"Hungary is being held hostage by an outdated tyrant"

Viktor Orban’s government is returning the country to totalitarianism.

Hungary is a country on the edge. In the last twelve months it has undergone profound political reform and economic collapse but has been given almost no profile in Britain. 

The Constitution has been amended ten times in one year and then replaced all together. The Constitutional Court has been expanded and packed with allies of the Prime Minister. 200 judges have been forced to retire whilst a former party official now gets to decide which judge hears which case.

Election boundaries have been redrawn to ensure the ruling party would have won the last three elections (even the two they lost). Abortion and gay marriage is banned, whilst 238 churches were “de-recognised”, leaving only 14 behind. The multi-party Election Commission has been removed and replaced with five party officials. An ominous Media Board has been given draconian powers to keep the press in check and impose vast fines for ambiguous offences.

To top it all, the President’s private bodyguard is now the head of a new "anti-terror" force with unlimited powers to conduct secret surveillance, demand financial and medical records, and listen into phone calls without a warrant. All of this in contravention of a landmark 1989 court ruling that marked the end of the Communist secret state.

It was a cold dark day in late December and the clocks were striking thirteen.

In the name of tackling government inefficiency and the legacy of Communism, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s constitutional reforms undid two decades of democratic progress on 1st January 2012. In the heart of Europe, the rights and norms that underpinned the politics settlement have changed beyond recognition. 

Orban’s Fedesz Party won a super-majority of seats in the 2010 elections as the result of popular frustration and a disproportionate electoral system. But they used their position to systematically remove checks and balances, install political cronies, and ensure that such a sweeping popular change could never happen again.

Hungary has a proud tradition of democratic progress and the changes did not go unmarked.

There had been relatively few protests during the two decades of democracy, and so tens of thousands of people marching through the bitter winter cold demanded attention. Orban smiled and waved his hands.

Dissidents who led the underground movement against dictatorship and who helped the country transition to democracy pleaded with the EU not to “sit back and watch as [Hungary] is being held hostage by an outdated, provincial tyrant”. Orban smiled and turned away.

Typically softly spoken Brussels bureaucrats issued sweeping denunciations and Hilary Clinton voiced grave concern. Orban smiled and carried on as before.

When Fidesz was swept to power in 2010, their campaign effectively channeled popular frustration. The economy was deep in recession and relied on IMF support to avoid bankruptcy, unemployment was soaring, and even the beleaguered euro was preferred to the forint.

The far-right ultra nationalist Jobbik party used similar campaign tactics. Their leaders railed against the EU, Roma, and Jews. Far from being shunned by the electorate, they were returned as the second largest party in Parliament and boasted one of the highest youth membership rates.

In 2010, Hungary was clearly demanding a dramatic change. However, in exchange for two years of sweeping reforms and stringent cutbacks, they have not said goodbye to hard times, merely their right to demand better. The economy is in such bad shape that last November the vehemently anti-IMF Orban was forced to go cap in hand to the very institution he derided. Not coincidently, his dramatic constitutional changes distracted attention from the stumbling pirouette.

This is the Hungary of today; constitutional manipulation, bubbling extremism, and economic crisis. However, the EU and IMF are in a strong position to promote change. In January, Orban dared the EU to act on their criticisms of the constitutional manipulation. On 6th September, this political brinkmanship was repeated with his rejection of a 15 billion euro IMF deal. But the economy is falling and popular frustration is rising.

Orban famously points to ghosts in the system – conspiracies outside, Roma within, and Communists everywhere. Rather than searching behind for the pantomime villain, Hungarians need to see the one right in front of them.

The EU and IMF are just prolonging the Orban charade by demanding cuts to pensions without making a tough stand for transparency, accountability, and the constitutional integrity of Hungary. They have the leverage to lift the curtain, but do they have the courage? 

The far-right Jobbik party marches in Budapest. Photograph: Getty Images
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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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