Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why Hungary is not a dictatorship - a longer version of my article published in The Times

A familiar shadow has fallen over Central Europe, warn the doom-mongers. Cue gloomy music; soldiers marching over rain-sodden fields; raving leaders and adoring masses. The Washington Post sounds the alarm about “Putinisation”. In Brussels the Eurocrats mutter about one party rule. The German press intones solemnly about a new “Fuhrerstaat” (well, they would know). The rogue nation must be censured, sanctioned and turned into a pariah forthwith.
            Is this Belarus, where Aleksander Lukashenko despatched his brutal riot police to club demonstrators senseless and scores of activists remain in prison on trumped-up charges? Or perhaps Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovich’s government has arrested former cabinet ministers on charges of corruption and is now gunning for former prime minister Julia Timoshenko? Er, no. It’s Hungary.
            Yes, Hungary, the small country of ten million in the heart of Europe that now holds the EU’s rotating presidency. The same Hungary that has made a solid transition from Communism, is a stable, modern democracy, with a proud history, rich culture and tradition of technical wizardry that has brought the world countless inventions from the ballpoint pen to Vitamin C.  Reading some of the press coverage of recent events here, including a call in The Times by Bill Emmott for Hungary to be expelled from the European Union, and Nick Cohen’s description in The Observer of Hungary as an “ugly little state” I get a distinct sense of the playground bullies ganging up on the new kid.
            The reality is this: since his right-wing Fidesz party won a two thirds majority, Viktor Orban, the prime minister, has used his mandate to consolidate political power with unprecedented speed and determination. A former Fidesz MEP has been appointed President; a former Fidesz MP has been appointed to run the State Audit Office; the Fiscal Authority which oversaw the budget has been abolished; the powers of the Constitutional Court have been cut back and a new National Media and Communications Authority is now in charge of print, broadcast and online, with powers to impose massive fines for vague offences such as offending “human dignity.”
            Much of this is deeply unsettling, although Government officials say these institutions will remain independent. Meanwhile, dozens of public foundations dealing with the Roma minority, arts, culture, the homeless and even the internationally renowned Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution are to be abolished and their functions taken over by the government.
            Is this an act of reckless cultural and intellectual vandalism? Yes. Sould we be concerned about Fidesz’s centralisation of power? Absolutely. Does it mean Hungary is sliding into dictatorship? No. Such wild talk helps nobody, least of all the modernisers in the government trying to drag the country into the 21st century, while the arch-conservatives seem to prefer the 19th.
            In Britain we should know the difference between an over-centralised democracy and a dictatorship better than anyone. Mr Orban’s model seems to be not Vladimir Putin but Margaret Thatcher. She too was elected on a wave of hope after years of rule by a weak and ineffective left-wing government; centralised power to an unparalleled degree; waged cultural warfare against those she considered dangerous liberals and tolerated no dissent in her party. Lady Thatcher visited Budapest in 1990 to a rapturous reception. She would feel quite at home now.


  1. let's hope you are right and VO has a plan other than a vague wish to create 1 million new jobs out of thin air

  2. My impression of VO is that of a populist leader prone to demagoguery, aspiring to the adored status of 'Father of the Nation'. Paradoxically, he also seems to be the reincarnation of Robin Hood, but a reincarnation the other way round: 'take away from the poor and give to the rich' - see the results of his flat rate tax laws. Many of his own supporters must admit they backed the wrong horse during the last general elections.