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).

PHOTO: GETTY
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How Japan is preparing for the great flood

Experts fear Tokyo’s flood defences are not enough to avoid calamity.

Just north of Tokyo, a network of gigantic subterranean cisterns, tunnels and industrial engines helps to protect the world’s largest metropolitan area from extreme flooding – the threat of which is rising because of climate change. The system’s five cylindrical shafts can each accommodate a space shuttle, and the main tank, known as “the temple”, is held up by rows of 500-tonne pillars. Built at a cost of $2bn in 2006, the Metropolitan Area Outer Underground Discharge Channel sucks in water from swollen rivers and pumps it
out towards the ocean using the type of engines used in jet airliners.

The project has so far done its job in protecting the Tokyo area’s 38 million residents. But many experts fear the capital’s flood defences – which also include extensive underground reservoirs – are not enough to avoid calamity. Japan is being afflicted by ever stronger typhoons, and rainfall levels rise every year. In one river breach scenario, the government projects more than 6,000 deaths. “To be frank, these measures are not enough,” says Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, the former chief civil engineer of Tokyo’s flood-prone Edogawa ward.

Mayumi Ootani, who sells pots and pans and cigarettes from her shop, puts things more bluntly: “We’re living side-by-side with death.”

Calamitous flooding wrought by extreme weather is becoming an international menace, as shown last year in Texas, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. In Tokyo, the threat is even greater because the city is already so vulnerable to natural catastrophes such as earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami.

Swiss Re, a reinsurer, described Tokyo and neighbouring Yokohama as the world’s riskiest metropolitan area in a 2014 study, citing extreme flooding as one of the perils. The Japan Meteorological Agency blames climate change for a 30 per cent rise in rainfall measuring more than two inches per hour – in what is already one of the world’s wettest cities. In recent times, Tokyoites have also been beset by man-made perils, such as the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and North Korea’s recent threats to bring “nuclear clouds ” to Japan.

Such a confluence of worries might seem a recipe for mass-neurosis, or a flight to areas that do not lie on seismic or geopolitical fault lines. But  while Japan’s overall population declines due to low birth rates, Tokyo’s is still growing, with young people migrating from stagnant rural areas. Meanwhile, the city continues to build more and more skyscrapers – testament to Japan’s superlative earthquake-resistance technologies.

Even in the districts of Tokyo most at risk from floods and earthquakes, people tend to go about life with an optimism partly born of resignation. “I don’t go around worrying about it – if disaster comes, it comes,” says Toshio Miyata, who runs a tempura restaurant in a wood-framed home. “We Tokyoites don’t give a damn, whether it’s earthquake, fire or flooding. You can’t expect to fight with nature and win.”

Miyata runs his business in the Edogawa  ward – bordered and bisected by flood-prone rivers. It’s one of the areas that form what is known as the city’s shitamachi, or downtown, traditionally considered the authentic heart of Tokyo, where people are gruff, plain-spoken and on the hustle. It’s also the centre of so-called zero-metre zones that lie below sea level – and are doubly vulnerable because of the risk of inundation and buckling during quakes, a result of poor land quality. (One Edogawa resident described the ground beneath her home as “soft as tofu”.)

Yet it is precisely a centuries-old history of coping with disaster that explains how people here deal with the prospect, even likelihood, of natural calamity. “The consciousness that you may die in a natural disaster is something deeply-rooted among the Japanese,” says Kansai University disaster psychologist Tadahiro Motoyoshi. “There is a strong sense of the threat and the blessings of nature.”

Tsuchiya, the former Edogawa chief civil engineer, says these low-lying areas have been flooded at least 250 times in the past four centuries – causing countless deaths – but each time the survivors started over in the same place. Innovation came with the commitment to stay. Residents developed elevated structures called mizuya – literally “water houses” – where they could store necessities and escape to during flooding, as well as a sophisticated system of emergency boats that converted the submerged city into a floating one.

Engineering marvels such as the metropolitan discharge channel and a planned network of super-levees, more than 300 meters wide, are an extension of these early innovations.

Japan’s earthquake-resistance technologies also draw inspiration from the past. The Tokyo Skytree, the world’s tallest tower at 634 metres, completed in 2011, borrows from Japan’s traditional five-storey pagodas – which since medieval times have been resistant to the most powerful earthquakes. Skytree engineers adapted the pagoda’s central pole – called a shinbashira – that redistributes seismic vibrations to prevent collapse.

There is also a stock of resilience and community spirit that has managed to survive waves of rampant development and inward migration. Masanobu Namatame makes painted paper lanterns for traditional festivals. He squats on straw mats in his Edogawa workshop, carrying on a craft that has been handed down through generations. “The locals depend on me during festival time,” he says. “So I’m not thinking about running away.”

But the family business was not always in this location. During Namatame’s grandfather’s time it was in the more affluent Kojimachi district. Wartime air-raids that burned down the house forced the family to flee here with a few belongings on their backs.

“The bottom line is if some calamity happens you have to run,” says Namatame. “But until then you just stay put and get on with things.” 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist