Ellen Hinsey

The New Opposition in Hungary

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On January 1, 2012, Hungary’s new constitution went into effect. On the evening of January 2, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and President Pál Schmitt,¹ surrounded by members of their Fidesz government and supporters, held a gala evening celebration at the State Opera in central Budapest. But the entering into force of the new Fundamental Law was not an accomplishment celebrated by everyone. Outside the neo-Renaissance building along Andrássy Avenue—cordoned off at a slight distance—tens of thousands gathered in the cold. Many of Hungary’s liberal opposition groups were present, as well as individuals from the far-right Jobbik party,² and this convergence resulted in minor clashes. The New Year’s demonstration focused on the new Constitution, but it also addressed the nearly two-year-long process by which the Fidesz party,³ after its election in April 2010—and subsequent attainment of a supermajority in the Hungarian Parliament—is viewed to be dismantling the country’s democracy built over the last twenty years.

That Monday night’s protest, however, was far from being an isolated event. Rather, it was one of a long series of rallies that began in winter 2010 and have galvanized the Hungarian opposition. These civic actions have targeted a wide range of interrelated issues, from the country’s new Constitution, media laws, and the undermining of the judiciary, to the firing of journalists and theater directors and the closing of an important radio station. Hungary’s opposition groups are diverse and represent a wide range of political views, but taken together they reflect a civic drive to contest what may well be the country’s most controversial reforms since the democratic transition in 1989. An overview of some of the demonstrations, which have followed the government’s recent major political initiatives, will give a better sense of these events.

 

 

2. Budapest, Margit Bridge, 2011

On Sunday October 23, 2011, the fifty-fifth anniversary of Hungary’s 1956 uprising, a major opposition rally against Hungary’s new media legislation took place at Budapest’s Margit Bridge and drew a large crowd, estimated at between 80,000 and 100,000. The gathering was notably heterogeneous: there were thousands of young people, but men and women old enough to remember the arrival of Soviet troops assembled first, and they occupied the space behind the metal barriers that faced the stage. The event was organized by a loose-knit community of activists, headed up by “One Million for the Freedom of Press in Hungary,” a Facebook group that came into existence after Fidesz introduced the Media Law Package, the first of its major legislations. Drafted right after the party came to power, the structure of the new Hungarian media authority and laws have serious implications for freedom of speech and continue to draw sharp criticism both domestically and internationally.

In connection with this October demonstration, I met with Éva Simon, a lawyer and specialist on the Media Law Package from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, a watchdog NGO that has been strongly critical of the legislation. In the bright cosmopolitan environment of a local café called California Coffee, Simon discussed the background of the new laws: “While there was general agreement that a new Media Law was needed due to technological changes, no one expected this.” And indeed the scope and political impact of the new legislation have continued to worry organizations like the HCLU.

While often described as Hungary’s “new Media Law,” Fidesz’s Media Law Package consists in fact of a series of amendments, acts, and resolutions passed by the government starting in July 2010. The sequence of steps taken to enact them is significant in the way it foreshadowed similar initiatives to follow. On July 6, 2010, the Fidesz-dominated parliament voted to amend the former Constitution’s Article 61, which ruled against “monopolies in the media”: a safeguard against single-party domination of the press. The original language of the article was replaced with a clause that stated that Hungary’s public service broadcasting “shall be monitored by an autonomous administrative authority operating with members elected by the Parliament.” (4) Later in July, this change was followed by a new law establishing the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMHH) and its Media Council.(5) In an arrangement that is relatively rare in Europe, this body has oversight over all forms of media, including television and radio as well as print and the Internet. The constitutional amendment and new law were then followed by the Prime Minister’s appointment of the Authority’s president and the Parliament’s election of the Media Council’s four members.

It was not a surprise to lawyers like Simon that, given Fidesz’s two-thirds majority in Parliament, the Infocommunications Authority’s president and the appointed members of its Media Council would be Fidesz loyalists. While it is not unusual for ruling parties to nominate their own members to important institutions—a political practice the world over—the concrete impact of Fidesz’s nominations to the new media system is enormous: by securing all the key positions, Fidesz ensured that the oversight of all Hungarian media—both public and private—is effectively placed under the jurisdiction of a single political party. Moreover, due to the Infocommunications Authority’s structure, the president of the Authority is also ipso jure the candidate for the position of chairperson of the Media Council. On August 11, 2010, Annamária Szalai, a former Fidesz MP, was appointed by Prime Minister Orbán to this dual position for a nine-year renewable term.(7)

While Simon cites Fidesz’s concentration of  power in the Infocommunications Authority as one type of problem, the content of Hungary’s two subsequent media laws is another. Two Acts were passed in November and December 2010: the first, the Press Freedom Act,(8) outlines the duties and responsibilities of the press; the second, the Media Act, details the structure of the Infocommunications Authority as well as tendering rules and sanctions for organizations and individuals in cases of non-compliance with the new laws.(9); Again, to prepare for these Acts, a clause had been added to Article 61 of the Constitution that stated: “Everyone shall have the right to receive adequate information with respect to public affairs.”(10); Further, the Press Freedom Act stipulates: “The media system as a whole shall have the task to provide authentic, rapid and accurate information on these affairs and events.”(11) While for the lay person these demands might not raise any red flags, it is their prescriptive, “tasking” approach, which instructs the media regarding appropriate content—something open to subjective interpretation—that is controversial. International experts on media freedom believe this arrangement is in direct opposition to the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights (12): the appropriateness of media content is considered better handled by journalistic codes of ethics than by legislation passed by governments—especially if one party controls the communications sphere.

While all around us in the packed California Coffee shop young Hungarians were surfing the web and talking on their cell phones, Simon and I discussed the other major issues that international organizations have raised regarding the Media Package. These include the Authority’s oversight of all areas of the media, the undermining of a journalist’s right to protect the confidentiality of his or her sources (this provision was later ruled unconstitutional),(13); and the fact that the Media Council has the power to block Internet service providers. Moreover, Fidesz’s creation of an overarching Public Service Foundation, which supervises all public media outlets and, in conjunction with the Media Council, appoints the directors of those outlets, has been called a veritable “re-nationalization of public service broadcasting.”(14); The Media Laws also provide for only limited judicial oversight regarding decisions made by the Media Council, and failure to comply with the laws results in what has been termed “disproportionate and extreme sanctions.”(15)

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Hungary’s adoption of its Media Law Package right before taking on the six-month rotating Presidency of the Council of the European Union on January 1, 2011, meant that Prime Minister Orbán’s government rode into a storm of controversy in Brussels during its first few months. Heated plenary sessions were held in the European Parliament. On February 15, European Commissioner for Digital Agenda Neelie Kroes presented a list of points that the Hungarian government agreed to modify as a consequence of these debates. In the end, however, despite praise from the EU about the Hungarian government’s willingness to engage in dialogue, there were few significant changes. The net result of two out of the four amendments put forward by the EU Parliament—and subsequently adopted by the Hungarian government—involved protecting EU media service providers outside of the county from extreme sanctions.(16) This led Rui Tavares, a member of the European Parliament, to declare: “I don’t know if I am disappointed or shocked . . . we can’t leave people to censorship, which the Commission seems shamefully to be doing.”(17)

In early spring, it was clear that the media law controversy was far from over. Frank La Rue, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, undertook a special mission to Hungary. His final report, submitted in April 2011, echoed the EU’s findings that the new media legislation was still not in compliance with international human rights standards. The political uniformity of the Authority, the question of tasking, the insufficient protection of journalistic sources, and the possibility of excessive fines and sanctions, among other concerns, raised and continue to raise questions about the legitimacy of the laws, an assessment shared by the Council of Europe and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Further, there is significant worry that the vagueness of the legislation, coupled with the threat of sanctions, will create a climate of self-censorship in Hungary—a reminder of the country’s not-so-distant past.

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At the October 23, 2011, demonstration, the speakers expressed their fears about this growing state of censorship, as well as their determination to strengthen, as a counterbalance, Hungary’s civil society. As Péter Juhász, one of the day’s organizers, said in an interview later in the week, “We are not just looking to promote one solution, or one party. We are trying to encourage civic participation and democracy in general, so that a new political class can emerge. The problem is that we have to start from the ground up.” The recent defeat and discrediting of the incumbent Hungarian Socialist party—which had ruled for twelve of the last twenty years—has left Hungary dangerously close to being left with only one large political party. This is a situation that many believe has been exploited excessively by Fidesz’s supermajority.

A number of new small parties and organizations such as LMP (18,19) and Solidarity(20) have emerged and have taken up this challenge. But these political groups are still struggling to establish themselves, and it will take time to know how broad their support will be. Nevertheless, they represent a drive for political plurality. At the demonstration, despite the gravity of the situation, there was still room for humor, such as a performance of the YouTube hit rap song “Nem tetszik a rendszer”—“I Don’t Like the System”—which was picked up and sung by the otherwise fierce-looking older women down in front standing behind the metal barriers. But the mood quickly changed and a freezing rain began to fall on the pavement. On the speakers’ stage I spoke with several activists, some of whom asked that their names not be used. One of them, a mother in her thirties, had decided to carry out research about what she saw happening around her. What would be the theme of her work? After gathering up her son in her arms, she said, “Fear.”

 

 

3. Budapest, Infopark, October 2011

Attila Mong, a print, television, and radio journalist, was one of the first casualties of the debates over the media laws. We discuss his story sitting in a café lounge in Budapest’s Infopark, a new high-tech industrial zone south of the city’s center. As Mong talks, young professionals hustle towards the elevators through the café with its mid-century-inspired leather chairs and postmodern bar. The setting’s emphatically contemporary interior renders Mong’s account all the more incongruous, as it sounds like something that could have occurred thirty or forty years earlier.

Mong has written four books and won the Hungarian Memorial Pulitzer Prize for a work of investigative journalism on governmental corruption. Just prior to the April 2010 elections, he was contacted by the head of Hungarian public radio, who offered him a position as a morning talk show host for a news program called 180 Minutes. Initially hesitant because of restrictions that had already been placed on public media, he nevertheless agreed. By summer, however, he had begun to hear rumors about the new media laws. “One night in November 2010, I opened up my computer and began to read a draft of the text. I immediately began talking to friends and colleagues. I felt I needed to do something.”

Like many Hungarians, Mong’s sense of personal responsibility is related to his understanding of his country’s history. “I thought about the future, about other young journalists coming up through the ranks. I imagined them saying ‘where were you when this legislation was passed? Did you speak out?’” In mid-December, before the Parliament adopted the Media Act, Mong and his editor-in-chief, Zsolt Bogár, met at a local bar. Though they knew it might cost them their jobs, they decided that at 6:15 a.m. on December 21 (the day after the law was to be passed [21]), during the broadcast of 180 Minutes, Mong would observe a minute of silence in the name of freedom of the press. “A minute,” Mong adds, “is a long time on the radio. It is an eternity.”

It did not entirely come as a surprise to Mong when, after his minute of silence, he saw the entire management team assembling in the recording studio. During the regularly-scheduled meeting following 180 Minutes, the management condemned Mong’s act as “narcissistic” and “exhibitionistic”—a holdover from a time when “individualism” was seen as a bourgeois counterrevolutionary trait. Later he would also be told that his actions were “disrespectful of Hungarian radio,” a fact Mong found ironic, given the role Hungarian radio had played in the 1956 uprising. Mong and Bogár were told to report two hours later for questioning. During that second meeting they were required to write a note explaining their actions, or what Mong calls “old-style Communist self-criticism statements,” something common in the Rákosi era. They were then suspended from their jobs.

As it happened, their case coincided with the start of Hungary’s EU Presidency and the Media Law controversy. This resulted in an outpouring of support for the journalists. After a lengthy legal process that lasted until the middle of spring 2011, the case against them—negligence, lack of professionalism, and non-compliance with the radio station’s laws—was dropped. Mong believes that this happened because a serious sentence would have created further press attention around the media legislation. That said, since April 2011 when Mong’s case was dismissed, it is estimated that a thousand journalists have lost their jobs. While ostensibly these layoffs have to do with a restructuring of the media sector, the opposition holds that many of the journalists who have been let go are those most critical of the government—or, according to Mong, the most “independently-minded,” regardless of their political affiliation.

 

 

4. Budapest, New Theatre, 2011

In front of Budapest’s Új Színház, or New Theatre, located in the old Jewish quarter, a two-story blue and white banner hung from the building’s Art Deco façade. Displayed on it was the countdown of days before its long-standing director, István Márta—who had been at the theater’s helm for the last thirteen years—had to step down. At another demonstration, on October 22, 2011, organized by Mihaly Majagos, an actor, and Sardar Tagirovsky, a young director, a gathering of singers, political figures, and activists gave voice to their anger that Márta would be replaced by György Dörner, a well-known actor and open supporter of the far-right Jobbik party. Of equal concern was Dörner’s choice of deputy director, István Csurka, a playwright and politician who since the early nineties had been chairman of MIÉP,(22) one of Hungary’s most ardently nationalistic and anti-Semitic parties.(23) (Csurka died on February 4, 2012.)

The New Theatre affair touches on a different dimension of the current political situation—that of Fidesz’s complex relationship to Hungary’s extremist parties—and it has very grave implications. While officially distancing itself from Jobbik, in order to win votes on the far right, Fidesz has increasingly made use of conservative rhetoric. The party’s sharp move to the right since the last time it led the government in 1998–2002 has only reinforced a climate of permissiveness for extremist organizations. NGOs like the Hungarian Helsinki Group point out that ironically, during the Communist era, the repressive political ethos resulted in an enforced tolerance towards minorities and kept such radical groups in check. Conversely, over the last ten years, there has been a sharp rise in racism and hate crimes, such as occurred in 2011 in the northern Hungarian village of Gyöngyöspata, where the extremist paramilitary group VéderŐ purchased land to carry out military exercises to intimidate the local Roma population. The appointment of someone like Dörner to the New Theatre sends a clear signal to such organizations, which have also been boosted by Jobbik’s gaining of seats in the Hungarian Parliament for the first time following the April 2010 elections.(24)

Events such as those at the New Theatre have drawn unlikely figures like István Márta into the fray. Márta is an energetic man in his late fifties, with a brush of gray hair and black metal eyeglasses. On the day of the October 22 demonstration, his cramped office was filled with papers, scripts, a green plant on a pedestal, and a long wall plastered with playbills from past performances. Two well-worn leather sofas faced chairs arranged in a square. Márta expressed his belief that art and politics should be able to remain separate, though he quickly added, “sometimes one has to act.” During our conversation Márta detailed the sequence of events: “This year the directorship of the theater was up for renewal, and my staff and I completed the obligatory application. As in previous years, the document ran to 160 pages, detailing the theater’s mission, budget, international partners, and its plans for the staging of Hungarian and international plays.” Reviewed by a panel of specialists on the theater’s appointment committee, it received the largest number of supporting votes.

“The mayor of Budapest, István Tarlós—who is a Fidesz supporter—is responsible for making these appointments,” Márta explained. “We were informed in late August 2011, just before the closing date for applications, that there was a last-minute applicant.” After György Dörner’s selection as director was announced, it was revealed that he had been chosen on the basis of a sixteen-page document. While favoritism in the arts, as in politics, is hardly a rare thing, an investigation into the application revealed a number of irregularities, including the fact that none of the international collaborators Dörner listed had ever heard of him.(25)

But far more important than these administrative “details” was the content of the new directorial team’s mission statement. Leaked to the Internet, it began with a call to rename the theater Hátország Színház, or Hinterland Theater, which it considers a symbolic response to “Hungarian people suffering under social liberal repression” (the idea was later rejected by Tarlós). According to Dörner and Csurka, these and other such changes “announce a need for a taking back, which is vitally important for the nation. One of the first, small, but not insignificant battles . . . can be this theater.” After claiming the repression of Hungarian national values, Dörner asserted that Hungarian drama was “cramped into small studio theaters” while “Anglo-Saxon and New York entertainment . . . is puffing itself up via large industrial entertainment companies.” Csurka’s website was notorious for this kind of rhetoric, stating that the previous political system was “anti-Hungarian” and “Jewish dominated.” In order to combat the international liberal order, Dörner proposed the following solution: the New Theatre would become a showcase of conservative values, staging exclusively classical and Hungarian works.

Later that October afternoon, downstairs in a neon-lit corridor near the stage door, the demonstration’s two organizers talked openly about the current state of censorship in Hungary. “Earlier this summer they closed down a small experimental theater,” Mihaly explains. “They thought that no one would notice. There has been ongoing pressure for the director of the National Theatre, Róbert Alföldi, who is gay, to step down. Now this.” They use the term Kulturkampf, not referring to Bismarck, but to Hitler’s war on culture in the thirties. They laugh nervously when they say it, but they are serious. Hungary is haunted by the legacy of its alliance with Nazi Germany, and in 1944, the installation of a Hungarian fascist government, the Arrow Cross. Never far from anyone’s mind is what the historian Miklós Molnár termed the country’s “leap into the dark”: Hungary’s participation in the deportation and extermination of an estimated 450,000(26); Jews under the administration of Adolf Eichmann and his local collaborators.

As we are speaking, actors and actresses in costume for the evening’s performance begin to appear along the theater’s corridor. The mood is grim, weighed down by the fact that Dörner’s plan to curtail the production of international works would in the future prohibit the staging of that evening’s play, Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Though set in far-off California, its overall theme of the struggle between innocence and evil—and human beings’ ability to destroy one another—seemed timely.(27) After a moment, a wiry man in his late fifties, wearing a vest, cowboy boots and cowboy hat, emerged from backstage and joined us. When I asked him what role he was playing in the evening’s performance, he gestured to the gold-pointed star on his chest. He said in Hungarian that he was playing Steinbeck’s Horace. But, with the reflex of someone steeped in his country’s traumas, he reassured me: “Tonight I’m a sheriff, not a Jew.”

 

 

5. Budapest, MTVA, 2012

It’s late on a Saturday afternoon in January, and the modern industrial park where Hungary’s MTVA public broadcasting headquarters (28) is situated is totally deserted. That is, except for a small band of activists and hunger strikers who have been camped out in the cold for a little more than a month. Balázs Nagy Navarro, the organizer of the hunger strike—and formerly a foreign news editor at MTVA—began his action here on December 10, 2011, to protest “the most serious infringement of press freedom in the past twenty years.” Before we begin talking, Nagy Navarro shows me the encampment: set up beneath the building’s portico, it is comprised of a blue canvas tent (with a generator and heater installed inside), a makeshift table covered with water bottles, and a clutch of metal chairs. Parked by the curb are three small motor vans also equipped with generators for the hunger strikers to warm up in. Alongside MTVA’s U-shaped headquarters, water that’s collected in reflecting pools is frozen.

When I returned to Budapest in early January 2012, two new scandals in the media had taken up where the New Theatre affair had left off. The first, which triggered Nagy Navarro’s hunger strike, concerned the visual manipulation of a news broadcast involving the former head of Hungary’s Supreme Court, Zoltán Lomnici. Lomnici had served as Chief Justice from 2002 to 2008. On December 3, 2011, the former judge organized a televised media event with the Romanian EU Parliamentarian László TŐkés. However, unbeknownst to him, someone at MTVA—later identified as Gábor ÉlŐ, Director of MTI’s news center (29)—had previously issued a verbal order that Lomnici should not appear in any newscasts, a directive that was in clear violation of Lomnici’s personal rights.

Nagy Navarro outlined for me the ironic background of the situation: “Neither Lomnici nor TŐkés is even a critic of Fidesz. In fact, Lomnici and TŐkés’ newscast was to publicize a case in support of one of Fidesz’s policies—that of dual nationality for Hungarians living outside of the nation’s borders.” Due to a disagreement involving a third party, ÉlŐ had decided that Lomnici should not receive any press coverage, but this directive became logistically impossible when he appeared standing next to TŐkés at their joint event. Not having been briefed on the finer points of ÉlŐ’s intentions, a technician took the matter to heart and resolved the problem by using the technique generally employed for the protection of people facing criminal charges: i.e., Lomnici literally became a blur on the screen.

Immediately following the newscast it was clear that something had gone terribly wrong. MTVA went into spin control: the three lower-level employees who had carried out the order—the reporter, the image editor, and an on-duty editor—were symbolically reprimanded, and an apology was made to the former judge. The original undoctored footage was rebroadcast. Despite these attempts to repair the damage, the significance of the event remained. For journalists like Nagy Navarro, the Lomnici affair, coming on the heels of an incident earlier in the year involving EU parliamentarian Daniel Cohn-Bendit—a highly vocal critic of the Fidesz government—was the last straw.(30) For Nagy Navarro it reflected the arbitrariness of the power being wielded at MTVA, which includes the use of informal blacklists: “Over the last year and a half, we have had enough of news manipulation in the public media with no consequences.” Nagy Navarro, who was joined by his colleague Aranka Szávuly a day later, demanded that those directly responsible for the order be identified and relieved of their posts. He gave the MTVA management an ultimatum: if they were not forthcoming with this information, he would begin a hunger strike the next day.

Nagy Navarro and Szávuly set up camp in front of the MTVA headquarters despite the winter weather. Four days into their action, three other civil society activists joined them and also began hunger strikes. Over the next month the pressure of their strike resulted in Gábor ÉlŐ being identified as the originator of the directive. ÉlŐ was fired on December 15 and László Szabó, MTVA’s director of communications, resigned in early January. Dániel Papp, editor-in-chief of MTVA’s news center—who had been implicated in the Cohn-Bendit affair—lost half his position, though he is still head of MTVA’s current affairs and documentary division. After twenty-three days, Nagy Navarro ended his strike on January 1, 2012. In mid-February 2012, there were still activists at the encampment carrying out shorter hunger strikes and protests. They intended to stay put until all of those implicated in the scandal had been removed from their jobs.

In late 2011 the MTVA affair overlapped with another media controversy, this time involving the silencing of Klubrádió, Hungary’s most important opposition radio station. For ten years, the station has hosted a call-in talk show that—according to its website—provides a “modern agora for public opinion” and has nearly half a million listeners. When I met up in Budapest with the radio’s executive director, Ferenc Vicsek, he said, “More than two years ago we were aware that if Fidesz came to power, there was a chance we would not survive.” Klubrádió’s twelve-year license was due to expire in early spring 2010, just before the parliamentary elections. Anticipating trouble, the station applied for a new, separate frequency, and their application was reviewed by the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT)—the former granting authority before the installation of the new Media Council. The license for their new frequency was granted and its approval was published in the official journal Kulturális Közlöny.

After the April 2010 elections, however, Annamária Szalai, the new Infocommunications Authority’s president, found fault with Klubrádió’s application, asserting that the station had the intention of holding two frequencies simultaneously. Klubrádió, therefore, was required to reapply for its original operating license, despite that it had accepted all of the ORTT’s conditions regarding its new frequency. In a move reminiscent of the New Theatre affair, despite receiving the highest scores on their reapplication in areas such as programming and experience, the staff of Klubrádió were at a loss when they learned that the frequency was awarded instead to Autórádió, a newly founded station, which offered the government a substantially higher annual broadcasting fee and proposed a program made up almost exclusively of popular music. The uniqueness of Klubrádió’s political position, the suspicious lack of transparency about the reapplication process, and the fact that denying the station’s permit would seriously silence the opposition, have made this a critical public issue, and on January 22, 2012, supporters of the station took to the streets to protest the government’s ruling.

Internationally, the EU has spoken out against the Klubrádió ruling, which it says must be viewed in light of Fidesz’s overall media policies. Ferenc Vicsek points to what he believes is the government’s clear preference for all-music and politically conservative Catholic radio stations, a fact that even led one Fidesz supporter to say, “compared to Klubrádió, the rest of public radio sounds like something out of the Horthy regime from the 1930s.” In early January, the station began legal proceedings and, on a bright note, in March 2012 a Hungarian court overturned the Media Council’s decision and declared Autórádió’s bid invalid. As Klubrádió had placed second in the competition, there had been speculation that an announcement would be made restoring their original 95.3 frequency. Instead, throughout the spring and summer of 2012, the station has been drawn into a series of legal battles, which Vicsek believes is intended to exhaust Klubrádió’s financial resources. At one point—with a logic akin to a Piranesian labyrinth—Klubrádió was threatened anew with disqualification based on the claim that the station had not completely signed their bid, including the application’s blank back sides.

 

 

6. Budapest, Parliament, 2012

Of all of Fidesz’s uses of its parliamentary supermajority, by far the most symbolic has been the passing of the new Constitution. Fidesz supporters maintain that there is solid precedent for the drafting of an entirely new Fundamental Law: Hungary is the only former Eastern bloc country not to have adopted one after 1989.(31) However, the country’s previous Constitution underwent such an extensive revision at the start of the democratic period that it is common to quote a constitutional judge who said that the only provision left from the original 1949 text was “Budapest is the capital of Hungary.” Moreover, the 1989 Constitution,(32) written with the participation of all political parties, was by and large viewed as a collaborative effort, not the vision of a single party. In the past, mindful that the constitution-making process was a highly-charged issue, the 1994–98 Socialist–Liberal coalition government—the only other Hungarian Parliamentary supermajority since 1989—actually voted to increase the parliamentary votes necessary to adopt procedures for drafting a new Constitution from a two-thirds to a four-fifths majority, to ensure that this process would reflect the country’s political plurality.

This was not the case with the new Constitution. To begin, the Fidesz government repealed the previous Constitution’s four-fifths majority requirement for the initiating of a new Constitution.(33) For the writing of the text, the government then set up an ad-hoc committee whose members were weighted in favor of the ruling party. Consequently, the opposition parties declined to be involved. Prior to undertaking the new Constitution, the Fidesz government refused to hold a Constitutional referendum (as occurred, for example, in Poland); instead, a national questionnaire was mailed out to eight million Hungarian citizens. According to the government, nearly a million responses were received. However, since the draft of the Constitution was submitted for Parliamentary debate only two weeks after the deadline for the return of the questionnaire, there is doubt as to whether the information received was taken into account in the text’s final version. This remains difficult to assess, as the results of the questionnaire were never made public.

 

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All of these factors have resulted in the new Fundamental Law being seen as the Hungarian Right’s Constitution. János Kis, one of Hungary’s most respected figures and a participant in the 1989 roundtable negotiations, has said that, “In order to have a working Constitution, you need two kinds of agreement: the parties should agree on the constitutional design itself. But second, they should also agree that they are not just parties competing for power within the bounds of the Constitution, but partners in maintaining those bounds (. . .) and that they represent equal members of the Republic. This agreement was not there, and is not there up until this day on the Hungarian Right.”(34)

Critics of the new Constitution hold that the text clearly puts forth a conservative-nationalist agenda. This is reflected in the religious nature of its preamble, which roots the Hungarian nation in the Christian faith (even the historically Catholic Poles included in their 1997 constitution a preamble that addressed both “those who believe in God,” and “those not sharing such faith but respecting those universal values as arising from other sources”[35]). Among other controversial points, the new Hungarian Constitution defines marriage as an institution between a man and a woman, asserts the belief that human life begins at conception, restricts voting rights for mentally disabled individuals under partial guardianship, and is silent on human rights protection for LGBT individuals.

From a legal point of view, the Constitution’s extensive use of cardinal laws has been questioned by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory board on constitutional matters, and one of the new Fundamental Law’s most outspoken critics. (36) When the Constitution was adopted, there were thirty-two (37) cardinal laws—important legislation elaborating the country’s fundamental institutions, such as the parliament, electoral procedures, and party financing—that were left to be defined later. While cardinal laws are common practice in Hungary and in international law, critics believe the high number in the Constitution rendered it “a political act in process.” At the end of December 2011, a flurry of constitutional activity saw the rapid passing of numerous cardinal laws with only limited parliamentary debate. Overall, in its first twenty months in power, Fidesz passed 365 laws and legal amendments—including over a dozen changes to the old constitution—compared with a total of twenty-five constitutional amendments made in the twenty years between 1989 and 2009 (38). In Budapest there is a strong suspicion that, given Fidesz’s track record, this kind of intense constitutional activity may well continue unabated.

What Fidesz’s critics believe all these events have in common—the new Constitution, the media laws, the imposing of a specific cultural agenda in the arts—is Fidesz’s drive to define Hungarian society from a single viewpoint while at the same time consolidating the party’s power. This has been further accomplished by an extensive dismantling of the independence of the judiciary, the reduction of the powers of the Constitutional Court, and the appointment of Fidesz supporters as the heads of many of the country’s most important institutions, including the State Audit Office and the new National Budget Council.

In certain cases, Fidesz has extended the tenure of certain positions, such as those of the Public Prosecutor and the head of the National Judicial Office, to a period of nine years, more than the length of two legislative terms.(39) For other positions, mandates have been abruptly terminated, through either legislation or the creation of new institutions. A law passed right before the Constitution came into effect put an end to the tenure of the President of the Supreme Court. In another much debated instance, Hungary’s Constitutional Court refused to approve an amendment Fidesz put forward concerning retroactive taxation, ruling it to be unconstitutional. In response, the government simply made a change to the Constitution forbidding the court to rule on financial matters. To avoid similar problems with the Constitutional Court in the future, on June 6, 2011, Fidesz passed an amendment expanding the number of judges from eleven to fifteen. The Fidesz majority then appointed four new judges.(40)

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In Viktor Orbán’s acceptance speech following the April 2010 elections, he said that the opposition would receive “elegant treatment.” After the legislative manhandling that has occurred over the last twenty months, this phrase has begun to seem more like a Raymond Chandler euphemism. Some legal specialists have suggested that one of the reasons Hungary hasn’t previously seen this kind of power grab is that the only other parliamentary supermajority—the 1994–98 Socialist-Liberal coalition—occurred close in time to the democratic transition, at a moment when the legacy of Communist totalitarianism was still fresh in everyone’s minds. If the Socialist–Liberal government used parliamentary self-restraint—perhaps to the point of self-destruction—it was to avoid recreating the kind of power concentration that had only recently been overturned. Many believe that, in a similar way, the Socialist Party, during its twelve years in office (despite numerous scandals and what is viewed, even by Liberals, as a series of irresponsible economic policies), nevertheless restricted itself to acting within the constitutional framework set up after 1989.

Fidesz, on the other hand, has positioned itself as the “real Hungary,” and appears to perceive itself to be free of this political legacy, and therefore endowed with the authority to define the country’s political, legal, and cultural norms. In 2002, following Fidesz’s electoral defeat, Viktor Orbán announced to his supporters at a mass rally that the party “would not be in opposition,” because the “Fatherland can never be in opposition.” Such a statement, however, raises the specter of Hungary’s “other” past, that of the authoritarian interwar Horthy regime, upon which much of Fidesz’s rhetoric is based. If 1989 was a moment of reckoning for the Hungarian Left, some believe that, because of the long Communist period, the Right was not obliged to undergo a comparable process of self-scrutiny. Again to quote Kis: “[the] groups on the Right that mark the ideological character of right-wing politics in this country see [. . .] defeat as usurpers coming to power.”(41) While the drive to assert that a given political party is the natural leader of a country is hardly exclusive to Fidesz, there is an important distinction between making such a claim and establishing an autocracy.

The troubling question is therefore whether Fidesz’s actions are indeed oriented towards conservative “reform” or if there is a real attempt to install a right-wing dominant party system—now an attainable goal following the discrediting of the Hungarian Socialists. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, Viktor Orbán addressed this issue in a now-famous speech delivered in 2009 to a group of Fidesz party activists in Kötcse. During his talk he laid out his vision for Hungary’s future: “What is certain is that there is a real possibility that Hungarian politics over the next fifteen to twenty years will not be determined by a dual power block, which, due to constant debate regarding values, generates divisive, petty, and unnecessary social consequences. Instead, a large governing party is being formed, a central political bloc, which will be able to address national issues—and this will not be done by constant debates, but it will represent them in its own natural way. Therefore [. . .] the question is the following: do we want to pursue a governmental, political attitude, which in itself involves the possibility of reestablishing the dual system? [. . .] I propose that instead of a politics prepared for constant battle, we should opt for a politics prepared for constant governing.”(42)

 

 

7. Budapest, Andrássy Avenue, 2012

In the early nineties, political scientists questioned the viability of Central and Eastern European countries wrestling with the dual challenge of political and economic transformation. Very quickly concerns arose that, given the high economic sacrifices involved, one might see the rise of “authoritarian temptations and upsurges in nationalism and xenophobia.”(43) Paradoxically, particularly during the first decade, what one found in countries such as Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic was actually the opposite tendency: despite high unemployment and inflation, there was an unwavering commitment to democracy and to integration with the West. When the “political economy of patience” of the first decade began to founder in the mid- to late nineties, the democratic project was shored up by the successive transnational incentives of NATO membership (Hungary joined in 1999) and the accession of Central and Eastern European countries to the European Union in 2004.

Nevertheless, there have been long-term consequences of this transformation. After enduring the shock of privatization, Hungary began to witness a resistance from the electorate to accept further austerity. This trend, which is just now coming to a head, is often underestimated by Western analysts. In Central and Eastern Europe, low monthly wages, inadequate pensions, and high unemployment have sown the seeds of serious discontent, as seen in the rioting in Bucharest in January 2012. In Hungary, over the last fifteen years, both the incumbent Socialist government and Fidesz have been locked in what Agnes Batory has described as a “prisoner’s dilemma”: “The elections of 2002 and 2006 “taught” both the Socialists and Fidesz the lesson that only with promises of “painless” minor corrections and maintained social spending is it possible to win—because unless these unsustainable electoral pledges are made, the opponent would make them instead.”(44) In 2006, leading up to the elections, the Socialists employed such a strategy, which exploded immediately afterwards when Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsány admitted in an address to Socialist members of Parliament that his party had lied to voters about the desperate state of Hungary’s economy, which was only being held up by “divine providence.” This disclosure led to over a month of riots and police brutality—events that, to this day, remain controversial.

 

••

On a cold day in Budapest, on a side street not far from the Opera, I entered a small antique store filled with tableware, postcards, and old radios from the 1940s. There, surrounded by Hungary’s artifacts, the conversation in the shop naturally drifted from the past to present-day politics. The two women owners—one in her mid-fifties, the other in her late sixties—said they had made the decision not to talk about politics in the boutique. When I asked the younger woman if this was because she was afraid, she quickly answered “No.” But after a tense moment, the older woman with short-cropped hair interjected, “No . . . but yes.” After a polite interval, the older woman followed me into a separate room. She had decided she wanted to speak: “Political parties, right and left—neither of them is the solution,” she said, with what suddenly felt like a burst of common sense. “We need a middle course.” She said we could meet to discuss politics outside the shop, but in case we didn’t get a chance, there was one thing she wanted to tell me. Before returning to the other room, she said in a penetrating voice, “The last six months have been the worst.”

How much worse things will get, and what will happen next, depends on the strength of the civil society now emerging. Later in the afternoon near the Parliament, an elderly man in a pinstriped suit was playing a piano in a storefront, among old sofas, lamps, and sideboards. Just audible through the plate glass were strains of Bartók—music that flowed over and over with no beginning or end. Despite the last century’s traumas, after 1956 and 1989 Hungary has found a way to renew itself, and it is my conviction that Hungarians are tenacious enough to fight their way forward. I found among the critics of the government—but also among Hungarians of all political persuasions—a profound taste for freedom that I’m not sure any single political party can repress. Nevertheless, one just hopes that, given the chance, Hungary will not take another leap into the dark.

 

 

 

 

 

Endnotes

1 On April 2, 2012, President Pál Schmitt resigned from his position as Hungarian President following allegations that sections of his doctoral thesis had been plagiarized.

2Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom, The Movement for a Better Hungary.

3Fidesz–Magyar Polgári Szövetség, Fidesz–Hungarian Civic Union.

4 Article 61, Hungarian Constitution.

5 “Act LXXXII of 2010,” passed July 22, 2010.

6 Resolution No. 95/2010 [x.15] and 96/2010 [x.15]. The speed with which such legislation was adopted is not only due to Fidesz’s supermajority, but because the proposed legislation was put forward by individual Members of Parliament. Under Hungarian law, bills introduced by MPs can preclude extensive debate.

7 The length of the term for President is in fact potentially indefinite: “According to an amended provision to the Media Act [. . .], if Parliament fails to elect a new chairperson and members at the end of their nine-year terms, the current president and Media Council members retain their positions, indefinitely, until new members are elected.” See: Amy Brouillette, Joost van Beek, et al., “Hungarian Media Laws in Europe,” Budapest, CMCS, 2012, p.1. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201202/20120208ATT37588/20120208ATT37588EN.pdf.

8 “Act CIV of 2010 on the Freedom of the Press and the Fundamental Rules on Media Content” passed November 9, 2010.

9 “Act CLXXXV of 2010 on Media Services and Mass Media” passed December 21, 2010.

10 Article 61 clause 3, Hungarian Constitution, as amended on July 6, 2010.

11 Originally Article 13 of the Press Freedom Act, this was moved to Article 10 in February 2011.

12 European press norms arise from international protocols and conventions to which EU Member States are bound, including Article 11 of the “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,” Article 10 of the “European Convention on Human Rights” and Article 19 of the “UN Declaration of Human Rights.” See: Amy Brouillette, Joost van Beek, et al. op. cit. p. viii.

13 The Constitutional Court ruled certain parts of the Media Law unconstitutional, though even this ruling left certain areas, such as limits on the confidentiality of journalists’ sources, unresolved. See: “Joint position paper to the High Level Group on Media Freedom and Pluralism created by the European Commission on the Hungarian Media Law and its Application” by the Hungarian Europe Society, Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, Eötvös Károly Public Policy Institute and the Standards (Mérték) Media Monitor, 17 January 2012.

14 See: Miklós Haraszti, “Notes on Hungary’s Media Law Package,” Eurozine http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-03-01-haraszti-en.html.

15 In addition, all news providers—including print and the Internet—must register with the government (originally this registration had to take place before beginning operations, but following intense international opposition, news sources must now register during their first sixty days).

16 See: “Media Law in Hungary, Extracts from the Commission statement and MEPs’ debate,” http://audiovisual.europarl.europa.eu/Search.aspx.

17 Rui Tavares, European Parliament, February 16, 2011: “Media Law in Hungary—Political Group Statements,” http://audiovisual.europarl.europa.eu/AssetDetail.aspx?g=87bd0a86-85cc-44aa-8e8a-1df8d32f8da9.

18Lehet Más a Politika, Politics Can Be Different.

19Negyedik Köztársaság, Fourth Republic.

20Szolidaritás, Solidarity.

21 Act CLXXXV, op. cit.

22Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja, Hungarian Justice and Life Party.

23 Though marginalized over the last decade, in 1998 the MIÉP party held fourteen seats in the Hungarian Parliament.

24 In the 2010 elections, Jobbik won 16.67 percent of Parliamentary seats. Gábor Vona, a current MEP and chairman of the Jobbik party, founded in 2007 the radical paramilitary group Magyar Gárda (Hungarian Guard). The organization was officially outlawed in December 2008.

25 This led Gisela Pflugradt-Marteau, the director of the Euro Theater Central Bonn and the Hungarian company Aradi Kamaraszínház—in a series of such gestures—to publicly distance themselves from any claims of collaboration.

26 The exact number of Hungarian Jews killed during the Holocaust is not known, but most sources estimate between 450,000–550,000 victims. See: M. Molnar, A Concise History of Hungary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 292–293.

27 Before the hand-over of the theater, the last play the theater’s troupe performed was a stage adaptation of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.

28 MTVA: Media Service Support and Asset Management Fund.

29 Following the new legislation, MTI became the exclusive news provider for public media; thus the Director of MTI’s news center is responsible for the news for all Hungarian public media.

30 For a description of the Cohn-Bendit affair, see: “Journalists Protest Manipulation with Hunger Strike” (www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,804299,00.html).

31 After 1989, all of the future Eastern accession countries to the European Union drafted new constitutions between 1991 and 1992, with the exception of Latvia, which symbolically chose to reintroduce its constitution of 1922, and Poland, whose new constitution went into effect in 1997.

32 Act XXXI of 1989.

33 Former Hungarian Constitution: Article 24, paragraph 5.

34 János Kis, Lecture: “Constitution-Making in Two Stages,” Central European University, Budapest, March 24, 2011.

35 The Constitution of the Republic of Poland, www.sejm.gov.pl/prawo/konst/angielski/kon1.htm.

36 See: “Opinion on the New Constitution of Hungary. Adopted by the Venice Commission (Venice, 17–18 June 2011),” http://www.venice.coe.int/docs/2011/CDL-AD(2011)016-e.pdf.

37 There is some debate as to the exact number of cardinal laws: the Hungarian Parliament cites thirty-two, while the Venice Commission puts this figure at fifty.

38 See: M. Deszo and B. Somody, Constitutional Law in Hungary (Alphen aan den Rijn: Kluwer Law International, 2010), p. 31.

39 Conversely, rather than the extension of certain tenures, there has also been what is viewed by the opposition as the manipulation of retirement for political ends. Included in Hungary’s new Constitution is the mandatory lowering of the retirement age for judges from seventy years old to sixty-two. The net result is that over 230 new judges will be appointed while Fidesz is in office.

40 This raised the number of Fidesz-appointed judges to six: two appointed in 2010 and four in 2011.

41 János Kis, op. cit.

42 Viktor Orban: see: http://orbanviktor.hu/cikk/megorizni_a_letezes_magyar_minoseget.

43 Dorothee Bohle, “East European Transformations and the Paradoxes of Transnationalization” European University Working Paper SPS 2010/01, p. 2.

44 Dr. Agnes Batory, “Election Briefing No 51: Europe and the Hungarian Parliamentary Elections of April 2010,” EPERN, 17 June 2010, p. 9.

 



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