Wed Jan 4th, 2012 at 03:34:00 AM EST
A new constitution created by Hungary's right-wing government of PM Viktor Orbán's right-populist Fidesz party took effect on 1 January 2012. It is the culmination of a legal coup that de facto abolished the separation of powers, replaced the republic with a state based on blood-and-earth nationalism and clericalism, cemented a crazy mix of economic policies, and effectively created a one-party state; but the only part that elicited significant protest abroad was the elimination of central bank independence.
On 2 January, the government held a lavish celebration of the new constitution in Budapest's Opera House – while a mass protest supported by all anti-government NGOs and non-far-right opposition parties was held outside (also attended by yours truly).
Europe and its public discourse are in the grip of austerity, but the events in Hungary don't easily fit into its narratives. Perhaps "what comes after austerity" is the best connection: the cycle of austerity started here well before the Global Financial Crisis, and the current powers-that-be rode popular discontent with a Socialist government toeing the IMF line. Fidesz's focus however is not on the economy but on total power, and their programme of takeover started over a decade ago. This is the same phase as the era of the Kaczyński twins in Poland, except Orbán won't lose power easily.
Below the fold, a summary of the situation and a protest report.
Fidesz started out in 1988 as a left-liberal youth party, established by a clique of college hot-shots (who remained in control ever since as the party's inner cabal). Sometime in the last months of Hungary's first elected (and center-right) government they decided that they want power more than ideals, and saw a gap opening on the right – thus they decided to give Fidesz a right-wing makeover.
Fidesz won the 1998 elections. Already in the time of the first Orbán government, Fidesz tried to occupy every lever of power (leaving behind quite partisan soldiers in positions like chief prosecutor or the public radio and television media boards) and attempted to absorb all other right-wing parties and movements, most notably the far-right forces. That attempt ultimately failed, but enough anti-semites and chauvinists remained in Fidesz to conserve Fidesz's lack of cordon sanitaire indefinitely.
Fidesz lost the next two elections, but tried to thwart the Socialist-led governments every way possible, again most notably by making use of the far-right. But the governing 'Left' was just no match, they disintegrated under the weight of corruption scandals, the choice of inept leaders and damaging policies, and the misery caused by austerity measures. In fact Fidesz could even employ leftist populism borrowed from the altermondialists and Latin America – of course in a nationalist framing replacing the socialist one.
True to the eternally popular self-delusions of false dichotomy and "it can't get worse than this", in 2010, an absolute majority of voters chose Fidesz (and another 17% chose a fascist party Fidesz failed to absorb, Jobbik). Due to Hungary's mixed but non-proportional election system, this majority resulted in a two-thirds majority for Fidesz (and its potemkin Christian Democrat coalition partner) in the unicameral parliament. Two-thirds, the qualified majority needed to change key laws and the constitution itself.
The legal coup
In the past year and half, Fidesz's parliamentary majority enacted literally hundreds of laws to re-shape the state in its image. These are tailor-made laws like we know from Berslusconi, except Berlusconi never had the super-majority to cement everything in a way that no future government can change it (if it manages to defeat Fidesz in an election at all). Let me give a short summary (well not so short but the list could be much longer) of some key points:
The opposition movements
- "Streamlining" lawmaking: laws were rushed through parliament with next to no debate, with wide-reaching last-minute amendments. The most significant changes, among them modifications of the not yet effective new constitution, were voted through in marathon parliamentary sessions timed for when the population has the least time for politics: 23 and 30 December. In fact a new change of parliamentary law allowed for the last batch of votes with zero debate.
- Castration of the Constitutional Court: the Constitutional Court was Hungary's main check on lawmakers, tossing out many an obscene law. Fidesz changed the way members are chosen, stuffed the court with loyalists, greatly limited when and who can make an appeal, and turned some laws thrown out by the court into constitutional amendments (which contradict the rest of the constitution). To top it off, all on-going procedures were quashed at the end of last year.
- Elimination of the independence of the judiciary: the wife of a Fidesz leader was appointed to the newly created position of the Chief of the National Judicial Office, which has the sole power to name, promote or demote, and move judges; without any checks or balances. In addition, the top judge was removed with a legal trick, and several senior judges by a temporary lowering of the age limit by eight years.
- Demolishing the main opposition party via the courts: already during its previous reign, Fidesz turned the office of the Chief Prosecutor into a most potent weapon: its 2000-2006 holder, Péter Polt, could prevent Fidesz's own corruption and other scandals from reaching the courts and advance cases with the weakest footing against political opponents. Right after taking power in 2010, Fidesz began to seek data it can use to try top Socialists (I saw a confidential email to my company bosses myself) and brought Polt back as Chief Prosecutor. So far, however, they had little success. The pettiest case that they managed to start is against former public funds state secretary László Keller, for improper data handling – in acquiring the list of Polt's hunting partners, which included persons under investigation, back in 2004. (BTW, back then Keller lost his state secretary post over the case: some oligarchs on the list were on good terms with Socialist leaders, too.) So now the next move was to declare the former communist Party a criminal organisation (equating it with the Nazis) and the current Socialists their legally culpable successors. This opens the way for new trials, and one Fidesz MP already called for the banning of the Socialists.
- Elections you can't lose: gerrymandering election districts in a way that would have given Fidesz a majority in all of the last four elections was just one step. The previously independent Election Commission (which controls both the candidate process and the vote count) was also replaced by a body stuffed with political loyalists.
- Perpetuation of power even if elections are lost: Fidesz didn't just change laws that require two-thirds majority, but changed a lot of previously simple-majority laws into two-thirds majority ones. The hurdles for changing the constitution are even higher. A lot of the new strong positions staffed with political appointees got very long terms in office, some of them getting an automatic second term unless a replacement gets two-thirds majority, thus some could stay in power for 18(!) years. And if all else fails against a post-Fidesz government, there is the new Budget Commission: nominally to protect the new constitutional requirement of a balanced budget, it can kill annual budget drafts, forcing new elections.
- Cementing an insane economic policy: foreign criticism focuses on the elimination of central bank independence, achieved via the appointment of new deputies and the creation of an umbrella authority above the central bank and the banking oversight authority. This is not a leftist policy to regain initiative in economic policy for the elected government, but a power grab, as can be seen from the cementing of economic policy in other fields: the balanced budget requirement and the Budget Office was mentioned already, they also put the ultraliberal policy of the flat tax into the constitution. The flat tax is a present to oligarchs and Fidesz's idea of kick-starting the economy, which didn't work, because it was in combination with capital-scaring measures more in line with their nationalist-repainted pseudo-socialist populism: special taxes on banks and multinationals. The government's most significant economic intervention, the nationalisation of private pension funds, was again not a leftist policy to dry out the funds available to financial speculators and give pensions a stable footing: the intention was very short-term, the funds were raided to plug budget gaps. Of course, Fidesz's aberrations of leftist policies will serve as wonderful examples for the international There Is No Alternative party.
- Atavistic nationalism: the name of the state changed from Republic of Hungary to just Hungary, and its constituents changed from its citizens to ethnic-Hungarians across the world. This turns members of other ethnics tolerated guests in the country of their own, their parents' and their grandparents' birth; and constitutes the declaration of extraterritorial sovereignty for neighbouring countries with large ethnic-Hungarian minorities, and thus an implicit threat of border change. The new constitution contains a reference to the "Holy Crown", that is the crown of the kings of the one-time Kingdom of Hungary, which got a crude cult nearly a century ago as a basis to claim back territories Hungary lost after WWI. 'Patriotism' was made a duty, school history teachers are required to teach with the aim of instilling feelings of national pride. The new constitution also restores some names of institutions dating back to a century ago: back to the past.
- Clericalism: Hungary is not Poland, there is no Catholic-fundie mass base. Peddling to the clergy, however, is part of the Fidesz leadership cabal's attempt to sell themselves to conservatives. Thus the dwarf Christian Democrats were allowed to run on Fidesz lists and then form their own separate parliamentary faction, one of these zealots was made state secretary of education, God entered the constitution, a marriage is between a man and a woman, and the state reduced the number of officially recognised churches to a dozen mostly historical churches.
- Controlling the media: Fidesz made "balanced reporting" a requirement and established a new media board to oversee it. Opposition media also face economic repercussions, and the last opposition-aligned FM news radio lost its Budapest-area frequency. The takeover of state media is almost traditional for the region; but the lengths the new propagandists take to distort news and tar political opponents is extraordinary. At the European level, I mentioned the campaign against EP Greens leader and Orbán nemesis Daniel Cohn-Bendit. They also cynically mis-reported the protest I'm about to write about. And late last year, they blurred out the face of a government-critical judge in the background of an interviewee, finally prompting some public TV journalists to go on hunger strike against their bosses (I reported). The strikers were harassed in various ways (including floodlights at night and the playing of the same two Christmas songs for days) then fired for a nonsense reason.
- New labour relations: union rights and the right to strike was cut back drastically. The arbitrage body that previously had unions, employers and the government as three sides was expanded with faux "independent" members under a new name. Work was made a duty under the constitution, making not working a crime. Homelessness was criminalised, too; those sleeping outdoors rather than in a shelter (insufficient number of beds notwidthstanding) face prison. Forced labour was de-facto re-introduced for long-term unemployed on social benefits (this measure is implicitly aimed at Gipsies resp. aimed at pleasing Gipsy-haters).
Parliamentary opposition parties (the non-far-right ones) didn't exactly shine over the past one and half years. This is also reflected in the fact that although Fidesz lost half of its support in opinion polls, most of those went over to those not intent on voting or unable to choose.
The Socialists first engaged in internecine warfare, then the faction of former PM Ferenc Gyurcsány (a communist youth leader turned entrepreneur turned bank boss turned political adventurer seen by Socialists as their counter-Orbán turned wannabe neolib reformist turned loser head of a disintegrating government making way for an "expert" cabinet; but still seen by Orbán as his most potent enemy) split and formed the new party called Democratic Coalition. IMHO Gyurcsány was a disaster, learnt nothing since, and tries to position himself a bit too obviously to get to the top in a post-Orbán world.
The new Green party, LMP (short for Lehet Más Politika = "Another Politics is Possible", a play on the altermondialist slogan) long thought that their role is to re-establish politeness and a civic culture in politics, keeping an equal distance form other parties. This stupidity even included overtures to work together in opposition with the far-right Jobbik (which views them as the new Devil Incarnate after the fall of the old liberal party). They finally came to their senses only in the last stages of Fidesz's legal coup, but then launched extra-parliamentary action. Most notably during the 23 December vote, when they tried to block the arrival of Fidesz MPs by chaining themselves to the entry to parliament's garage. When police began to take them away, Socialists and Gyurcsány's group came too (to share the limelight; international media duly concentrated on Gyurcsány's detainment).
The most serious opposition didn't came from parties: it came from unions and NGOs. While in opposition, Fidesz played social populist and instrumentalised unions, once in power, it backstabbed them. Protests were organised, and those of a police union in particular were surprisingly loud, forcing Fidesz to temporarily back off. Diverse left-wing, anti-racist, LGBT NGOs started actions, too, with shifting coalitions and competing umbrella organisations (the protest I attended was the first uniting all the diverse forces). Twice over the last year, they put together mass protests. Supporters now range from altermondialists and social democrats who reject both Fidesz and the prior governments' neoliberalism through the old liberal intelligentsia to – well – the most doctrinaire neoliberals (including The Moustache of Reform).
The protest against the patchwork constitution
Budapest's Opera House is on Andrássy Boulevard, which is Budapest's pomp boulevard, still with Christmas lights. The protest was announced along its length. The protesters estimated 100,000 attendants, I estimated 30,000, some news reports had the same number. This is a good start at best, you'd need more like ten times that to shake the government in this country of ten million; though hopefully this crowd was the basis for something to grow.
Here is another look at the crowd, with the "4K" group on the left (the name is short for 4th Republic, which will have to be established by a constitutional assembly; this is a leftist group rejecting both neoliberalism and Fidesz and aiming to develop into a new leftist party, but calling for a tactical cooperation left of Fidesz). Right and behind it, a red-white-striped "Árpád-stripes flag" of far-right counter-protesters (more on them later).
This was the first time all movements protested together, but the parties had to accept that no party-politician will be a speaker. (Only one voiced dissent: Gyurcsány... but even his group accepted the condition.) When the names of the 45 supporting groups were read, the biggest cheers were for a pensioners' group, the Socialists, LMP, an LGBT group (mixed with mocking jeers towards the far-right counter-protesters) and an anti-racist group. Next to the main stage, the banner says: "Republic of Hungary – 1989-2011". On the screen of the main stage itself: "There will be a Republic of Hungary again!". The EU flag also has significance: the Fidesz-installed figurehead President of the Republic (now a misnomer!) held his traditional New Year's Day speech with only the Hungarian flag behind him. Solemn, but the protest was more on the angry side, with boos and jeers and whistling.
One of the first speakers was Péter Kónya, the boss of the police union I mentioned, who was also instrumental in setting up an umbrella group based on Poland's Solidarność (together with its flag):
The speech that I felt had most power over the crowd was one by painter Miklós Szűcs. Here I must mention that I grew up in a society with the tradition of artists being at the forefront of political fights and revolutions (also see the recently deceased Václav Havel), and was rather taken aback at Western (and above all American) notions of artists as mere entertainers. Szűcs said that in 1989, he, too, thought that now comes a time when he "doesn't have to know the name of the economy minister"; but now he realised that it is not so.
Fitting Szűcs's words, on multiple occasions between the speeches, actor Balázs Galkó recited poems (grim and fiery poems fit for the occasion).
The next speaker, pastor Gábor Iványi, is a leader of the small Methodist church, one of the hundreds that now lost official church status. He is an interesting figure on two counts: one, he was an MP for the liberals after the 1990 eletions; two, Orbán (whose parents are Calvinists but he didn't even have a church wedding before) started his right-wing makeover by having his second child baptized by Iványi, before moving to the historical churches (his later children were then baptized by Catholic priests).
The next speaker was legal expert László Majtényi. He entered public life as data protection ombudsman, who was later removed by the first Fidesz government. In 2008, he was made head of the radio and television media authority, a post he resigned from just a year later when the Socialists and Fidesz colluded in a special-interests re-distribution of FM radio frequencies (the corrupt idiots among the Socialists thought that they can make good business with the moneybaggers of Fidesz). At the protest, the professor of law Majtényi was the most radical, visioning a violent overthrow of the government:
Originally, several groups announced protests near the Opera House, but when they realised that police will only permit one, all withdrew and two organisers submitted a new request as private persons. They were the last speakers: Attila "Steve" Kopiás, leader of a pro-homeless movement named "Habitation Instead of Prison"; and Tamás Székely, co-leader of the Hungarian Solidarity Movement (the Hungarian Solidarność). On the screen behind them, the names of the supporting organisations rolled down again.
At the end, organisers requested protesters to leave away from the Opera House and peacefully. I however made my way towards the far-right counter-protesters. I didn't mention that at the beginning, the Magyar Fokhagyma Front (Hungarian Garlic Front), a parody of both Jobbik and its now-banned but still present paramilitary Hungarian Guard, had a performance on stage. One of them also positioned himself for the cameras next to the Árpád-stripes flag-waving idiots:
Didn't I say that police was supposed to allow only one protest in one place? Well, the far-right counter-protesters (all two dozen of them) were allowed to stay. What's more, with not much control. When I was there, there was a police line only on one side of them (some asked police why not the other side, they answered because "Hungarian people don't follow orders"), and no action upon anti-semitic insults and threats of violence (both punishable under Hungarian law). Earlier reportedly the separation was even lighter and there were also tussles, most notably when some Socialist politicians passed near the fascists (I sensed this a hundred metres away when suddenly the entire crowd began chanting "Nazis go home!!!"). LMP reported that two supporters were beaten up, and all the police did was to check the IDs of the victims. At any rate, police inaction was not for lack of manpower: the inactive police squad below stood ten metres from the idiots.
Suddenly I heard louder jeers from the direction of the Opera House. Going back, I found that a few thousand ignored the calls of the organisers and tried their best to make enough noise to be heard inside the Opera House. (The powers-that-be were concerned enough to enter and leave via the back door or an old underground passage restored for the occasion.) There was a guy who tried to convince others to storm the Opera House, but this wasn't that kind of crowd: although it was diverse, from college boys and girls to pensioners of all social classes, a key element for revolutions: working-class youth wasn't present much. (Also, for a legitimate revolution I'd like to see a much bigger crowd, not the few thousands just like during the 2006 far-right riots but tens to hundreds of thousands like in 1956.)
Slogans included "Orbán get lost!", "Come out!", "Junk, junk!" (referring to the rating agency downgrades of Hungarian government bonds) and (personal favourite) "Viktator!". The biggest cheers were for two LMP activists who climbed the scaffolding around the National Ballet Institution opposite the Opera House with a banner. (The text says "Viktor, you can go back hopping around in the ballet!". This is a quote from the East Bloc eighties animated hit Cat City, in which a group of ex-ballet-dancer rats are told to return to their boring old profession upon their failure as assassins.)
I didn't wait for the end of it. While walking back to the station, I saw that the far-right counter-protesters disappeared.