Feature

Hungary: An authoritarian runs into resistance

The European Parliament is attempting to censure Hungary's Prime Minister for changes to the constitution that have led to increased governmental control over the country's democratic institutions.

We Hungarians won’t let our country be a colony of anyone, “not even of the EU,” said Zoltan Biro in the Budapest Magyar Hirlap. That’s why so many of us backed Prime Minister Viktor Orban last week when he traveled to Strasbourg, France, to defend Hungary’s honor before the European Parliament. The European Union is seeking to censure him for having made constitutional changes that give the government more control over the courts, the media, and the central bank. But Orban faced down the “vituperative, intellectually dissolute, and sick masters of injustice” with calm dignity, and at least 100,000 citizens reflected the same virtue when they marched through Budapest in support of him. “The Hungarians have shown the world that they defend their leader when he defends the Hungarian nation.”

Where have we heard that tone before? asked Joëlle Stolz in the Paris Le Monde. The Hungarians are a problem. Having been granted the right by the Hapsburgs in the 19th century to lord it over the Croats, Slovaks, and Romanians, they have never really accepted the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which trimmed their borders to roughly their current dimensions. Hungary still takes “refuge in its assumed role as victim,” assigning blame for its fate to “the Ottomans, the Hapsburgs, the Jews, the liberals, the Germans, the Russians, the Gypsies, and now the European Commission and the Strasbourg parliament.” Orban has only made matters worse since his right-wing Fidesz party won its “overwhelming electoral victory” in April 2010, said Martin M. Simecka in the Prague Respekt. He’s “exerted total control over the democratic institutions” of his country, nationalized private pension funds, levied big taxes on foreign companies, and grabbed hold of the central bank—and in the process made the Hungarian forint the worst-performing currency in the world.

Last week’s march supporting Orban doesn’t tell the whole story, said Kathrin Haimerl in the Munich Süddeutsche Zeitung. In recent weeks, tens of thousands of mainly middle-class protesters have braved freezing temperatures in Budapest to demonstrate against the “Viktator,” and the left-wing opposition has united to stage hunger strikes and street petitions. A recent poll showed that 84 percent of Hungarians think the country is on the wrong track. With his bulletproof majority coalition, Orban may think he can ignore his domestic critics, said Ralf Leonhard in the Berlin Die Tageszeitung. But he can’t ignore foreign lenders. The ratings agencies have downgraded Hungarian government debt to junk status, and the economy will collapse without a massive IMF loan, which won’t be granted unless Orban agrees to reinstate the central bank’s independence. Orban appears willing to back off just enough to secure that financial lifeline. But he is convinced that conservative parties elsewhere in Europe will help him head off a broader assault on his authoritarian agenda in Hungary. The “self-satisfied smile” that played over his face as he spoke in Strasbourg last week suggests that Orban sees himself, for now, “as the victor.” But this battle is still far from over.

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