Hungary is no longer a democracy

Europe has been slow to act, but it is not too late.

It is now a fact: Hungary is no longer a democracy.

President János Áder has just signed the implementation decrees for new constitutional reforms that wipe out what was left of opposition forces against the government.

More particularly, the Constitutional Court is no longer allowed to give its opinion about the content of laws and to refer to its own case-law – which results in the loss of almost all monitoring power on the legislature and the executive.

This meticulous destruction of democracy and its values – whose starting point was the landslide election of Fidesz in 2010 – has taken place over months and months, under everybody's eyes.

The attack was clear and continuous: crippling restriction of the freedom of the press, political direction of the Central Bank, inclusion in the Constitution of Christian religious references and of the "social utility" of individuals as a necessary condition for the enforcement of social rights, deletion of the word "Republic" in the same Constitution to define the country's political system, condemnation of homosexuality, criminalisation of the homeless, attacks against women's rights, impunity afforded to perpetrators of racist murders, the strengthening of a virulent anti-Semitism . . .

Only a few days ago, prime minister Viktor Orban officially decorated three extreme right-wing leading figures: journalist Ferenc Szaniszlo, known for his diatribes against the Jews and the Roma people, who he compares to "monkeys"; anti-Semitic archaeologist Kornel Bakav, who blames the Jews for having organized the slave trade in the Middle-Age; finally, "artist" Petras Janos, who proudly claims his proximity to the Jobbik and its paramilitary militia, responsible for several racist murders of Romani people and heiress of the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party, that organised the extermination of Jews and Gypsies during the Second World War.

This political degradation gives us a gruesome historical and political lesson. Throughout the twentieth century, representative democracy suffered the attacks of the two major totalitarian systems of the century – Nazism and Communism. Nowadays, in the twenty-first century, it is under the blows of an anti-European, nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic populism that democracy has fallen, at the heart of Europe, amidst the indifference of the European Union and of too many of its citizens and leaders.

Obsessed by economic and financial issues, too indifferent to its fundamental values ​​of freedom, equality, peace and justice, the EU has abandoned the fight to promote or even maintain democracy as the political system of its member states.

Unlike Putin's Russia, for example, Hungary is not a world power, and realpolitik cannot be invoked as a reason for this desertion. Since Hungary is strongly dependent on European subsidies and assistance, and since the EU has ominously shown in Greece how its financial support can be politicised to the extreme, its supposed lack of room for manoeuvre cannot be invoked either.

The fundamental reason is unfortunately as simple as it is worrying: it is a lack of commitment of the citizens and European leaders towards representative democracy as a political system.

This is why, since his re-election in 2010, Orban has received the unfailing support of many European leaders, notably from his own political family; this is also why the European Commission does not use any of the instruments available – though it does have many – to enforce the EU's fundamental values.

For example, the Commission, the Parliament and the European Council, where the states are represented, can act in concert to pursue actions under Article 7 of the EU Treaty, introduced by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 in order to avoid any backward step on democracy for any EU member state. Article 7 intends to suspend the voting rights of a country within the Council in case of a "potential violation of common values​".

In Hungary, however, the stage of risk was overstepped a long time ago. Actions under Article 7 should therefore be urgently taken, as a first step towards a strong EU commitment to defend democracy and its values.

Similarly, European civil society must continue to commit itself strongly to support Hungarian democrats who bravely fight within the country itself.

If the EU and civil society were not to commit themselves with the determination required by the gravity of the situation, we would be doomed to witness its rapid decay, in Hungary and soon elsewhere, if the European commitment turned out to be insufficient.

Let there be no mistake: what is at stake here is the nature of the European project and the ability of Europe to preserve our common and most precious commodity: democracy. For several decades, the choice between barbarism and democracy has never been so obvious.

Resolutely, we have to choose Europe and democracy.

Benjamin Abtan is president of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM)

A man wears a sticker on his mouth bearing the name of Hungary's governing party Fidesz at a protest on 30 March against the country's new constitution. (Photo: Getty.)

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism