A Turn To The Right In Hungary - An Analysis Of The 2010-2014 Period

  • 11 Apr 2014 9:00 AM
A Turn To The Right In Hungary - An Analysis Of The 2010-2014 Period
Conflicts with Brussels, utility cost cuts, symbolic debates. Just about every conflict of the past four years Viktor Orbán's administration went into was because of sovereignty and the shaping of a new framework for its interpretation. When did the cabinet have to retreat and when did the EU acknowledge that the rebellious Hungarian government was right?

Can we really thumb through the thousands of government decisions and over eight hundred new laws and legislative amendments of the past four years and get them to fit under a common denominator? Actually, we can! The reason the job is not impossible is because Fidesz leaders and Prime Minister Viktor Orbán repeatedly pointed out their template. Most government measures were part of a battle for economic and political self-determination.

The “freedom fight” hitting the headlines time and again got manifested in battles against the European Union, the major energy utilities, the banks, and even against the debts carried by households, local governments, and the central government. The fight for autonomy even made its way into social policy and the winners of Fidesz’s four years in office were working people and families with children, or, to put it another way, middle class families able to fend for themselves.

This leitmotif of the Orbán administration may be why Fidesz is the front-runner leading into the elections, for it offered its followers and supporterssupporters a clear and emotionally appealing narrative. At the same time, the ruling party got most of its slaps, and ended up facing off in any number of conflicts at home and abroad, because its voluntaristic attitude sometimes crossed the line into aggression.

The issue beyond debate is that the government set a course and held to it no matter what the circumstances. Its opponents have called it the road to ruination while its supporterssupporters have applauded. The biggest difference between the past four years and the 2002–2010 period lies in the willingness to take action. Back then a left wing which had full authorization in the legal sense of the term was at the helm, but with its political potency withering away it ended up going toe to toe with a political opponent that lacked legal legitimacy but was powerful anyway because of its popular support.

That changed in 2010 when the MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party) was defeated more thoroughly than any ruling party since 1990 (excepting the MDF (Hungarian Democratic Forum), which accepted the kamikaze role after the first free election). Since 2010 Fidesz has kept at what it had been doing throughout its life – fighting. While before 1990 it fought Communism, after the first free elections it resisted the fatal hug of the liberal big brother SZDSZ (Alliance of Free Democrats), after 1994 it fought to move forward on the right, from 1998 to 2002 it struggled against the still quite virulent post-Communist networks, and then from 2002 to 2010 it methodically clipped the wings of the MSZP. After winning a two-thirds majority the game continued, this time against the outsiders – the IMF, the European Union, and the multinationals. The voters will give their verdict next Sunday.

Confrontation with Brussels

When plotting a graph of this term of office, it is worth going back to the beginning. In late May 2010 the first thing the new parliament did was adopt a law making it easier to obtain Hungarian citizenship. On June 2, Orbán met with European Commission President José Manuel Barroso in Brussels. Following the meeting parliament adopted a declaration of “national cooperation” to be posted in public buildings and the three strikes and you’re out law for recidivist criminals. Ethnicity policy, European Union, fight along symbolic lines, public safety: these were the topics raised during the first few days of the Orbán administration that are still on the table as the term of office draws to a close.

That 2010 meeting in Brussels was particularly important because it was made clear there that the European Union’s Commission would not allow even the slightest rise in the national budget deficit and it didn’t give the new administration a bit more wiggle-room. Brussels’ decision marked the start of a tug of war with the European Union, in which the EU forced Hungary to strictly adhere to its numbers. In fact, European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Olli Rehn repeatedly overestimated the Hungarian budget deficit, forcing the cabinet to take additional measures to improve its balance. “In return,” the tone of the government became increasingly militant and even at public events Orbán drew parallels between Brussels and Moscow.

The conflict ended in a ceasefire albeit reconciliation was too much to ask for. In acknowledgement of its tight budget policy, as of June 2013 excessive deficit proceedings against Hungary were terminated after having been in effect since Hungary joined the EU in 2004. The European Commission finally put aside its pessimistic forecasts and as of today it projects economic growth exceeding two percent for Hungary. The other indices have also improved. Even the credit rating agencies that were the archenemies in the freedom fight mythology have recognized the advances. Early this week Standard & Poor’s upgraded Hungary’s long term national debt outlook from negative to stable.

The multiple conflicts with Brussels on economic management, reforms in the administration of justice, and media law were interesting because when they were at their peak, the prime minister described his world views before a plenary meeting of the European Parliament as the international media fired at him from both barrels. In January 2012, in a debate on Hungary before the European Parliament, Orban said, “We need to acknowledge that the ideology we believe in – nation, personal responsibility, Christianity, family – does not enjoy majority support in Europe at this time. But it nevertheless is a European position that we are entitled to take,” he said.

Concluded battles

One of the most important battles of the four-year-long “war for sovereignty” was over the private pension funds. This issue took the brunt of the abuse in fighting that ranged from budget equilibrium through international market interests to European level conflicts. As opposed to multiple other disputes of the past four years, this was one in which the European forums acknowledged that the highly controversial measure was legal.

As evidence, in January 2013 the European Court of Human Rights rejected a pension-fund-related submission by a Hungarian citizen. According to that decision, the private property rights of the applicant had not been violated since based on the contributions made while employed the applicant was entitled to a pension irrespectively of whether the funds contributed were held in government or private hands. Then, this past February, Fritz von Nordheim, the pension specialist at the employment directorate-general of the European Commission concluded that the financing model of the Hungarian and Polish private pension funds was faulty, so Brussels was not alarmed when the system was revoked. Since then, Poland decided to terminate the public monies-squandering system, while the Czech Republic and Romania are getting ready to revisit the system introduced at the recommendation of the IMF.

Another feature of this “freedom-fighting” term of office was that while the government always trumpeted its calls to battle when the fighting began, it was very quiet when it became necessary to pull back. In late 2012, for instance, a series of mass student demonstrations got underway on learning of a government proposal to cut the number of government-supported university slots to 10,000 while most students (over 40,000) would have had to make do with so-called “partial stipends."

Thousands of students demonstrated against this proposal and Fidesz found this very uncomfortable since back in 2008 it had been the party to initiate a referendum against tuition fees. So within a few days, a proposal to scrap the limits on scholarships was introduced.

The issues of the revamping of the administration of justice (including the National Court Bureau and redefining the role of its leader) and the media law became the strongest evidence of an “authoritarian” Hungarian political system, and this dispute lasted longer, too.

A ceasefire was finally reached when the Hungarian government amended several points of its laws. In January of 2013, Council of Europe Secretary-General Thorbjørn Jagland voiced satisfaction with changes including limiting the chief of the National Court Bureau to a single term of office and scrapping the clause that would have allowed him/her to automatically remain in office after that term expired until a successor was appointed.

Another point agreed on was that instead of the prime minister appointing the head of the National Media and Telecommunications Authority, the president of Hungary would make the appointment on recommendation of the prime minister. Parliament amended the media law in March 2013 to that effect and also put in a sunset clause, preventing the re-appointment of the heads of the media authority and media council, and members of the council.

When, in January 2013, Fidesz backed away from the idea of mandatory voter registration for all Hungarian citizens, the political impact was more powerful. The Constitutional Court threw out multiple clauses in the law on election procedure including the requirement of mandatory registration as a prerequisite to voting. (The high court did not object to registration by Hungarian citizens living abroad who had no permanent residence in Hungary and by Hungarians who happened to be in another country on election day.) Following the court ruling the government was ready to use its two-thirds majority to include mandatory registration in the constitution but then Fidesz suddenly pulled back in a demonstration of self-control.

At the same time, the action was clear evidence of something very few members of the ruling party, which seems to seek confrontation as a matter of principle, are ready to admit: sometimes there are political benefits to magnanimity and willingness to compromise. By letting go of the idea of voter registration which was questionable from both the legal and practical angles, it managed to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition which had been sure it would be introduced. For preceding months the left wing had been certain that by introducing mandatory registration the governing majority would turn the initiative over to the left, which could attract the poor Roma who suspected the move would limit their voting rights as well as the middle class who were up in arms over the administrative hassle.

Unceasing kulturkampf

The expanded playing fieldfield which counted as a basic characteristic of the four-year period often led to spectacular and pointless disputes over symbolic issues. Imre Kerényi, the self-styled “culture guru” appointed by the prime minister proved a knight in shining armor in the battle against proponents of the mainstream cultural world. Following the programs he designed to celebrate adoption of the new constitution there were sudden additions to his job description.

While there was no particular kerfuffle over introducing a series of books called the National Library, or erecting statues to long-ago Prime Minister István Bethlen or author/politician Miklós Bánffy, two of these projects died a natural death anyway. Magyar Krónika (Hungarian Chronicle), intended as a representative middle-class periodical looked dead before getting off the ground (publication was postponed and the first issue will allegedly appear in May), but the memorial statue to commemorate the anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary triggered an international firestorm. The German embassy and Jewish organizations protested so vehemently against the sculpture that it was not erected on March 19.

Political battles over the policy of memory have even left their mark on the establishment of new, state-run institutions. Institutes focused on past happenings were established: (Zoltán Bíró, once president of MDF, became head of the Institute to explore the history of transition, and historian Sándor Szakály became head of Veritas historical research institute). Preparations began to open the so-called House of Fates, intended to commemorate child victims of the Holocaust, and to organize commemorative events for the genocide that happened 70 years ago, but both projects triggered international polemics. (The House of Fates is under construction but it is clear that it won’t be ready this spring.) Admittedly, by the time the international dispute broke out, a negative foreign media environment qualified as business as usual.

In 2010, when the government adopted the new media law, the Hungarian government was immediately labeled “authoritarian, populist, and flirting with the far right.” The tone of the criticism of Hungary sometimes became absurd, with respected international news media painting Hungary as a country stumbling along on the brink of Fascism. Sober and fair criticism using tones of moderation almost disappeared from the international media.

That said, as economic outcomes improved, the wind turned here, too. After a study of seven thousand articles published in 12 countries the Nézőpont Media Workshop found that in 2013 the proportion of negative articles about Hungary dropped by 13 by percent (from 46 percent to 33) although there was no increase in the number of positive articles. The number of neutral ones, however, went up from 48 percent to 62 percent and the leading subject was the Hungarian economy.

The change in the media tone was also tangible in the political world. For instance, while the German foreign minister had repeatedly criticized the changes in Hungary, during a recent visit to Budapest, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who heads the ministry and is a Social Democrat, told a news conference after a meeting with Hungarian Foreign Minister János Martonyi that everything in German–Hungarian relations was just fine.

Source: Heti Válasz

Tranlation by Budapest Telegraph

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