Hungary is becoming the biggest reason why we may have to leave the EU
(Telegraph UK) Revanchist nationalists of different stripes have just won 65pc of the vote in post-democratic Hungary. The mystical Jew-baiting Jobbik party increased its share to 20pc, so no doubt we will see more of its Magyar Garda rallies and Arrow Cross nostalgia.
The Fidesz ruling party – and serial violator – has a seemingly unbreakable grip over the governing machinery of a mid-sized EU state in the heart of central Europe. It has harassed the media (I mean seriously, not like Leveson), purged the judiciary, and muzzled the opposition by banning paid TV advertising and greatly restricting campaign access to the public networks – even as it flooded the airwaves with its own message.
Let us not forget that Hungary has handed out Hungarian passports to many of the 500,000 Hungarians of the Magyar diaspora caught on the wrong side of the border with Slovakia (then Czechoslovakia) after the disintegration of the Habsburg Empire, and the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. Politically – if not legally – it is a contested border. Like Crimea until last month.
For those of us who remember the great hopes pinned on Hungary 20 years ago, the landslide re-election of Fidesz leader Viktor Orban, after all he has done in office, finishes off all illusions.
Hungary election: PM Viktor Orban declares victory
(BBC) His centre-right Fidesz has polled 45%, with most of the votes counted.
A centre-left opposition alliance is trailing with 25%, while the far-right Jobbik party is credited with 21%.
Hungary’s election — Four more years
(The Economist) THE Hungarian election on April 6th is likely to bring another big victory for Viktor Orban, the prime minister. He will do more to entrench the power of his right-wing Fidesz party, showing the inability of the European Union to bring wayward members to heel. Fidesz has 33% support, say polls by Szazadveg, a think-tank. Just 19% back Unity, the left-leaning opposition alliance, 14% the far-right Jobbik and 5% LMP, a green-liberal party.
More than 400,000 attended a Fidesz rally in Budapest’s Heroes Square on March 29th, reported the interior ministry. Unity’s rally a day later had a small fraction of that number. The opposition is crying foul. It claims that political and electoral changes over the past four years have made it near impossible to defeat Fidesz.
“The election will be free in the sense that you can vote in a secret ballot, but not fair,” says Gordon Bajnai, a former technocrat prime minister of a Socialist-Liberal coalition. “Orban is trying to build a post-Soviet country on the model of Central Asia, Ukraine or Belarus. Hungary is en route to becoming an increasingly managed democracy.” (5 April edition)
Hungarians head for polls after bitter election campaign
(Financial Times) Although more than one-third of the 8m voters remain undecided, opinion polls put Fidesz, headed by Viktor Orbán, Hungary’s fast-talking prime minister, in pole position with 50 per cent of committed voters.
The principal opposition group, an alliance of five left-liberal parties headed by the Socialists, trails with about 23 per cent followed by Jobbik, a far-right party, with 20 per cent. LMP, a green party, may just make the threshold vote of 5 per cent.
But, the opposition claims, among the many government “achievements” of the past four years is a new election law, pushed through parliament with no cross-party discussion, which critics say was designed to favour the ruling party.
The new law, combined with strong government influence over both media and advertising outlets, grossly unequal financial resources and with what the opposition allege is a campaign of coercion among state and municipal employees, makes this election – the seventh since the communist regime negotiated a peaceful transition to democracy in 1989-90 – the most bitterly contested and divisive of them all.
Ferenc Gyurcsany, a former Socialist prime minister and the most outspoken of the alliance leaders, said: “[These elections] are not free and not fair. If you [as a voter] do not have free access to information, like now, if you need to make a very difficult effort to know what the parties offer you, you cannot say it’s a free election.”
However, Ferenc Kumin, a government spokesperson, said the one-round election law is simpler and more understandable to voters than the two-round system employed since 1990, and that the opposition declined to take part in discussions on the new law when invited.
He admits that with fewer MPs – there will be 199 in the new parliament compared to 386 at present, and with a greater proportion of delegates chosen via the first past the post system compared to party lists – it favours the largest party. But he insists the electoral map is fairer than the ones used up till now.
Hungary election: Viktor Orbán’s party expected to win second landslide
Incumbent PM has tinkered with the constitution to favour his Fidesz party, and even built a stadium in his home village
(The Guardian) When Hungary’s populist leader, Viktor Orbán, swept the board in national and local elections four years ago, few towns resisted his self-proclaimed “polling booth revolution”. One interesting exception, however, was the prime minister’s hometown of Felcsút: a tiny, impoverished village of 1,700 residents 25 miles west of Budapest.
But Felcsút didn’t hold out for long. Orbán soon replaced the mayor, György Varga, with his own man and built a 3.8bn forint (£10.3m) football stadium, which is to open later this month.
The new arena is unfeasibly large, dwarfing Felcsút’s one-storey buildings. Locals have taken to calling it Sauron’s Castle, in a reference to Tolkien. Visitors are not welcome yet, however; the project has a special classified status and the building site just off the village’s main road is zealously guarded.
The village’s new mayor, Lörinc Mészáros, has seen his own fortunes rise in tandem with those of the village. He heads the nearby Ferenc Puskás football academy, which was worth 150,000 forints in 2004, but now has assets of over 6bn forints. Mészáros’s personal wealth has similarly rocketed, to the extent that he was a new entry on Hungary’s top 100 rich list in 2013. Little of that money has filtered down to the local residents, however. In fact Felcsút has “underprivileged village” status and still applies each year for 15m forints in special government aid to cover its energy bills.
Metamorphosis: A Hungarian Extremist Explores His Jewish Roots
(Spiegel) Csanád Szegedi was a prominent right-wing extremist in Hungary until he discovered his own Jewish roots in 2012. Since then, he has undergone a radical reinvention and is even learning Hebrew.
Tony Deutsch comments: A few months ago, Szegedi made it as far as Westmount. He was invited, I believe, by the synagogue near City Hall to tell his tale. Someone complained to the Immigration authorities, and Szegedi was told to return on the next flight available. His advertised lecture had to be cancelled, but he had enough time to speak to a hastily assembled group, and to make a video of his visit to Canada.I did see the video, but never met Szegedi.
Note that he got infected while a university student. Far right-wing attitudes have been common among Hungarian university students since the Twenties, for reasons that are too complicated to be included [here]
Guest post: Hungary’s attacks on the rule of law and why they matter for business
By Kim Lane Scheppele of Princeton University
(Financial Times) The rapid legal change and the assault on the independent judiciary has come from a government in which the prime minister and most of his key advisers are lawyers. It is therefore not surprising that the government has first laid out in law what it plans to do in practice, nor that it has made a special point of asserting political control over both the Constitutional Court and the ordinary judiciary, the main institutions that could have blocked the rapid legal changes being undertaken.
Before 2010, Hungary had a unicameral parliamentary system in which the Constitutional Court served as the primary check on the powers of the parliamentary majority. After 2010, the Constitutional Court was packed and weakened so that it is no longer able to serve this function.
The Fidesz government changed the system for electing constitutional judges so that the parliamentary minority now has no input whatsoever.
Then, the government expanded the number of judges on the Constitutional Court, so that by April last year the Fidesz government had unilaterally named eight of its 15 judges.
The result? Since Fidesz acquired its secure majority, the Constitutional Court has issued no decisions seriously challenging the government. And then the government removed the mandatory retirement age for constitutional judges, consolidating its control over the Court even further.
Hungary: Orbán wasteland
Posing as a Hungarian freedom fighter, Viktor Orbán has railed against his country’s chief investors: Germany and the EU
(The Guardian) Taking their cue from the late Václav Havel, who often used the word, the inhabitants of former Soviet satellites have frequently coined the term Absurdistan to describe the country in which they live.
Tellingly, Absurdistan is currently most commonly invoked these days to describe Viktor Orbán’s populist rule in Hungary.
The quixotic nature of Mr Orbán’s Fidesz party government is in some respects felt less in the field of politics – although he has loaded the electoral dice to ensure his party’s declared goal of two decades in power – than in economics.
To compensate for the money it lost when it kicked out the IMF, the Orbán government has introduced more than two dozen new taxes. When it is not increasing the highest levy on banks in Europe, with plans to raise more money on wire transfers, corporate phone calls and mining royalties, it introduces new “fees” – such as mandatory membership of chambers for all businesses.
The effect on Hungary’s tanking economy is not at all comic. Four million Hungarians live at subsistence level and a further 1.38 million live below it.
‘No Longer Necessary’: Hungary Wants to Throw Out IMF
(Spiegel) Relations between the government of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the International Monetary Fund have never been especially good. Now they have hit rock bottom.
Orbán’s former economy minister and current central bank governor, Gyorgy Matolcsy, wrote a letter to IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde on Monday calling on the fund to close its representative office in Budapest as it was “not necessary to maintain” it any longer.
Hungary owes its economic survival to the IMF. When the country was caught up in the global financial crisis in 2008, the fund and the EU came to the rescue with a €20 billion ($26 billion) loan. At the time, Orbán’s predecessor was in office.
Europe: Floods are here to stay
(IPS) – Record floods in Central and Eastern Europe have highlighted some of the challenges of climate change for the continent, as well as the floods’ potential to spur populist politics. …
In Budapest, the Danube rose to 8.9 metres, the highest water level ever recorded.
… the conservative prime minister, under attack at home and abroad, saw the floods as an opportunity to stoke citizens’ patriotic feelings and regain lost popularity.
Orbán capitalised on the efforts of the 10,000 soldiers, volunteers and even prisoners that were involved in placing some 10 million sandbags along the 700 kilometres of Danube riverside located in Hungarian territory.
During the floods, TV and online coverage constantly showed the prime minister in action: Orbán was always at the site of events, wearing rubber boots and a vest, walking against the river current, flying in helicopters, discussing hydrographic maps with experts and cracking jokes with workers.
Looking extremely tired, the prime minister made frequent live updates on the spot to keep citizens informed on what he called “the worst floods ever”.
Opposition politicians, alarmed by Orban’s successful show off of his leadership abilities, rushed to imitate the prime minister and were seen setting up dikes along flooded areas. Pro-government media were quick to show one of these dikes breaking.
While Hungarians were relieved that only 1,500 people required evacuation and that not a single victim was reported, many of Orban’s opponents will be concerned that his stunts against the forces of nature will convince many that he is strong enough to endure another onslaught of criticism from the European Union.
Budapest escapes floods, Danube starts to recede
(Planet Ark) The Hungarian capital escaped damage from the swollen river Danube, which peaked at record high levels in Budapest overnight and started receding slowly on Monday morning, the city’s mayor said on Monday. … Budapest mayor Istvan Tarlos told a news conference held at a dike shored up with thousands of sandbags that the Danube had peaked at 8.91 meters late on Sunday, above the 8.6 meter record in the 2006 floods.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban told the same news conference that 20,000 people had worked on Sunday along the Danube strengthening defenses and now the focus would shift to the section of the river south of Budapest. …
In Hungary, some 1,300 people from 34 towns and villages have been forced to leave their homes and 44 roads have been closed due to the floods, authorities said on Sunday.
A road sign is seen submerged in water in the flooding Danube River in Budapest June 10, 2013.
Photo: Laszlo Balogh
Hungary Losing Its Best and Brightest
(IPS) – As the European Union accuses Hungary of shifting towards authoritarianism, a spike in emigration from the country has led many to speak of a politically motivated exodus. Others suggest that economic conditions play a role in the westward flow of brainpower that is leaving Hungary’s future uncertain. … While official estimates state that 300,000 Hungarians live abroad, Gyorgy Matolcsy, governor of the Central Bank, recently spoke of half a million Hungarians leaving their homeland in recent years, which would constitute 5 percent of Hungary’s population of 10 million.
Nazi Comparison: Berlin Calls Orbán Comment a ‘Derailment’
(Spiegel) Hungary’s controversial prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has angered Berlin by comparing its policies to those of the Nazis. On Monday, Foreign Minister Westerwelle rejected the comparison, saying it was “regrettable.”
The tiff originated with a remark by German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday, in which she said Berlin would “do anything to get Hungary onto the right path — but not by sending the cavalry.”
Her statement came after Peer Steinbrück, her Social Democratic challenger for the Chancellery in the upcoming national election, said that he could see Hungary being excluded from the European Union, given recent worrisome constitutional changes that violate EU law.
Budapest has been heavily criticized by European leaders, who say that Hungary’s new constitution, ushered in by Orbán and his party, threaten democracy, limiting the independence of the judiciary and media. A number of infringement proceedings have been launched against the country within the EU.
Hungarian far-right decries ‘Israeli plot’ before World Jewish Congress Budapest meet
(Reuters) Leaders of a far-right Hungarian party accused Israelis of plotting to buy up the country as several hundred nationalists protested on Saturday on the eve of a meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Budapest.
Senior figures from the opposition Jobbik party, the third biggest with 43 seats in the 386-member parliament, harangued the crowd with charges that Israeli President Shimon Peres had praised Jews for buying property in Hungary.
They said the WJC had decided to hold its four-yearly gathering in Budapest to shame the Hungarian people.
George Szirtes: Hungary is on a fast track to the past
The government dismisses criticism of its policies as liberal lies, but attacks on the media, threats to the independence of the central bank and racism suggest otherwise
(The Guardian) Among the foreign dignitaries attending Margaret Thatcher’s funeral on Wednesday will be a man who many feel shouldn’t be representing his country. But it will be a handy getaway for Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, an excuse for him to break off from trying to defend his country’s new constitution from its EU critics, who include commission president José Manuel Barroso.
… So what’s the problem?
The EU identified three main ones: the new media law, the earlier obligatory retirement age for judges and the independence of the central bank. It exerted pressure on Hungary and little by little these points were addressed – but the most recent amendments weakening the constitutional court have taken everything back to square one. The minister for economic affairs is now the head of the central bank.
Opinion Piece: Constitutional Mob Rule in Hungary
(Wall Street Journal) In today’s Journal, George Kopits, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writes: “The institutional erosion in Budapest clearly violates the spirit of fundamental European values.”
“A number of recent constitutional amendments by Hungary’s Parliament have received well-deserved criticism from foreign governments and the European Union. Particularly troubling is the amendment granting practically unlimited power to Parliament to overturn decisions of the constitutional court, including retroactively.
With these changes in hand, and commanding a disciplined two-thirds majority in Parliament, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is now capable of exercising constitutional mob rule. By the definition attributed to Thomas Jefferson, this is government by which a majority may take away the rights of the rest of the population.” Click here to read the article in full.
Former Hungarian central bank head joins EBRD
Andras Simor, the former governor of Hungary’s central bank, was named vice president for policy at the EBRD
(Emerging Markets) Simor, who is due to take up his position on July 1, will also be a member of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development’s executive committee, the EBRD said in a statement.
He was governor of the National Bank of Hungary from 2007 until earlier this year, when he was replaced by former Economy Minister Gyorgy Matolcsy, appointed by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Simor’s fight for central bank independence from political influence won him Emerging Markets‘ Emerging Europe Central Bank Governor of the Year award in 2010.
The Hungarian government defies Europe over constitutional change
(The Economist) THE Hungarians have thrown down a gauntlet to the European Union. The parliament voted on March 11th to amend the constitution, ignoring pleas for delay from the European Commission, the Council of Europe and America’s State Department. Hungary’s Constitutional Court can no longer reject constitutional amendments on matters of substance—only on procedural grounds. The court must also ignore more than 20 years of legal precedent, basing future rulings on the constitution enacted in January 2012.
What may seem like an arcane legal manoeuvre has profound significance. The measures open the door for the government to use the constitution to pass new laws that might otherwise be rejected by the Constitutional Court.
Europe Weighs In
Government on the defensive again over latest Constitution rewrite
(Budapest Times) The secretary general of the Council of Europe asked Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government on Wednesday to postpone a vote on a package of constitutional amendments scheduled for Monday. “I am concerned about the compatibility of the constitutional amendments with the principle of the rule of law, as set out in the statute of the Council of Europe,” Thorbjørn Jagland said, in a move that could signal a fresh international ruckus over the Orbán administration’s democratic credentials.
Constitutional Reforms: Hungary Steps Away from European Democracy
(Spiegel) As expected, the Hungarian parliament on Monday evening passed a package of constitutional amendments that legal experts say are an affront to democracy. Berlin, Brussels and Washington all voiced their concern in the run up to the vote. Leaders in Budapest, however, were unphased.
Prime Minster Viktor Orbán, like Áder a member of the conservative Fidesz party, has expanded his power dramatically. While the head of state was in Berlin, the prime minister moved ahead with a highly controversial package of amendments to the country’s constitution. The amendments weaken the country’s constitutional court, the last defender of Hungary’s constitutional state, and they limit the independence of the entire judiciary branch.
In other words, a country at the center of the European Union is moving away from the principles of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
‘No reason to redraft the budget’
(Presseurop) The newly appointed Economy Minister, Mihály Varga, has declared that in spite of being targeted with an Excessive Deficit Procedure by the EU, Hungary can continue to pursue the same economic policy.
Varga was appointed to replace György Matolcsy, who left to take on the role of President of the Hungarian National Bank (MNB) on March 1. Previously a minister without a portfolio, he was delegated to conduct negotiations, which failed to produce results, on a possible IMF aid plan. Known for his “unorthodox” economic policies, Matolcsy may force the MNB to buy government bonds on secondary markets, or draw on the national bank’s reserves to reduce the public spending deficit.
Hungary Tries a Dash of Taxes to Promote Healthier Eating Habits
(NYT) Hungary, which has, in the past 18 months, imposed taxes on salt, sugar and the ingredients in energy drinks, hoping both to raise revenues and force those who are eating unhealthy foods to pay a little more toward the country’s underfinanced health system. … Nearly two-thirds of Hungarians are overweight or obese, and the country has the highest per capita salt consumption in the European Union.
As a result, Hungary has one of the lowest life expectancy rates at birth in the European Union: in 2011 it was just 71.2 years for men and 78.7 for women.
Paul Krugman hosts a Guest Post on his blog: Constitutional Revenge
It has been a while since the last post on this blog, but my Princeton colleague Kim Lane Scheppele, who heads our Law and Public Affairs program, is still tracking the unraveling of democracy in Hungary, and has a new, disturbing report after the jump:
… the government is now seeking revenge for the various defeats it has suffered by introducing into the Parliament a 15-page constitutional amendment that reverses its losses. The mega-amendment is a toxic waste dump of bad constitutional ideas, many of which were introduced before and nullified by the Constitutional Court or changed at the insistence of European bodies. The new constitutional amendment (again) kills off the independence of the judiciary, brings universities under (even more) governmental control, opens the door to political prosecutions, criminalizes homelessness, makes the recognition of religious groups dependent on their cooperation with the government and weakens human rights guarantees across the board. Moreover, the constitution will now buffer the government from further financial sanctions by permitting it to take all fines for noncompliance with the constitution or with European law and pass them on to the Hungarian population as special taxes, not payable by the normal state budget.
For good measure, the mega-amendment adds a new and nasty twist. It annuls all of the decisions made by the Court before 1 January 2012 so that they have no legal effect. Now, no one in the country – not the Constitutional Court, not the ordinary courts, not human rights groups or ordinary citizens – can rely any longer on the Court’s proud string of rights-protecting decisions.
Hungarian official slams multinationals, EU infringements
Hungary’s Economy Minister György Matolcsy accused banks and multinationals of attacking his government with “all possible means”, a day before he is widely expected to be named the new central bank governor.
In an article in weekly Heti Valasz, Matolcsy said Hungary was able to cut its budget deficit using a special “Hungarian model”, avoiding the austerity demanded from other countries.
Matolcsy said the tools used by Budapest, including a bank tax, taxes on energy firms, a telecoms tax, reform of the private pension system and a tax on financial transactions, had met the resistance of strong interest groups.
Hungarian official slams multinationals, EU infringements
Hungary’s Economy Minister György Matolcsy accused banks and multinationals of attacking his government with “all possible means”, a day before he is widely expected to be named the new central bank governor.
A blow for Viktor Orban
Support for the prime minister seems to be fading fast
(The Economist) THE new year has not started well for Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist prime minister. On January 4th the Constitutional Court threw out his plan to redesign the electoral system.
The court ruled that a new electoral law requiring voters to pre-register before the next general election (likely to take place in the spring of 2014) was unconstitutional. … Critics said the law discriminated against the poor, many of whom do not have access to the internet, are suspicious of officialdom, and are more likely to vote for the opposition. The government denied this and said the law was needed to update the electoral register. Yet it swiftly conceded defeat.
Hungary Approves Budget Against IMF Advice as Stagnation Looms
(Bloomberg) Hungarian lawmakers passed the 2013 budget, keeping extraordinary company taxes opposed by the International Monetary Fund and which businesses blame for a lack of investment and economic growth.
The budget, setting a 2.7 percent of economic output deficit target and projecting an increase in gross domestic product of 0.9 percent, was approved 248-9 by deputies, according to Duna TV coverage of the vote today in Budapest.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s reliance on extraordinary tax contributions from banking, energy, retail and telecommunication companies to close budget holes has led to a recession. Lending and investments have declined, Hungary’s credit rating was downgraded to junk and the government is deadlocked in aid talks with the IMF, which has urged the an overhaul of policies to spur the economy.
Hungarian Student Rallies Gather Pace
(WSJ) Hungary’s undergraduate students Wednesday continued demonstrating against the government’s heavy-handed move to cut state subsidies for university tuition, saying the government snubbed them.
Hungarians rank high on radicalism index, xenophobia high all over the political palette
Only 23% of Hungarians supporting the far-right extremist Jobbik party would not let their child be pals with a Roma child, and 79% of them partly or fully agreed with the statement “crime is in the blood of Roma people”, a survey by Tárki showed on Wednesday. But the shocking part is not even this – we have witnessed on numerous occasions how xenophobic this party and its supporters can be. An even more staggering finding of this poll was that 63% (!) of the whole population believe the Roma are genetically coded to commit criminal acts.
Tony comments: Could this simply be the passage of time and the change in generations since WW II? The source, TARKI, is legitimate. I know the man who runs it.
Viktor Orbán’s grip on government is suffocating democracy in Hungary
The prime minister’s changes to voting rules will discourage poorer voters and consolidate his power
(The Guardian) At the end of last month, the Hungarian parliament – which is dominated by the Fidesz party, led by the prime minister, Viktor Orbán – passed a constitutional amendment on voter registration. The new amendment will allow citizens to vote in elections only if they register in advance either in person or electronically. Critics of this move have pointed out the new amendment will help the powerful leading parties at the expense of smaller political groups in the 2014 election: poorer and hesitant voters are less likely to register, and more likely to stay away from the ballot boxes on election day.
NGOs and analysts have warned that binding voting to registration will serve the political goals of Orbán, who today has a slight majority of support among voting age citizens, but wants to gain absolute majority in parliament by the modifications to the constitution.
Orbán Cements His Power With New Voting Law
(Spiegel) Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has used his party’s two-thirds majority in parliament to pass a constitutional change that will force voters to register before elections. Opposition parties fear the move will boost his power and pave the way for election fraud, but they see no hope of appealing against it.
The system foresees voters registering every four years either in person at their local authority or via the Internet, providing they have an electronic signature. Hungarians who live abroad, including the 3 million members of Hungarian minorities in Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine, who have been entitled to vote for a party list since 2010, can register by post. Registration has to be done at the latest two weeks ahead of the scheduled parliamentary elections and is then valid for four years in general and local elections, referendums and European parliamentary elections.
Hungary to Take Over Credit From Debt-Laden Municipalities
(Bloomberg) Hungary’s central government will take over 612 billion forint ($2.8 billion) of local council debt to ease the burden on municipalities and avoid a breakdown in their operations.
“We have started a war on debt from the first moment of our governance” and “now the time has come for us to open a new front in this war and save our villages, towns, hamlets,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said at a conference in Budapest today.
The government will consolidate the entire debt load of the 1,700 municipalities that have 5,000 inhabitants or less, amounting to 97.3 billion forint, Orban said. The central budget will also take over some debt from larger local councils totaling 515 billion forint, he said.
Hungary’s 3,200 local councils are struggling to repay their debt, much of which is denominated in Swiss francs, after the forint weakened and a grace period on bond principal repayments ran out in 2011. Municipalities have increasingly borrowed in foreign currencies since 2007 after the government reduced funding to cut the budget deficit, which in 2006 was the widest in the European Union at 9.3 percent of economic output.
Tony Deutsch points out that “This is a good example of what happens when a speech designed strictly for domestic consumption (for anything going wrong the EU and the IMF are to blame) makes it to an international audience.
Brussels Hinders Nations Tackling Crisis: Hungary PM
(Reuters/NYT) – EU officials are wasting time on toys for pigs and the mood of geese when hundreds of thousands are losing their jobs and the single currency is collapsing, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Saturday in a scathing attack on EU institutions.
After an eight-month row with the International Monetary Fund and the EU over the independence of Hungary’s central bank, Orban’s government wrapped up the first round of talks with lenders on a financing backstop earlier this week.
Analysts expect the loan talks, which will probably resume in September, to be difficult because of the government’s reluctance to give up its free hand in economic policy making.
Wrong Way Down the Danube
How Hungary’s Democratic Backsliding Threatens Europe
(Foreign Affairs) Greece’s economic peril has raised fears about the end of the eurozone. But Hungary presents as much of a fundamental challenge to the European Union, just more a political than an economic one. Hungary today is the first member state of the EU, a body that prides itself as the embodiment of classical liberal values, to tack sharply toward autocracy. Supporters of the EU often claim that it has the power to nudge the nations in Europe’s periphery toward democracy. But the EU has never been confronted with this level of democratic backsliding from one of its own members. Indeed, were present-day Hungary to apply for EU membership now, it would not likely be admitted. The fate of the country over the next several years will test the foundational principles of the entire European project.
Crisis-Weary Hungarians Lose Faith in Government
(Reuters) – The deepening economic crisis is taking its toll on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government — two years after a landslide election victory his party’s support is crumbling and three-quarters of voters believe the country is on the wrong track.
Tony Deutsch comments: The worst part is, not stated in the article, that well-educated young people are contemplating moving abroad(mostly to Germany) in unprecedented (since 1956) numbers.
Hungary’s plagiarising president Schmitt quits
(The Economist) HUNGARY’S most enthralling political drama since the riots of autumn 2006 is over. Pál Schmitt, the beleaguered president, resigned earlier today after days of mounting political pressure. Last week Semmelweis University stripped Mr Schmitt of his doctoral degree after a committee found that he had directly lifted 17 pages and had partially copied a further 180 pages of his 1992 thesis on the modern Olympic games. … Resignations in Hungarian public life are rare and Mr Schmitt is the first president to step down since the end of communism. Ironically, he may have given his greatest public service by showing that, even in Hungary, there are limits to what the public will tolerate from their politicians.
Hungarian University Head Resigns Over Plagiarism
(Associated Press via ABC News) The head of the university that revoked the doctorate of Hungary’s president due to plagiarism says he is resigning his position.
“It was honest, manly work”: Hungarian President Pál Schmitt Refuses to Resign
(The Contrarian Hungarian) Hungary’s president Pál Schmitt has been embroiled in a plagiarism scandal. Accusations were brought in January that 180 out of his 215-page-long doctoral dissertation were lifted from another author, but close scrutiny following in the wake of the scandal has also revealed that Schmitt copied from several other sources as well.
Hungary’s Pit Bull Prime Minister
(Foreign Policy) How one of Europe’s most celebrated anti-communists become the bad boy of the continent.
These days Viktor Orbán — nicknamed “Viktator” by his opponents — is being accused of far worse things than imperiousness at meetings. In 2010, after years in the opposition, he swept back into office as Hungary’s prime minister with an election result that gave him and his political allies an unprecedented 68 percent of the seats in parliament — a majority that allowed his government to revamp the Hungarian constitution without consulting the electorate or the opposition. His critics accuse him of dismantling Hungary’s hard-won democracy by drastically weakening checks and balances, eroding judicial independence, imposing a draconian media law, and jiggering the electoral system so that Fidesz can cement its massive majority for the foreseeable future.
Young, Wired and Angry
A Revised Portrait of Hungary’s Right-Wing Extremists
(Spiegel) Though largely ignored by the national media, Hungary’s right-wing extremist Jobbik party operates within a surprisingly well-developed and self-sustained online universe. What’s more, recent studies have found that the party’s supporters aren’t the “losers” that many experts thought they were.
Poor and Prejudiced Eastern Europe Swings Right
(Spiegel) Hungary is almost broke and has lurched to the right so sharply that the EU has launched legal action in defense of democracy. But the problem is far more widespread: Nationalists and populists are gaining ground across Eastern Europe.
EU Takes Legal Action Against Hungary
The European Commission has launched legal proceedings against Hungary, accusing it of breaching EU treaties with laws that undermine the independence of the justice system and central bank. The case could delay the payment of international aid needed to shore up Hungary’s economy.
Is authoritarianism returning to Hungary?
(Al Jazeera) The country’s new constitution draws international criticism.
Peter Zilahy: The Aftertaste of Goulash Communism
(NYT) In the 1980s, everything was simple. Time stood still, the rules were clear. Freedom of speech was scarce and rare, trips abroad were few and far between, dictators were real dictators, the secret police was no secret, we were all unimportant and often happy. The people in power, the collaborators with the occupying forces — they were the bad guys. The people marching down the streets with their fists in the air, that was us — the good guys — and one of us who went into politics is now the democratically elected prime minister of the country that is a member of the European Union. A fairy tale indeed.
That fairly tale has ended. It’s time to move on
Not just a rap on the knuckles
(The Economist) THE pressure is piling up on the beleaguered Hungarian government. Today the European Commission threatened it with legal action over several new “cardinal” laws that would require a two-thirds majority in parliament to overturn.
The commission is still considering the laws, but today it highlighted concerns over three issues:
- The independence of the central bank. Late last year the Hungarian parliament passed a law which expands the monetary council and takes the power to nominate deputies away from the governor and hands it to the prime minister. A separate law opens the door to a merger between the bank and the financial regulator.
- The judiciary. More than 200 judges over the age of 62 have been forced into retirement and hundreds more face the sack. The new National Judicial Authority is headed by Tünde Handó, a friend of the family of Viktor Orbán, the prime minister.
- The independence of the national data authority.
Hungary turns away from democracy
Hungary has seen a stunning consolidation of power under President Orban. A new Constitution that took effect Jan. 1 appears to confirm a move toward more authoritarian rule.
(CSM) By some estimates, Hungary under Prime Minister Viktor Orban is not just exiting the house of democracy. It has already left the building.
George Kopits: Hungary’s Collision Course With the EU
Viktor Orban’s prized ‘fiscal sovereignty’ cannot be won by undermining an already precarious business climate.
(WSJ) … since joining the EU, Hungarian governments have not shied away from confrontation with EU institutions. But this has reached a new high with enactment of the new central-bank law. Besides derailing the prospects for EU and IMF financial support, Hungary could be subject to EU sanctions, including possible suspension of voting rights in these institutions if this move is interpreted as a violation of treaty obligations.
IMF head says Hungary central bank bill is key issue – CNN
(Reuters) – Hungary’s legislation on its central bank will be a key issue at the country’s talks next week with the International Monetary Fund, the Fund’s Managing Director Christine Lagarde said. See also: Hungary downgraded to “junk” as PM says wants deal — (Reuters) – A rating downgrade on Friday left Hungary’s debt rated “junk” across the board, underscoring investors’ doubts about the government’s willingness to change its controversial policies in return for aid to stave off a financial crisis.
A Hungarian coup worthy of Putin
You could say that Europe has crises enough without worrying too much about a Hungarian dissident turned petty tyrant. Hungary, after all, is not even a member of the euro. To overlook Viktor Orban’s journey from anti-communist progressive to populist xenophobe would, however, be to repeat a mistake made about Greece. The troubles of Europe’s small powers can be a harbinger of bigger dangers around the corner.
Hungary’s prime minister presents a reminder – should anyone on this continent need one – of the familiar trajectory from economic chaos to political authoritarianism. The European Union has had two grand projects since the fall of the Berlin Wall: the single currency and the advance of democracy eastwards. The euro is now in serious trouble. Mr Orban sends a powerful message about the perils facing democracy.
‘Democracy Is Being Trampled On in Hungary’
(Spiegel) Anger over Hungary’s new constitution and other major reforms could become dangerous for Prime Minister Victor Orban. Already, financial markets are turning away from the country, resulting in astronomical yields on government bonds. The EU and IMF are also keeping Budapest at arm’s length. With good reason, say German commentators.
The European Commission on Tuesday announced that it was combing through both the new constitution, which took effect on Jan. 1, and a new law pertaining to Hungary’s central bank, the Magyar Nemzeti Bank (MNB), to determine if they adhere to European Union treaties. Furthermore, the Commission said on Tuesday that the EU and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have not yet decided whether to resume negotiations over much-needed financial assistance for Budapest.
Gáspár Miklós Tamás: Let us deal with Orbán
Protests against the Hungarian prime minister, accused of a drift towards authoritarianism, are growing in Budapest. But while the international community is also starting to respond, the protests must avoid relying on foreign intervention, argues philosopher Gáspár Miklós Tamás. Excerpts.
There is little doubt that the European Commission and the IMF have deliberately imposed conditions that are impossible for the Hungarian government to meet, the likely purpose of which is to pressure Viktor Orban to resign. That probably explains why the EU-IMF delegation broke off negotiations.
The decline of democracy – the rise of dictatorship
New Year’s message sent by former Hungarian political dissidents
The undersigned, participants of the erstwhile human rights and democracy movement that opposed the one-party communist regime in the 1970s and 1980s, believe that the Hungarian society is not only the victim of the current economic crisis, but also the victim of its own government. The present government has snatched the democratic political tools from the hands of those who could use these tools to ameliorate their predicament. While chanting empty patriotic slogans, the government behaves in a most unpatriotic way by reducing its citizens to inactivity and impotence.
Orban accused of destroying rule of law
(Financial Times) Former communist dissidents attack Hungarian prime minister for ‘removing checks and balances and … closing autonomous institutions’
Tens of Thousands Protest Against Hungary Government
(Reuters via NYT) – Tens of thousands of Hungarians protested in Budapest on Monday against the government and its new Basic Law in a show of anxiety over what they see as the ruling Fidesz party’s moves to weaken democratic institutions and cement its powers. (AP) Thousands protest over new Hungarian constitution
Hungarians erupt against PM Victor Orban
(The Australian) THOUSANDS of Hungarians have taken to the streets to protest against a new constitution which critics say increases the power of the government over previously independent institutions, ranging from the church and media to the courts and even the central bank.
The new constitution, which went into force yesterday, altered the country’s official title from “republic” to “country of the Hungarians” – a change opponents of Prime Minister Victor Orban say is another example of the nation’s dictatorial drift.
Since returning to power in 2010, Mr Orban has taken advantage of an impressive parliamentary majority to impose a series of measures that his opponents say will result in the return of a one-party state. An electoral reform bill passed just before Christmas will effectively allow Mr Orban’s ruling Fidesz party to hold two-thirds of the seats in parliament even if it wins only 25 per cent of the vote in the next election.
Hungary Snubs EU by Passing Bank Law, Threatening to Derail Its Aid Bid
(WSJ) The conflict is the latest episode of friction between Mr. Orban’s administration and the EU over what Budapest sees as unwarranted intrusions into its domestic affairs by an activist EU that has been seeking greater authority over member states as it battles the Continent’s debt crisis.
This time, the stakes are high. The standoff could scuttle talks between Hungary and the EU and IMF on a financial safety net to protect the country from turmoil engulfing European markets, which has driven up government borrowing costs and weakened the national currency.
La Hongrie adopte des lois controversées et s’isole un peu plus en Europe
(Le Monde) Le Parlement hongrois a adopté, vendredi 30 décembre, une nouvelle série de lois controversées qui isole encore davantage le pays au sein de l’Europe.
Hungary’s Bailout Chance Wanes as Lawmakers Snub IMF, EU Over Central Bank
(Bloomberg) Hungary’s chances of obtaining a bailout receded after lawmakers approved new central bank regulations that prompted the International Monetary Fund and the European Union to break off talks this month.
More Hungary from Paul Krugman
Kim Lane Scheppele sends me an update on the political situation
Update: Depression and Democracy, revisited
Yes, the 2010 election was free and fair, but that doesn’t mean Hungarians got what they voted for. Fidesz did not campaign on a platform to change the whole constitutional order. And Hungarians do not approve of the constitutional changes that Fidesz is making.
Hungary’s Constitutional Revolution
(Kim Lane Scheppele via Pal Krugman) In a free and fair election last spring in Hungary, the center-right political party, Fidesz, got 53% of the vote. This translated into 68% of the seats in the parliament under Hungary’s current disproportionate election law. With this supermajority, Fidesz won the power to change the constitution. They have used this power in the most extreme way at every turn, amending the constitution ten times in their first year in office and then enacting a wholly new constitution that will take effect on January 1, 2012.
This constitutional activity has transformed the legal landscape to remove checks on the power of the government and put virtually all power into the hands of the current governing party for the foreseeable future.
Hungary Cornered After Downgrade, Economists Say
(WSJ) Ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service downgraded Hungary overnight to non-investment grade category with a negative outlook, citing rising uncertainty about the government’s plans to reduce the budget deficit and public debt. Hungary is one notch from junk status at the other two major rating agencies, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch, with a negative outlook.
Hungary’s media law ‘undermines press freedom’
Hungary’s new media law is undermining freedom of expression, according to an international mission of press freedom and media organisations.
It found that regulation is incompatible with European and international law; that its licensing regime could threaten diversity and pluralism; and that opportunities to challenge the decisions of the National Media and Infocommunications Authority are far too limited.
Members of the mission discussed the problems with journalists, lawyers, representatives of civil society, the new media authorities and a Hungarian government representative.
Orbán and the wind from the east – a surprising, largely favorable view
(The Economist) FEW countries in the region arouse more concern than Hungary and few politicians arouse more controversy than its prime minister, Viktor Orbán. Critics see him as the harbinger of authoritarian rule, presiding over the imminent collapse of the economy. ((See here for a round-up of recent Economist pieces)).
Hungary’s European Union presidency
Back to partisanship — A return to divisive politics after a modestly successful EU presidency
Hungary’s presidency was marred by criticism of Fidesz’s new media law and constitution. Complaints about excessive centralisation of power are returning. Visiting Budapest last month, Hillary Clinton, America’s secretary of state, called for “a real commitment to the independence of the judiciary, a free press and government transparency.” Freedom House, an American-based lobby group, talks of “the most significant backslide in Hungary’s democratic development since 1989”. The Venice Commission, which advises the Council of Europe on constitutional matters, worries about “cardinal laws” in the constitution that require a two-thirds parliamentary majority to be changed. Some deal with economic matters such as pensions and public debt.
Hungary to Amend Media Law
The Hungarian government has agreed to alter its new media law — which punishes reporting that it deems unbalanced — in response to weeks of domestic protests and heavy criticism from the European Union. The EU says the law restricts freedom of speech. The Wall Street Journal (2/17)
Peer pressure from fellow Europeans may help Hungarian freedoms
(The Guardian) In the wake of Hungary’s media law, the EU has to prove that it is able to uphold its core values in every member state
The same day Hungary took over the EU presidency, a new media law came into force in the country. Was this just a coincidence? At first glance, passing a national law is undoubtedly within the remit of a national government. Since prime minister Viktor Orbán’s governing Fidesz party gained a supermajority of more than two-thirds of the seats in the last elections, it is free to make fundamental changes to fundamental laws.
Hungary media law protest
(The Guardian) The European Newspaper Publishers’ Association (ENPA) and the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), have expressed concern at a draft media law in Hungary in a letter to the country’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán.
They argue that it would impose extensive fines against journalists and publishers if they refuse to disclose their sources or publish information deemed inappropriate by the government.
If passed, they believe the law would endanger press freedom by allowing a subjective judgment to be made about any individual news story.
The letter – full text here – says: “We trust that the Hungarian government will reconsider this legislation and ensure the full functioning of democracy and rule of law in Hungary.”
Has Orbán over-reached?
(The Economist) Since winning an unprecedented two thirds parliamentary majority in April’s election, the ruling Fidesz party has systematically taken over the country’s previously independent institutions: the presidency, the state audit office and the media council are now all run by party placemen and women. Last week parliament voted to severely restrict the constitutional court’s right to adjudicate on budgetary matters. The government even wants to force investors in private pension schemes back into the state system to meet budget targets. Refuseniks could lose up to 70% of their pensions.
But the latest power grab may be a step too far. A Fidesz MP, József Varga, has introduced legislation to cut the budget of the Fiscal Council, the independent watchdog charged with monitoring the budget, from 835m forints ($4m) to 10m, in effect killing it off. Mr Varga says the funds should be diverted towards measures to help integrate Hungary’s Roma minority.
Hungary seeks to kick start economy
(BBC) Hungary was, after the collapse of communism, one of the countries quickest to adopt free market reforms, leading the way in the former Soviet bloc.
But since those early days, the reforms have stagnated, and Hungary has fallen behind its neighbours.
Now a new prime minister, with a convincing mandate, is promising to reinvigorate the country.
Hungary’s right-wing opposition claims election win
(BBC) Fidesz leader Viktor Orban said Hungarians had voted “to defeat hopelessness”.
Mr Orban, who is set to be the next prime minister, said: “Hungarians voted on Hungary and Hungary’s future. Today Hungary’s citizens have defeated hopelessness.
“I feel it with all my nerves and know it deep in my heart that I face the biggest task of my life. I will need all the Hungarian people to solve that.”
Mr Orban, who was Hungary’s prime minister from 1998-2002, promised to cut taxes to stimulate the economy.
The country has been badly hit by the global financial crisis, and has had to be bailed out with 20bn euros (£18bn) from the IMF, the World Bank and the EU.
The Socialist government of Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai imposed a tough austerity programme to reclaim some of the money, but measures like tax rises and salary and pension cuts have made it very unpopular.
Hungary elections: first step to power for far-Right since Nazi era
(Telegraph U.K.) The far-Right has taken more parliamentary seats in Hungary’s national elections than at any time since the Second World War.
Fidesz, Hungary’s centre-Right party, won 52.77 per cent of the vote, based on 99 per cent of votes counted, in a blow to the Socialist government.