Special Reports / Should we throw Hungary out of the EU?

Orbán’s fireworks

Magdalena M. Baran · 7 January 2012
While most Hungarians were thinking only about dressing the tree and buying the final Christmas presents, Viktor Orbán’s government kept busy. Despite the opposition’s protests, the day before Christmas Eve the Hungarian parliament passed a package of rather controversial laws.

The international media’s attention was drawn primarily to the financial reform package, where the introduction of a flat tax and even the adoption of a 27% VAT – the highest in Europe – appear to be the least disputable components. What seems far more dangerous are limits to the independence of the National Bank of Hungary, deriving from the new Hungarian constitution that has just been implemented, considering that under the leadership of the previous team’s nominee, András Simor, the Bank’s monetary policy has been anything but convenient for Orbán. So the Prime Minister decided to gain the upper hand through legislative means, removing Simor’s right to name his deputies (who will now be chosen by the head of government), and increasing the number of the Monetary Council members from seven to nine, of which six will be nominated by the parliament. The intervention by the head of the European Commission proved predictably futile. In his letter to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Jose Manuel Barroso expressed his concerns regarding the Central Bank Act, at the same time suggesting that ignoring his warning may disqualify Hungrary from obtaining IMF loans. “We don’t want any loans, only access to a credit line,” was Orbán’s retort. He remained equally deaf to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s letter, whose tone was akin to Barroso’s. And all this just moments after his country’s rating was lowered again, this time to BB+.

The other legislation passed that day, which significantly changes Hungary’s voting system, has attracted far less attention. From 2013, the number of MPs will be limited to 199, of whom 103 will be elected in single-mandate electoral districts, and 96 from party lists. The legislation also introduces single-round elections, as well as the right to vote for citizens living permanently abroad – a change enthusiastically welcomed by Hungarian minorities in Slovakia and Romania. The most controversial, however, is the redrawing of electoral districts in a way that clearly favors Fidesz. The opposition protested that these changes indicate “the cementing of Fidesz’s rule,” and that “December 23rd 2011 saw the birth of Orbán’s new regime,” but to no avail. Here, political protests are quickly extinguished. Orbán’s police force acted swiftly, arresting protesters from the opposition parties Politics Can Be Different (Lehet Más a Politika!) and the Democratic Coalition (Demokratikus Koalíció), including Ferenc Gyurcsány, the former Prime Minister and the head of the increasingly more popular Democratic Coalition. A protest banner asked: “You won’t betray democracy, will you?” But they did.

When we couple the pre-holiday legislation with the recent decisions limiting the freedom of the media, such as revoking the pro-opposition Klubrádió radio station’s license, or banning the index.hu website’s reporters from entering the parliament, it is hard not to observe that Hungarian democracy indeed is not faring too well. This is not the first time that Orbán’s political fireworks explode in the New Year sky. But clearly, Hungarians are no longer blinded by the shimmering stars, and instead are beginning to notice that this is no grand celebration ushering in the carnival season. Rather, they see that this is chaos –  that the ash settling over their country will be hard to clear, that the smoke left behind by the sparklers carries an unbearable stench, and that they have more to lose than to gain from allowing this irresponsible toying with fire to continue.