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country transition to democracy pleaded with the EU not to “sit back and watch as [Hungary] is being held hostage by an outdated, provincial tyrant”.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?