural projects. In this context, FIDESZ’s radicalism in driving forward their own agenda is going to hasten their downfall. Redistributing… Read more »

Of course, has been peddling its racist smut from the safe shores of the United States for years in order to circumvent tougher European hate speech laws. Orban can legislate all he likes, but unless he will start building a Hungarian “Great Firewall” like China, he will stand litte chance of exercising any influence over the net.


And even the experience of Putin’s Russia suggests that regimes with highly authoritarian aspirations find it difficult to control the media in today’s climate:
If Orbán attempts to turn Hungary into a copy of Belarus I think this will founder given its proximity to western Europe, and the considerable support for “democratic” values among the population.