Left turn

Observations on Hungary

The Hungarians have always liked to do things differently. They say "hello" when we say "goodbye"; they introduce surnames first. Now they have voted contrary to the rest of Europe.

Although the Hungarian elections coincided with those in France, it was no surprise that Le Pen and not Peter Medgyessy stole the headlines. And even though we shouldn't expect too much socialism from the social-democratic victory in Hungary, the left should be celebrating.

The outgoing prime minister, Viktor Orban, leader of the Federation of Young Democrats, began his career as an anti-communist street protester. But by the time of his 1998 election win, his transformation from student activist to designer-suited right-wing politico was complete. He soon showed his authoritarian tendencies, replacing all non-Young Democrat supporters in key positions with party henchmen.

But it was for his opponents in the media that he reserved his greatest ire. A political purge of the state media in 1999 was followed by the arrest of the TV presenter Laszlo Juszt for disclosing leaked documents which proved that Young Democrat leaders had not been put under surveillance by the previous Socialist administration. Newspapers reporting the way Orban's father's and brother's mining interests have been helped by government contracts have had lawsuits filed against them. And on five occasions, police searched newspaper offices in connection with their coverage of political scandals, while the authorities also launched criminal investigations of journalists for allegedly violating criminal statutes barring the publication of state and banking secrets.

These clear attacks on press freedoms went largely unreported in the western media, unlike those alleged in neighbouring Yugoslavia under Milosevic. As the Turks have long since appreciated, you don't need to employ the services of an international public relations agency if you're already a member of Nato.