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Hungary tears up the ballot paper

Observations on European Democracy

His approval ratings are among the lowest ever achieved by a prime minister. As the former manager of the country’s finances, many blame him for its current economic predicament. By nature an introvert, he is finding it hard to build up a rapport with the electorate. His name is Gordon B . . . No, not Gordon Brown, but Gordon Bajnai, who last month was sworn in as the new prime minister of Hungary.

The similarities between the political situations in Hungary and Britain are striking. In both countries a nominally left-of-centre – but actually pro-big business and pro-privatisation – government has presided over an unsustainable credit boom. Both have been hit hard by the global recession. We should also note that Banjai’s predecessor, Ferenc Gyurcsány, was widely referred to as “Hungary’s Tony Blair” and is a friend of Peter Mandelson.

But there are important differences, too. Britain’s Gordon B may not have had his elevation to the premiership endorsed by the electorate, but he is nonetheless a democratically elected member of parliament. Hungary’s Gordon B has not been elected to any office.

A millionaire businessman, nicknamed “Goose Gordon” for his controversial role in the liquidation of a poultry firm in which hundreds of producers lost their savings, Bajnai became prime minister due to the support of the neoliberal SZDSZ party (Alliance of Free Democrats), who despite having the support of only 1 per cent of the electorate, according to recent opinion polls, hold the balance of power in parliament.

Bajnai is not a member of any political party, but a friend and former business partner of both Gyurcsány and the SZDSZ leader, János Kóka. Imagine if in Britain the Lib Dems held the balance of power in the next parliament and Nick Clegg installed an old business buddy, who was not an MP, as PM.

It sounds far-fetched, but it has happened in Hungary. Realising that they stand little chance of winning seats in the next election, the SZDSZ, who reacted angrily when voters in a referendum last year rejected the imposition of hospital and doctor’s visit fees and higher-education tuition fees, have been pushing for a “government of experts” to impose the draconian cutbacks in public spending that they have long advocated. Now they have got what they wanted.

In addition to the prime minister, other unelected “experts” in the new government include finance minister Peter Oszko, formerly head of Deloitte Hungary; economy minister István Varga, the former head of Shell in Hungary; and minister of transport, telecommunication and energy, Peter Honig, the former CEO of the airline Malev.

The fact that unelected figures hold so much power in a European country that styles itself a democracy is alarming. The formation of “non-political” governments to introduce swingeing cuts in public expenditure – and privatise health care, lower pensions and drastically reduce welfare provision – is an undemocratic development that could spread.

Such governments are a long way from being “non-political”. On the contrary, they are espousing ideologically motivated economic policies, but do so under the smokescreen of “financial necessity”. Unable to receive a popular mandate for their reforms, neoliberals in Hungary have stuck two fingers up at the democratic process. As the economic crisis deepens and public unrest grows, don’t rule out their counterparts in other countries following suit.

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Rock bottom