Hungary – A dictatorial regime in the making?

Hungary has been in the news lately and while a fully fledged dictatorial regime is nowhere near established yet, the steps that Viktor Orbán’s FIDESZ (Alliance of Young Democrats) government had been taking for the last 3 years point in no other direction by concentrating more and more power in the hands of the executive and neutralising or weakening all the existing counterbalancing powers within the state and society. In other words we have been witnessing a prolonged shift towards authoritarian rule by Orbán, the legal framework of which is represented by a series of constitutional “reforms” aimed at entrenching FIDESZ into power.

The fall of Stalinism in Hungary was followed by a feeding frenzy resulting in the looting of state assets way above the “normal” level seen in Eastern and Central Europe. The first conservative MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum) government (1990-1994) practically sold the entire family silver for peanuts, mostly to imperialist multinationals, banks and utility companies. And while this high level legalised looting took place, the government of József Antall (MDF) turned a blind eye to its domestic version where land, property, factories and all manner of state assets were passed into private hands, primarily by corrupt means and also for a song – establishing the current strata of home grown millionaires and billionaires, Viktor Orbán amongst them.

No matter which party was in power: MSZP (socialists) 1994-1998, FIDESZ 1998-2002, MSZP 2002-2010, both before and after 2004 when Hungary joined the EU, privatisation, and public expenditure cuts were part of everyday life in Hungary. Capitalism did not bring the wealth and prosperity everybody expected at the time of the fall of Stalinism, although the legal and constitutional measures established in 1990 created a liberal capitalist framework – a bourgeois democracy. It is this framework that is being systematically dismantled currently with the potential of creating a new, authoritarian and ultimately Bonapartist state.

During the first FIDESZ government (1998-2002) there were signs pointing to the real nature of the FIDESZ leadership, hoping to establish a centralised, extreme right wing, Roman Catholic state, but in those four years they did not have the required majority to propose measures that would have shown their true colours, although some observant commentators have published a few warnings even that far back.

Orbán's 2010 election victory

In 2007-08 came the credit crunch followed by the world economic crisis, which caused serious hardship the world over, including in Hungary. In fact, it probably hit Hungary the hardest in Eastern and Central Europe, precisely because its economy was so thoroughly penetrated by foreign capital, and its government’s huge foreign debt that has been historically high, even back in the Stalinist days. The then socialist government was sitting on the horns of a dilemma: do the bidding of its foreign masters (EU, World Bank, IMF, a myriad of multinationals) and risk losing the next election or borrow, lie and hope for the best? They chose the latter and still lost in 2010. The vicious, underhand, demagogic campaign by FIDESZ discrediting the socialists, coupled with MSZP’s ineptitude, their internal strife which generated leaks to the opposition and their general cowardice in never considering socialist measures, but propping up capitalism one way or another heralded the return – this time with a two thirds majority – of a FIDESZ government.

In the meantime the world economic crisis went through its second and recently its third dip, devastating Hungary along with the rest of the world. FIDESZ promised a new Hungarian dawn in its election campaign. Honest, true Hungarian government, growth in the economy, jobs, security, controlled prices, no waiting lists in hospitals etc., etc. No wonder that a large swing away from the socialists produced a considerable lurch to the right, not only in the countryside, which is their traditional heartland, but in towns also. While electioneering in Hungary doesn’t necessarily have the same characteristics as in Western Europe, a lot of the hustings are based on personalities, rather than the issues and election literature is usually vague, general and not at all specific, those that are available usually mention the main areas of change that is being proposed. Other than the issues I mentioned above, nothing at all was said and/or written about a new constitution, an attack on press freedom, the curtailing of the independence of the judiciary, the castration of the Constitutional Court, the virtual abolition of all labour protection, the outlawing of dozens of established churches or any of the hundreds of other measures FIDESZ has since brought into being.

The new Basic Law shows Orbán's true face

With the effect of the world economic crisis getting serious immediately after FIDESZ came to power, the government moved to nationalise those assets that it felt would fill the coffers. One of the first to fall victim to its new version of legalised looting was abolishing the private pension funds which contained approximately 2,700 billion forints (about €10 billion) of ordinary people’s savings. It was done in a manner that made all savers feel that they have been robbed. The long promised personal state pension account, that would have shown all the contributions is still not introduced and “the pension treasure” as the people call it had disappeared into a black hole in the government’s finances never to be seen again.

The new FIDESZ Constitution which is now called “the Basic Law” removed the word “Republic” from Hungary’s name, giving rise to rumours of Orbán wishing to become king. Humour has always been a good medicine in times of crisis in Hungary and the people’s sense of humour needed to be pretty active in the last three years. Many laws, regulations and general measures that in no way should be in a Constitution had found their way into Hungary’s new Basic Law. It now regulates who should pay for any levies that the EU decrees on Hungary. The Government reserves the right to levy taxes on Hungarian citizens in order to pay the EU without an increase in the National Debt. It restricts the powers of the Constitutional Court in all economic matters until the National Debt falls under 50%. This clearly stops any interference by the Constitutional Court, as the National Debt is around 80%.

Certain issue areas, such as family policy, the pension system and taxation, formerly under the purview of the government in office, can be altered only through Organic Laws passed by a two thirds majority and not subject to constitutional review. The constitution lowered judges' mandatory retirement age from 70 to the general retirement age, which was 62 at the time of adoption and is set to rise to 65 by 2022. No need to state that only judges of an independent character who were deemed not to do the government’s bidding were retired, whatever their age was. This, of course, enabled the government after all those retirements to pack the judiciary with their friends. It also stipulates the creation of a new National Court Authority which is answerable only to the Prime Minister and which will oversee the placement of court cases anywhere in the country. This is one of the issues that the EU is currently fighting Viktor Orbán over and which he might have to take a back step on. However, nobody believes that he will not find another way of shifting sensitive/political cases at all times to judges in the government’s pocket. The preamble contains references to the Holy Crown, as well as to God, Christianity, the fatherland and traditional family values.

Severe limits imposed on press freedom

Another early attack included a new Press Law, which de facto limits press freedom and the area of manoeuvre for any ideology, opinion or political views differing from that of FIDESZ. Whole scale sackings of journalists from the state media facilitated a servile, sycophantic press, with news items so trivial and often totally false and misleading, that its listener/viewer figures have plummeted. Currently many social media commenters are in court, being prosecuted for anti-government propaganda. If you live in Hungary today, be careful what you put on your Facebook account, you might find yourself in court! The new National Media and Communications Authority, whose powerful director is one of Viktor Orbán’s personal friends, has power to fine, and consequently bankrupt, any radio, television station or printed publisher for unpatriotic, unbalanced or indecent content. The definition of these terms is not clear and there is no appeal against its decisions. One remaining rebel radio station Klubrádió has been persistently hounded over the last three years and is still under danger of having its frequency rights removed.

An attempt to institutionalise the reactionary shift

The new Basic Law has been amended now four times in its 16 months’ existence. The latest, fourth, amendment has been the most blatant, which aroused the ire of the EU mandarins, as well as any right thinking citizen anywhere in Europe. One of its most outrageous measures includes the abolition of constitutional case law. In spite of packing the Constitutional Court, as of the end of 2012 they still have not managed to completely castrate it and some brave judges (including some that were appointed by FIDESZ a few years ago) came out against several measures of the 4th amendment. These included the criminalisation of homelessness and the legalisation of forcing graduates to work in Hungary for the same number of years that they received assistance from the state for their studies. You do not have to be a legal expert to realise that the majority of the new laws enshrined in the Basic Law via the 4th amendment is to nullify those decisions of the Constitutional Court that the government didn’t like. Not that the poodle lawmakers stopped at that. At one fell swoop they actually abolished constitutional case law per se in Hungary. No decrees of the Constitutional Court in its 23 year of existence stand any more.

The list of new laws is endless. Those I so far mentioned only relate to the Basic Law. There have been literally dozens, if not hundreds of ordinary laws that have been churned out by the parliamentary law factory with little or no debate, sometimes presented a few hours before votes are taken. The hands of the two thirds majority go up to order, without thinking or consideration. While Marxists do not have any faith in bourgeois laws, it is important that any degree of gain in the political, economic, cultural or any other sphere which benefits working people is defended. Bourgeois democracy is not workers’ democracy, but it is immeasurably preferable to totalitarianism of any kind and while its limitations should be explained the attacks on it must be fought against.

The need for an alternative

So what have the Hungarian people or the Hungarian left had done in this direction? There have been demonstrations organised by a variety of groups and organisations. The demands associated with these movements have been varied and mostly confused. They mostly know what it is they are against, but not very often put forward demands for an alternative or a program. The masses’ instincts are very often correct. They sense where all these measures are going, they hate the new rich, the millionaires and billionaires that got fat on the backs of the people. But there is also a lot of chauvinism, suspicion of anything foreign and a hankering after the “good old days” when Hungarians could hold their heads up high and were independent. There are also totally phony demonstrations as well – these are mostly the pro-government ones – which actually consist of paid people who have been transported, fed and entertained at government (i.e.: tax payers’) expense to prove how popular the government is.

The left is extremely weak in Hungary. While the word “socialism” is not nearly as frowned upon as it was in the early 1990’s, this emotion has been replaced by one of total hopelessness and negativism. “Great idea, but it’ll never happen!” The most recent bright light, however, has been shown by the university, and later the high school, students who have got organised against the compulsory years they have to stay in Hungary after their degree, the “student contract”. The hopelessness of Hungarian youth is best expressed in the numbers that are leaving the country. There are no official figures, but half a million (5% of the population) has been suggested in the last 18 months and many believe that to be an underestimate. This, of course, includes all ages, not only young ones, but the majority are in their 20s and 30s. The demands the students put forward amid strident demonstrations and direct action were as follows:

1. We demand the complete reform of public and higher education.
2. The number of government-funded places should be reinstated to the 2011 level.
3. Stop budget cuts and compensate previous cuts.
4. Abolish the student contracts.
5. Do not limit the autonomy of universities.
6. Give a chance to disadvantaged students to enter higher education.

These demands show a high level of consciousness and prove the students are not only concerned with their own problems. But not really combined with demands for a whole scale change in society, they stand no chance of success. It is very typical of all movements in Hungary today that they seem to work in isolation; there is very little solidarity, co-operation and absolutely no politics. In fact, politics is a dirty word. Civil action is the vogue. At a certain level this is understandable, as all political parties and definitely all politicians have failed Hungarians so far and are now considered self-serving and corrupt. On the other hand, nothing will ever be achieved without a clear ideology, clear demands and a program of how those demands can be put into effect. The latter demands an organisation, aka a party. The cause of the students is a good example, as their movement had fizzled out just as any of the others did before them.

One of the biggest fears of the population currently is that no matter how many votes are cast for parties other than FIDESZ at next year’s parliamentary elections, it will not be enough to remove them from power. This fear is actually quite justified. Some believe the government is planning actual electoral fraud, having redrawn the constituency boundaries in its own favour last year. Another attempt at influencing the result was the introduction of an electoral register, with the provision that the list has to be finished several months before the election and cannot be added to later. In a country of ID cards this is totally unnecessary and could have only served one purpose: the disenfranchisement of the anti-government vote. This thankfully had been defeated. All in all, many people feel that even if FIDESZ is defeated next year, they have as good as “cemented” themselves in with having shifted hundreds of laws and regulations into the Basic Law which can only be changed by a two thirds majority. All their judges, their government quango heads will be in position for the next dozen or so years, irrespective which party is in government. Not a happy prospect and understandably a cause for real fear.

So, do we think that the prospect of a Bonapartist dictatorship is unavoidable in Hungary in the foreseeable future? No we don’t! But to avoid Hungary’s descent into the 1930s, as many commentators have described what is going on in the country at the moment, certain things will have to be fought against and won. This commentator is convinced that all those measures described above are a clear indication of what Viktor Orbán’s government is heading for.

Among ordinary people there is an atmosphere of hopelessness, fear, erosion of many hard won reforms and freedoms and an exodus out of the country. Who writes a constitution like Hungary’s Basic Law? Only a government that wants to subdue its population, creating a country of wage slaves without trade unions, work rights, workplace safety. A country with a few parties, but only one, homogeneous law factory in parliament, where any whim of an ever more exclusive executive can be passed and enacted; a country where any taxes can be levied any time for any reason and where the judiciary, the National Bank, all media outlets, theatres and schools think one way without a murmur.

But this is precisely also the weak point of Orbán's regime-in-the-making. While attempting to entrench himself in power by undermining any possible opposition, he is also removing or occluding all safety valves in society through which the ruling class can sense and defuse the threat of rising class tensions. The economic crisis is biting hard and most of the cost of the crisis and austerity is shouldered – as in all countries – by the mass of the population, especially the poorest layer. There is an enormous accumulation of frustration, discontent and bitterness among the Hungarian working class, which now the government and the ruling class are trying to divert on reactionary lines, but sooner or later will explode right in their face, the more violently because all safety valves are being obstructed.

Many believe Orbán and his gang have had this plan written and ready before they got their two third majority. May be. As I mentioned above there were indications back in the 1998-2002 FIDESZ government where their real politics lay. But the most resounding reason for them getting away with all this so far is the lack of a decent opposition, based on a cohesive ideology that would enthuse the people, an ideology that could answer all their doubts and organise them behind it. Socialism is the only creed that would do that and the only force that could forestall a serious tragedy for Hungary – that of a third Orbán government after next year’s elections.

This government is preparing for a battle on every front, and for that end fortifying its legislative, executive and legal powers to come out victorious against the workers and for austerity. There is no alternative, but declare an all-out fight against capitalism in general and Orbán’s government in particular to prevent that happening.

The other parties, MSZP and a wide variety of groupings, some split off from the socialists, like DK the Democratic Coalition (Demokratikus Koalíció) led by Ferenc Gyurcsány a previous MSZP Prime Minister and many other groupings behind other ex-politicians, are currently trying to cobble together an electoral pact to oust FIDESZ and Viktor Orbán in 2014. They don’t seem to agree and most coalition discussions disintegrate in squabbles. No wonder, unprincipled alliances never work. MSZP is still the largest opposition party, but if it carries on as it has done recently it might even be overtaken by Jobbik, the quasi-fascist, extreme right wing party, which was within 3% of it in 2010. The only way MSZP could stand at the head of a successful coalition leading all anti-FIDESZ forces behind it is by adopting socialist policies and putting that program before the electorate. There are still many socialists left in MSZP, but there are many others outside the party who could also be rallied. The concept of socialism has been downgraded in the Stalinist days. Today many believe it could give them a better life, but lost the heart to believe it is possible to achieve it. The thread of history between the fighting traditions of the Hungarian working class and today’s youth has been cut. The new generation will have to reconnect it and draw the many downtrodden people of Hungary today behind them.

Government flirting with the extreme right wing

The flirting of the FIDESZ government with the extreme right resulted in a shocking increase in racism, anti-Semitism and all kinds of bigoted views calling for the segregation of minorities of all sorts. The disabled have been picked out for discrimination, gays and lesbians are hounded and the authorities turn a blind eye to manifestations of this sort everywhere. Racist MPs are making blatantly racist speeches in Parliament; racism is often tolerated in the media and this often results in brutality by police, like the recent case of a Romanian national living in Hungary being beaten to death in police custody. When there is a quietly condoned generalised hatred of foreigners, like today in Hungary, why is anyone surprised if such outrages happen? It can also lead to racist murders, including that of Roma children being shot in the back. These downtrodden sections, as well as all those who are trying to eke out a miserable living on £20 a week unemployment “benefit”; families, who cannot feed their children after the middle of the month in spite of both parents working full time; all those who join miles long queues every Christmas in the centre of Budapest for a hot meal dished out by the Hare Krishna sect; young graduates who have to leave the country if they want a career or just food on their table; all these are there for the taking, if only a brave, enthusiastic, dynamic and truly socialist party would acquaint them with the ideas of socialism. There would be no need to fear electoral fraud, the MSZP vote would be weighed not counted everywhere. The idea of workers’ democracy, a nationalised economy with a plan of production run democratically by the workers, for the workers and for the whole of society would be a sure-fire vote winner.

The ghost of authoritarian regimes and Bonapartism is haunting Eastern Europe. Many commentators warned that it will only need one successful experiment, Orbán’s, for the forces of the extreme right getting bold in all the neighbouring countries. Nip it in the bud and socialism could be back on the agenda all over Eastern and Central Europe!