Right Wing Rising: How Hungary’s Democratic Backsliding Threatens Europe
July 13, 2012
In January 2011, the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced that the 82-year-old philosopher Agnes Heller and four other academics would be investigated for the misuse of nearly $2.5 million in public grant money. The same day, the country’s leading conservative newspaper, Magyar Nemzet – a supporter of Orban — published a bracing attack on the professors. Other right-wing publications and television channels followed suit, derisively referring to the “Heller gang” which had “researched away” government money. The investigation, such as it was, lasted for nearly two months before being quietly put to bed with no evidence of wrongdoing.
Agnes Heller did not strike me as the sort of woman who would pose a threat to Orban when I visited her small, messy flat in a Budapest apartment overlooking the Danube River in February. She is about four feet tall and seems more like a doting Jewish grandmother than a corrupt political functionary. After surviving the Holocaust, and thus avoiding the fate of some 450,000 of her fellow Hungarian Jews, Heller studied under the renowned Marxist philosopher Gyorgy Lukacs at the University of Budapest. Heavily influenced by Lukacs’ critique of Stalinism (he had served briefly as a minister in the revolutionary government of Imry Nagy which was violently put down by the Soviets in 1956), she eventually became an outspoken opponent of Hungary’s communist regime and was forced into exile in 1977. Now, she mainly spends her days overseeing graduate students and enjoying semi-retirement. “I have not picked up one single penny,” Heller told me when I asked her about the allegation that she had stolen government money.
To some in Hungary, the attack on Heller and her colleagues reflected a coordinated campaign against Orban’s most outspoken critics. Heller has publically chided Orban for what she terms his “dictatorial inclinations” and testified against his policies at the European Parliament. “It was so well orchestrated, it doesn’t happen by accident,” Gabor Horvath, an editor for the daily Népszabadság, told me about the investigation and the accompanying media attacks. “This is character assassination.”
The assault on the philosophers is just one example of the disturbing turn away from free and open democracy in Hungary that has taken place since Orban came to power in April of 2010. A day before the government announced its investigation of Heller, some 60 European luminaries, including the late Vaclav Havel, published an open letter decrying the state of affairs. “Hungary’s government,” the letter warned, “is misusing its legislative majority to methodically dismantle democracy’s checks and balances, to remove constitutional constraints, and to subordinate to the will of the ruling party all branches of power, independent institutions, and the media.”
Greece’s economic peril has raised fears about the end of the eurozone. But Hungary presents as much of a fundamental challenge to the European Union, just more a political than an economic one. Hungary today is the first member state of the EU, a body that prides itself as the embodiment of classical liberal values, to tack sharply toward autocracy. Supporters of the EU often claim that it has the power to nudge the nations in Europe’s periphery toward democracy. But the EU has never been confronted with this level of democratic backsliding from one of its own members. Indeed, were present-day Hungary to apply for EU membership now, it would not likely be admitted. The fate of the country over the next several years will test the foundational principles of the entire European project.
Of all the nations in the Soviet sphere, Hungary, it seemed, should have made the smoothest transition to liberal democracy. Beginning in the 1960s, Communist Party leader Janos Kadar governed by what became known as “Goulash communism,” mixing market principles and limited personal freedoms with authoritarian state control. Under Kadar, Hungary became more liberal than any of the other Soviet Bloc regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, earning the moniker, “the happiest barrack.” It was the Hungarian government’s decision in May 1989 to remove its border fence with Austria which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall five months later.
Orban was among the dissidents who opened Hungary to the West. In 1988, as a 25-year-old law student, he founded Fidesz (an acronym for “Alliance of Young Democrats”) with a group of his classmates. Fidesz, a liberal party in the Western model, called for Hungary to adopt a market economy and a firm orientation towards Europe. The following year, Orban delivered a speech in Budapest’s iconic Heroes’ Square calling for the removal of Soviet troops from his country — the first dissident in the Eastern Bloc to make such a demand.
In the mid-1990s, however, the party moved right. Peter Molnar, a classmate of Orban’s and a co-founder of Fidesz, told me that the shift was a cynical electoral strategy. By the time of Hungary’s second national election in 1994, the then-ruling conservative Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) collapsed. Suddenly, a gap opened on the nationalist right, long a large constituency in Hungary. “I remember sitting in a parliamentary group leaders’ meeting when someone argued that there is a free space, an opening up of space on the center-right,” Molnar recalls. “‘We should move there,’” this person suggested. “Some of us were shocked of course because we did not think that we belonged to that place, and more important, we of course thought that we don’t choose our politics by where there is ‘space,’” Molnar said. He was in the minority, however, and under Orban’s leadership, Fidesz soon shifted to the space once occupied by the MDF and cancelled its membership in the Liberal International. In 1998, the party gained control of parliament and Orban became prime minister, serving until 2002.
Orban has dominated Fidesz since its creation. “People who surround him certainly have this type of admiration, that he’s a sacred figure,” Endre Bojtar, editor of the liberal weekly Magyar Narancs, told me. This admiration used to be more widespread; Western officials involved in Eastern Europe’s post-communist transitions saw him as a favored son. “He was a major democrat,” Mark Palmer, the American ambassador to Hungary during the last year of communist rule, said in an interview, “someone who, in my own mind, was as clear-headed about what Hungary needed and as European-oriented as anyone and courageous as anyone.” But now, Palmer concedes, Orban has changed. “Even the best of us can be corrupted by power. And that’s what I really think is what’s happened.”
In April 2010, Fidesz returned to power after defeating Hungary’s socialist party in national elections. Although it won only 53 percent of the vote, due to the particularities of Hungary’s electoral system, it gained a two-thirds majority in the single-chamber house along with a small Christian Democrat party. Almost immediately, the coalition pushed through a raft of controversial reforms…