For Hungary, the Issue is not Dictatorship but the Quality of Democracy

At this point it’s probably safe to say that Hungary’s current government, led by the rightwing party Fidesz, has done more for the country’s international publicity than any other since regime transition. It’s probably not exactly what they had in mind when they decided to set up a centre to bolster Hungary’s national image, but the good news for taxpayers is that this was a lot cheaper. Apart from a needlessly heavy-handed and intrusive regulation of the media and some key aspects of the rule of law, it cost us nearly nothing.

According to its more moderate critics, among other ills the media law (the immediate cause of the international furore over Hungary’s government), creates a ‘chilling effect’ (i.e. self-censorship) by virtue of the hefty fines the media authority may levy based on the overly vague standards that media outlets – all of them, including ‘edited blogs’ – have to adhere by. The government in turn argues that this is all speculative, since it presumes that the law will be applied in bad faith, which it won’t.

So one crucial question is whether one is willing to take the leap of ‘good faith’, though it is worth pointing out that ideally the law ought to offer slightly more reliable protections against abuse. A more detailed analysis of the assumption of good faith on the part Fidesz-appointed media overseers reveals that the media law is in fact a (prominent) tree that obscures a forest. The debate should be about the state of democracy in Hungary rather than only the media law.

Democracy or dictatorship is a misleading dichotomy

Some of the international press coverage of Hungary has sought to zero in on the question of whether Hungary is a dictatorship (in German) again or on the express lane towards becoming one.

The dictatorship vs. democracy dichotomy that underlies this debate is mistaken and gives the crucial issue the wrong framework. If the implicit assumption behind cries such as ‘Help, it’s a dictatorship!’ and ‘Oh, come on, it’s not!’ is that you need to push for NATO intervention if it’s the former while you can go back to watching the game on the telly if it’s not, then it hardly helps to understand what is going on in Hungary and how it should be addressed.

The transition from democracy to dictatorship is obviously a sliding scale and even the endpoints of the scale are marked by fluidity. In between the two endpoints are various stages of miserable, badly functioning democracies in which there is no accountability, no oversight and no consultation. If you like democracy, you prefer your country to be as near to the Platonic democracy end of the scale as possible.

The most fundamental feature of a democracy are free and fair elections at regular intervals. It’s fairly safe to say that that’s not in danger in Hungary, though at this point I wouldn’t bet my pension on this claim.

But elections are not the only features of a democracy and accountability is not only exercised through popular votes but also through the press, the courts, independent oversight institutions and civic involvement made possible by reactions to the actions of transparent government. A government that wishes to reduce its accountability will weaken the above-mentioned features.

None of the Hungarian governments since regime transition has been keen on accountability and most have tried to weaken it at least in some contexts. Fidesz, however, has done it most systematically and has gone furthest in hurting the quality of democracy.

However far this process will go, it is clear that at its conclusion we are going to end up with a system of government in which accountability will be a lot more difficult to enforce than in a well-functioning democracy, or even a badly functioning one, as the Hungarian democracy was until now. And judging by Fidesz’ actions it is also clear that that is the goal.

So much for the assumption of good faith.

An impressive collection of democratic worst practices

Don’t take my word for it. Here is a non-exhaustive list of democracy-debilitating measures by the government that illustrate where our weak democracy is headed and whether ‘good faith’ is a reasonable expectation vis-à-vis the Fidesz-appointed powerful media overseers:

  • When Fidesz passed an unconstitutional retroactive tax, which the Constitutional Court duly and unanimously nixed, the government responded by a) conceding that the impugned act was unconstitutional; b) severely curtailing the Court’s power of judicial review and extending the retroactive effect of the law. For a number of key policy areas there is no check on the constitutionality of laws especially since…
  • The recently (s)elected President of the Republic, Fidesz politico Pál Schmitt, openly rejects his constitutional mandate to ‘guard the democratic operation of the State’, which for previous office holders meant that parliamentary acts that were dubious were returned to sender with a request for changes. Unlike his predecessors, Schmitt has returned no laws, though clearly several would have merited review.
  • Fidesz has successfully destroyed independent oversight of the government either by placing party hacks in the relevant positions (the General Accounting Office, which monitors public spending and the chief prosecutor’s office, with the central bank to follow soon) or abolishing the relevant institutions (the Fiscal Council, whose establishment Fidesz had previously demanded). The interesting thing is that like the press, most of the institutions thus neutralised have no power to stop the government from doing what it wants to do – they can merely highlight problems and abuses, thereby increasing transparency and helping the citizens hold government accountable. The defence sometimes offered for weakening them, i.e. that it helps to more effectively enforce the will of the people, is thus plainly bogus.
  • Fidesz has always been disdainful of parliamentary politics, significantly reducing the number of parliamentary sessions and taking away the opposition’s right to launch investigative committees during its previous term in government. This time around, it circumvents parliamentary procedures, for example, by introducing major bills through individual MPs rather than the government, which makes it a lot quicker to pass them (there is no obligation to consult between government departments and social stakeholders) and limits cumbersome debate. An impending, comparatively minor, move will be to limit press access in parliament, but arguably that won’t hurt as much because…
  • the media is well underway towards Berlusconisation. The previously rightly lamented leftwing dominance in the private media has given way to a rightwing dominance. In addition to effectively controlling two TV channels, two dailies, etc. (most of which make Fox news look tame by comparison), Fidesz is taking over public broadcasting. After massively cleaning house, it is moving some of the worst rightwing hacks to take control of these institutions. To give you a taste of what’s to come: the new president of the first public radio station, which is mainly a news station, was editor-in-chief of a daily which in addition to all sorts of incitement doesn’t mind dabbling in racism (e.g. unforgettable lines such as ‘They are our justification Jews – read: their mere existence justifies anti-Semitism’ (in Hungarian) and routinely completely ignores news that’s inconvenient for the right. The second public radio channel is headed by a former member of an irredentist-nationalist group called ‘Goy Motorists’ (goy as in non-Jewish) – though the organisation denies the radio chairman’s claim that he officially left it. Happy channel surfing! The new director of the state news agency, MTI, declares that his job is to be ‘loyal to the government’(!), though also fair to the opposition. So what does fairness – or balance for that matter, as the new media requires – in the public media mean? A study by the left-leaning Republikon Institute shows that while in 2009, with the Socialist Party in power, half of the twenty politicians who appeared most frequently in the public television news were government politicians, now the ratio is 16 out of 20, with Orbán alone appearing four times as often as all opposition politicians combined.

For those who were watching these and other actions ‘live’, the hope was that sooner or later the European Union would raise its voice. The European Union, however, doesn’t like to meddle, both because there are no clear guidelines for when it should do so and also because it would give ammunition to euro-sceptics who argue that the emerging ‘European super-state’ fails to respect citizens’ democratic choices.

Yet, the extensive broadsides against the new media law may play a positive role: they may lead to a softening of the regulations or they might at least make the media apparatchiks think twice before applying it in a partisan fashion.

With internal checks and balances and monitoring failing, there is little left but the European Union to guarantee fairness in public life. This it should do, but ideally not in ad hoc manner, and clearly not only in the context of Hungary, but whenever dubious, anti-democratic measures are taken.

As I noted previously, the exclusively economic meaning attributed to European convergence has lead to a lack of interest in making democracy and the rule of law better functioning. It’s time to change that: for the sake of Hungary and the entire EU.

  • Ralf Grahn

    A great read, as I wrote on Twitter, but one detail: Platon was surely not a democrat, and his (failed) philosopher state is hardly the way to go for modern day Europe. 

    My own observations are found on http://grahnlaw.blogspot.com – the latest post today. 

  • Gabor Gyori

    Thank you very much for the comment and also for the link to your post! Re Platonic: I meant Platonic (as in pure, not Plato’s) concept/idea of democracy, which is of course what I should have written, given that it was bound to be ambiguous in this context.

  • Richard

    Great piece Gabor! I hope the EU gets its act together on this. Do you think that the current economic troubles in the EU were used to push this through by stealth in the hope that the EU has other things to care about?

  • Richard

    and of course given that Hungary itself holds the current presidency and can largely determine the agenda…

  • Gabor Gyori

    Thank you Richard! Well, I am never sure how much was planned and how much just happens. Fidesz was very vague about its programme and decisions are generally made in a very small circle of people. Even MPs usually find out very late what "their" plans are. One of the few things the leadership appears to have known for certain was that upon taking over the reins they would quickly try to concentrate power as much as they could – in other words, I think they would have done this even if the EU's situation wouldn't be this dire because of the euro, the economic crisis and also the stalled integration project. All these things help, but they are incidental.

    I also think Fidesz made a calculation that the EU would rather avoid a major conflict with the incoming rotating president because that's an embarrasment for all those involved. What happened, however – and this obviously surprised Fidesz -, was that the EU for its part seems to have decided that it needs to send Orbán a signal to tone down the power grab (maybe only for the duration of the presidency) because if it does more awful stuff while it is in the limelight it might compel the EU into action against Hungary even though the Union would much prefer not to do that. So in essence, for some critics attacking Hungary over the media law, the underlying issue might have been a not so subtle hint to desist from doing something worse. And it will probably/hopefully work, at least while we are centre stage.

  • Carl

    What a good article and piece of rare, sane analysis. I’m not sure that people in Hungary really appreciate that what really keeps democracy alive in a country such as the UK, are the Conservatives and minor parties in South Wales, or the Labour people in, say, rural Sussex – in other words, the ‘outlying’ minorities who provide a degree of discourse to local affairs, and put in an inordinate amount of effort, for minimal personal gain. If there is a lesson for the UK in the spluttering, elitist mess of Hungarian politics, it is that these grassroots need encouragement, and the resources and encouragement to continually renew and redevelop. Active and influential opposition is also the best bulwark against corruption of all types.