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

Viktor Orbán: dismantling democracy

Adam Bodnar · 7 January 2012
Few years ago we feared that the IV Polish Republic would become indivisibly prevalent. The process of a creeping revolution, of slow and gradual changes was restrained by the Constitutional Tribunal and its renown verdict concerning the case of the vetting act. It had only been later a downward path for Jaroslaw Kaczynski‘s party followed by the elections in September 2007 and the take over by the Civic Platform.

In the time when Poland turned away from the phantom which threatened democracy, Hungary took a way to perdition. The famous leak from the comment of Ferenc Gyurcsány about lying to the voters caused mass protests and riots in Budapest and then on the air of hatred lead to a take over by the right-wing party Fidesz with Viktor Orbán at it‘s spearhead. Orbán did not stop at obtaining constitutional majority of two thirds in the Parliament. He lead to constitutional changes that maintained the reign of his party. Orbán  also gradually took control over all particular state institutions and authority centers which could have threatened his parties position. In this way democratically won elections lead to taking over full power and have also made it possible to wield it in a totally autocratic style.

Therefore Orbán has achieved something that Jaroslaw Kaczynski has only dreamt about. Step by step he gained more and more control to finally fulfill the process of taking over the power by liquidating the main opposition and dealt with it in a way that in a moment might resemble the Brest trials. That is exactly the point of the last amendments to the Hungarian Constitution that were adopted in the end of 2011- amendments that on January 2 this year gathered crowds in front of the National Opera House  in Budapest (exactly in this building Orbán and his party celebrated coming into effect of the new Constitution).

What was the nature of those changes? Passing of the renown and controversial media  act aimed to limit the freedom of media and to show that in every moment there is always a threat that they can be deprive of their independence and pluralistic character. The limitation of the Hungarian Constitutional Tribunal‘s competences served the purpose of making the Tribunal not interfere into budget and tax cases. Orbán adopted the new Constitution in order to concentrate the whole power in one hand also to maintain it in the next parliamentary elections. We should remember that according to the new Constitution citizenship can be given without major problems to people who are living outside Hungary. Thanks to this the Hungarian minority living in the neighboring countries (Romania, Slovakia, Croatia), that is quite a big population, will be able to support Orbán (and other right-wing parties) while living peacefully abroad. Apart from doing constitutional changes Fidesz also took over the power on the local level and the presidents office. There is almost no institution left that would be truly independent.

The new Hungarian Constitution came into effect with beginning of 2012. The Hungarian system is specific though, because a lot of issues are regulated with so called border acts. Their adoption (and also change) needs the majority of 2/3 of all votes. The border acts are the main mechanism of the maintenance of the power, because even if next elections are lost by Fidesz, then the border acts (and changes introduced by them) can not be reversed, because gathering the majority of 2/3 might turn out to be impossible. In this way the status of the Constitutional Tribunal was regulated, and recently in the same way the change of the Central Bank‘s status was introduced.

In the last days of December 2011 new changes to the Constitution were adopted. The one most widely commented is the one that recognizes the Hungarian Socialist Party as the heir of the communist party and consecutively as a criminal organization. It is not clear  how this party will further remain active. But if we add to this another correction to the Constitution – canceling statute of limitations for all criminal acts committed by people connected with this party, it is hard to expect something else than numerous political trials. Who knows, whether in a while socialistic party‘s leaders will end up like Yulia Tymoshenko. These changes a so unexpected and their dynamics so bug, that even Hungarian constitutionalists are not able to foresee how the situation will develop.

The changes to the constitution from December 2011 also concern the independent jurisdiction. The president of the Supreme Court András Baka was made redundant and the National Judicial Council was called off before the end of it‘s cadence. The official cause is appointing new jurisdictional institutions, but in fact it was all about taking control over the third authority. It was Tünde Handó, who became the chairman of the new institution, which replaced the State Jurisdiction Council. What is interesting, on January  2, 2012 her husband – József Szájer, the member of the European Parliament and a prominent Fidesz activist, resigned party membership in order to avoid any suspicions about his influence on his wife and the jurisdiction‘s independence. Szájer is the politician, who boasted of having written the new Hungarian Constitution on an iPad. This is why his yesterday gesture is only a theatrical mockery rather than having respect for the rule of jurisdictional independence.

One can list examples of limitations in the field of democratic institution functioning and tripartite division of powers. The situation in Hungary is without any doubt very serious. The constitutional majority of 2/3 in the parliament owned by Fidesz is paralyzing for the opposition and any serious objection. That is why for many months the protest has moved to the streets. Non-governmental organizations are playing a crucial role. In the last few months my friends from Hungarian Helsinki Committee and Hungarian Union for Citizen Liberties (TASZ) have become not only defenders of human rights but also almost dissidents. Vital role is played by social media. Because of the „delegalization“, in the last days the main opposition has joined the protesters. The street became for them the only place to practice politics.

In this way in the middle of Europe we have a country – a member of the European Union- which has stopped being democratic. There is a facade, one can demonstrate and use the internet, the opposition leaders are not yet retained or arrested, but there is no pluralism in the parliament, control institution‘s and jurisdiction‘s voice was taken away and the opposition is excluded from having any influence on the state. In a moment political trials might begin.

In such a situation rises a question- what can the international opinion do. The United States are not silent. Already in June 2011 Hilary Clinton expressed objection towards Orbán politics. Few days ago in strong word she called on Hungary to respect democracy and international obligations. The European Committee got interested in the media act and recently explicitly protests against limiting the independence of the Central Bank. But is it enough? Should not the next step be to institute a procedure of suspending Hungary in some membership rights in EU (including the right to vote on the forum of European Union Council)? The procedure statutory in the paragraph 7 of the EU Treaty has never been applied before, but maybe is high time it was. The condition on which the procedure can be instituted is „the existence of a distinct risk of a member state seriously violating principles of freedom, democracy, respect for human rights, basic liberties and rightful state“. The institution of the procedure itself might have vast meaning  in disciplining a member state. Even if the EU is deep in financial crisis (and Hungary is not an exception), then one should not forget about this possibility. Initiative in this matter belongs to one third of the member states, to the European Parliament or to the European Committee.

Most of all, before it leads to such an initiative serving as a precedent on a European scale, we should not be indifferent. That is also a basic duty of Polish authorities. Poland cannot promote democracy, rightful rule and human rights among the Eastern Partnership or arabic countries, if it neglects a creation of an authoritarian system in a Eastern Europe country, which is mentally so close to us. Maybe gestures of solidarity will not change a lot, but one cannot remain indifferent, because if similar processes happened to us, we would also expect a reaction of other states, politicians, political parties and prominent foreign communities.

In those hard times for Hungary I would really like if the Polish minister of foreign affairs learnt from his wife Anne Applebaum, who already on December 28, 2010 compared situation in Hungary to Belarus. Unfortunately following Radoslaw Sikorski‘s activity indicates that as for now he only had a good feeling to promote Hungarian wine during the time of Polish presidency in the EU.