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The boss of Munchhausen is not a tyrant

Published on February 14, 2012 by: in: Politics

PM Orban of Hungary evaluates

What characterizes best Viktor Orban – the Prime Minister of Hungary in his second term? The way he treats the opposition and Europe, or the way they treat him? What is his qualified majority in the parliament enough for? On the 7th of February, Orban gave his 14th so-called yearly evaluation speech in which he says Europe is like alcohol – it inspires to big goals and it keeps you from achieving them.

source: European People's Party

source: European People's Party

Let me start the same way as Orban started his speech: it will be long, arduous from time to time, so fasten your seatbelts! Only half a year after the EU presidency of Hungary ended acknowledged as considerably successful by most of the European political community, while PM Orban enjoys unprecedented support from its voters back at home, he faces unprecedented headwind on the international political stage. People with political interest surely have not missed the fact that the EU launched legal action against Hungary in January. The main aim of the proceeding is to force the Hungarian government to make the new constitution comply with the EU law. Other laws on pension in the judiciary system, on the National Bank and on data protection are also at stake.

Full-court press

This proceeding is one in many: there are some two thousand so-called active infringement cases according to the 28th Annual Report on Monitoring the Application of the EU Law. What is peculiar is that this case has nothing to do with environmental legislation, internal markets or taxes: it is said to be a matter of European values (the letter and the spirit of EU legislation, as Chairman of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso put it). Moreover, it seems that the proceeding is just one tool of the international community among several others. The IMF warned Orban that they would not even negotiate on a Stand-By Agreement if the National Bank law remains the same; EU Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn said it was a possibility that the country could face a suspension of the EU cohesion funds if the legislation does not become compliant. Even Hillary Clinton from overseas wrote a letter asking for checks and balances.

What is also peculiar is the EP debate on the issues related to Hungary. Never was there a whole parliamentary session entirely dedicated to concerns about one specific country. (Somebody might write sometime an article on the checks and balances on the EU level, namely how the EP tries to show its strength compared to the Commission and the Council for which this debate was a perfect occasion.)

A question arises: why is it so important what happens in Hungary? What bothers the Western world – sorry to say, but no criticism of Orban came from Russia, China or the Middle East – about the situation in Hungary? In most cases, their statements say they think that Orban acts against democratic and European values, in other words he tries to build and maintain a regime which is authoritarian, he tries to control all branches of power, and he wants to silence the opposition. In addition, his economic policy is often criticized as anti-market and state socialistic. Let’s examine the former area of criticism first.

Let’s see the worrying signs!

It all started back in December 2010 when the new media law was passed in Hungary. On this I must take a very personal view: if anybody consumed Hungarian media in the past 10 years, that person would surely agree that it was full of biased information and there was a lot of missing information; however, freedom of speech was undisturbed during the whole period and remained this way ever since the new law came. You can even lie about your intensions or cite wrong numbers (what actually happened with former PM Ferenc Gyurcsany before the 2002 elections), you will get away with it in court if you refer to freedom of speech. Only hate speech and slander are punished consequently. That said, I absolutely agree with Nick Thorpe of BBC who unfolds how costly it was to issue this severe media law (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-16549259): by providing them a perfect story against himself, Orban ‘shot the messengers’, as with so many enemies in the media it is very hard to communicate your reforms but you will likely face many attacks. Though if one is aware how much the Hungarian right wing have suffered between 2002 and 2008 of the media – reporters’ directed questions, news missing and news generated, scandals burst and scandals silenced etc – maybe the sanctions of biased information are easier to understand.

As far as democracy is concerned, we have to note that there is no doubt Orban was elected in a clean way and the citizens voted for Fidesz at an unprecedented rate despite he warned everyone that he wants to rebuild the country from scratch because he believes the socialist party’s way leads to bankruptcy. Nevertheless, there are worrying signs.

First, day by day new people are appointed or elected to positions in the administration, at state-owned companies and at national institutions and even the president – and they turn out to be either an anti-liberal or -socialist or an outright Orban-fan. Sometimes new laws seem to be serving just the purpose of creating such positions, like the enlargement of the Budget Council or the  retirement of old judges. In this regard, media headwind is definitely bad for Orban: journalists are all ears to find every case like this. On the other hand, even if he did not want to put right wing people to all chairs, it would be very hard to find other suitable people who would actually take the positions. The supporting intellectual community of the postcommunist party is very disappointed in the party’s performance during the 8 years of their governance, and many left wing oriented professionals feel they failed and they do not want to take part in the fresh start together with people sharing a conservative view. Moreover, one could still say this is not a dictatorship as everybody wants to work with people he knows and he can trust in.

Second, Orban is not afraid of using his power. His government changes practically all of the major laws, even the constitution. However, one has to admit that in many cases it was inevitable and really in due course, because either the legislations were required to be changed for constitutional compliance or because financials became unsustainable. With few exceptions, no fundamental changes have occurred in the big systems like health, education or administration ever since the so-called Bokros-pack in 1995. Orban’s success at the elections was partly due to the immense need in the society for reforms in the operation which would give hope for the future that the systems will just work.

Third, Orban puts a huge emphasis on the role of the state. In a democracy, at least as its essence was put by liberal democrats more than two centuries ago, state actors (institutions, leaders, companies) are threatening freedom if they do anything else than to guard and preserve the rights of people and private companies. It is no surprise that every liberal – and by the way, every actor whose power is decreasing in this process – is strongly opposing the government of Orban, for he is definitely, directly and openly building an active and powerful state. Whether he builds it for himself and he wants to be a dictator of any kind – there is no way to prove (or disprove) this. Nonetheless if you are a democrat and you see that one can get a qualified majority with the idea of an active and powerful state, you might have to accept that such a state is what people want and therefore it is not against the values of democracy. Moreover, it can be seen all over the world: in many countries the state control has to be increased in order to achieve financial sustainability and public order, and even at the EU level the trend of centralizing power is clearly visible – for instance in the very process of putting pressure on Hungary.

The notion of national independence

It is worthwhile to take a look at how Orban thinks about this. For doing that we can use a very good and actual source: his so-called yearly evaluation speech which he holds every year in early February from 1999. This year (http://www.fidesz.hu/index.php?Cikk=177643) he started with the principle of Abraham Lincoln: government of the people, by the people, for the people. With a qualified majority in the parliament, with half of the voters who made a choice naming Fidesz in January polls (which is more than what the 2nd and 3rd most popular parties got altogether), being the 2nd most popular among current Hungarian politicians (just after Secretary of State for Prime Minister’s Office) after hundreds of thousands of people expressing their support in a ‘peace march’ only weeks ago – no doubt he has the reasons to use this quote. Albeit he could have been more modest as 60% of adult population say they are not sure whether they would vote or even sure they would not and 41% of the voters are not sure about whom to vote for – saying that he is anti-democratic is nonsense.

However, Europe is clearly right in assuming that complying with the EU is something Orban does not like to do. In his speech he used the following metaphor: Europe is like alcohol – it inspires to big goals and it keeps you from achieving them. This is exactly the scepticism which can be sensed all over the continent nowadays. Orban values national identity more than European one and he definitely puts emphasis on independence whenever he has the chance. But I think judging this is difficult as it is like two sides of a coin: the same thing you can view as chauvinism/xenophobia and as legitimate right of sovereignty at the same time. As he put it: ‘For national independence other nations do not tell a compliment. But this is not a reason to give up on it.’

Europe is extremely sensitive about power, for it has experienced its abuse on a huge scale and at an embittering frequency. On the other hand Western Europeans have lived without personally experiencing dictatorship for several decades now and they live considerably far away from such countries as Libya, Iran, Cuba or North Korea. Combine these two and you will understand that to a small sign of conservatism many will shout autocracy. Question is should the liberal minimum be set to the liberal maximum because of that?

Economics á lá baron Munchhausen, with sauce of left wing content served in right wing rhetoric

Now looking at the criticism Hungary received from abroad in regard to its economic policy, topics included the crisis/bank taxes, the decrease of income taxes, the termination of obligatory private pension funds and the regulation of final payoff of foreign currency mortgages. The policy of the government can be attributed to Minister for Economic Affairs Gyorgy Matolcsy. He believes so much in the Keynesian view of internal market and the use of an active state that he reminds me of baron Munchhausen, who tries to pull himself out of a slough with his own hands.

Let’s leave the details on these issues to the economists, but the speech of Orban contained important clues to the values behind the economic policy of his government. He stated that his biggest priorities are: moving out from the debt trap, restoring the honor of working and gathering reserves. Orban said he was proud that the new constitution includes the responsibility of the government of any time to limit public debt, which ‘hurts so much for those, whose interests here at home and abroad are to continuously increase the public debt of Hungary’. (For his resolution he is compared by some analysts to Putin.) He recalled that in 2002 – when his first term as a PM ended – the public debt was 52% and on a decreasing trend, while in 2010 when he next won an election it was 80% and increasing. He said that albeit socialists and liberals at home and abroad told him that the people should pay this ‘bill’, he wanted to change the shares of public burden and ask for a ‘fair’ contribution from banks and international companies. These firms are naturally complaining now and through their headquarters in London, Munich, Paris etc. they put pressure on their governments to react and try to force Orban to retreat. Where are the left wing activists who usually protest against such company lobby?

The speech had a long part on the issues and measures related to work. What is ideologically interesting is that no matter how many people put Orban in the right wing category, he actually talks like a natural born socialist: as if he just learnt Marx’s man-becomes-a-man-by-work aphorism. He wants people to work more – therefore he made the income tax rate flat so that one gets more money if he earns more. And he wants more people to work – therefore he launches programs such as bringing back the elderly disabled people to work or facilitation of part-time jobs. The case is that since the last 2 governments of the postsocialist party took a very liberal side, Orban had the chance to run a socialist (for social historians: rather a Christian socialist) economic policy. This is something what makes Fidesz quite unique in Europe: a party telling left wing content using right wing rhetoric.

During turbulent times…

…everybody likes to rest, and while the European Parliament is talking about Hungary, every other country can feel at ease. Nonetheless, there were two countries whose MEPs defended Hungary during the debate: Lithuania and Poland – Orban did not forget to say thank you in his yearly evaluation speech to them. All in all he has to face many critics on his politics concentrating on national independence, which may or may not turn out to be exaggerated and unjust in time. But ultimately patience is shrinking: he has to show he can boost the economy and clearly navigate the country away from the danger of bankruptcy.

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About Laszlo Szemelyi

Sociologist, honoured with Pro Scientia Golden Medal in 2007 for his analyses on brain drain from Hungary. Interested in problems related to migration, organizations and culture.

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