Deepening economic crisis puts brakes on Hungary's drift towards dictatorship

Wed, Jan 11, 2012, 00:00

THE FINAL hours of 2011 found Balazs Nagy Navarro bundled up against the freezing Budapest night clutching a bag of pogacsa, the little savoury scones beloved of many Hungarians.

He would celebrate the new year with his first solid food for three weeks, and by raising a glass to hopes for a reversal of the government policies that inspired his hunger strike, and which critics say are leading Hungary towards economic ruin, international isolation and even autocracy.

Nagy Navarro and colleague Aranka Szavuly were sacked from their jobs at Hungarian state television last month for protesting against what they call government meddling in the media and manipulation of news reports by officials loyal to conservative prime minister Viktor Orban.

The new media law that came into force last year drew scathing criticism from the European Union, some individual member states and major press watchdogs.

But it is now seen as a mere foretaste of what was to come: an avalanche of radical reforms, culminating in a new constitution, as part of what Orban is proud to call “regime change”.

The constitution introduced on New Year’s Day removes a host of checks and balances on Orban’s power, places many formerly independent institutions under government control and makes it extremely hard for future administrations to reverse the changes he has made.

“If an EU member doesn’t go along with EU values then it shouldn’t be allowed to stay. EU leaders should not meet Mr Orban in an official capacity. Hungary is in the EU club, and if a club-member spits in the common food then it should not be welcome any more,” said Nagy Navarro. He is still camped with supporters outside the state media headquarters in Budapest, not far from the home of Klubradio, the only radio station in Hungary to regularly air opposition views.

Despite being one of the most popular talk radio stations in the country, the media authority run by Orban loyalists has refused to renew its broadcasting licence, and it is expected to close next month. In another heavy-handed move, a leading news website has been banned from parliament for mocking MPs in a satirical song.

“I foresaw that Mr Orban wanted to create a practical one-party state, but I could not have conceived how rude and imaginative he would be in finding ways to push through everything he wants,” said Gyorgy Bolgar, a veteran foreign correspondent and Klubradio presenter.

“This is now only formally a democratic state. In practice it is a dictatorship,” he added.

Members of Orban’s Fidesz party scoff at such claims.

“Like other governments across Europe, we are simply acting in the national interest, as a matter of urgency, to safeguard the economic future of our citizens at a moment of crisis. This involves tough decisions, as it does for every EU member state. Half-measures won’t cut it,” government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs wrote recently.

“We are rebooting the country after 20 years of drift during which our institutions lost relevance and our economy fell badly behind. We want to play a positive role at the heart of a strong Europe. To do this, we must first put our own house in order.” Mr Orban was elected in 2010 to reinvigorate Hungary after two terms of disastrous socialist rule.

But polls suggest half of those who voted for Fidesz have since abandoned him, and tens of thousands protested against his new constitution last week, brandishing placards denouncing the “Viktator” and his drive to turn Hungary into “Orbanistan”. Many businessmen complain that Hungary is as corrupt as ever, but now Fidesz allies rather than the socialists benefit.

In some ways, Orban resembles the Kaczynski twins who ruled Poland in the late 2000s.

They too were intent on rebuilding their homeland on the foundation of conservative “traditional values” that supposedly encapsulated all that was best and most essential in their long-suffering people; those who opposed them were often branded traitors and communist sympathisers.

Orban’s determination to take all levers of power in his grip is also reminiscent of Vladimir Putin, whose stranglehold on Russian politics, media and big business is justified by a conviction that only a supremely strong state and ruling party can protect the national interest.

Having brushed aside criticism that he is eroding democracy in Hungary, it is cold, hard economic reality that has now stopped Orban in his tracks. The country’s economy is moribund, its currency fluctuating wildly and its borrowing costs unsustainably high. After taxing business and nationalising pension funds to plug holes in his budget, and accusing speculators and ratings agencies of unjustified attacks on the nation, Orban’s government has been forced to return cap-in-hand to international lenders for help.

Before the EU or International Monetary Fund give Hungary anything, however, Orban must first guarantee the independence of its central bank, which is threatened by his new laws.

After months of defiant statements, officials now say that they need a funding deal as quickly as possible and will discuss anything to secure one. Talks on a “precautionary” €15-20 billion deal are expected to start this month. Knowing the depth of Hungary’s economic woes, however, Brussels may demand concessions from Orban on far more than just the central bank.

“I would be very sceptical that Orban is ready to turn around and withdraw all the things he did,” said former socialist prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, who has watched Orban’s transformation from a liberal firebrand in the late 1980s into a populist conservative today.

“Instead he might choose to be a martyr, saying he was killed by foreign powers, that he sacrificed himself for the nation but never gave up,” Gyurcsany added.

“I do not want economic collapse or social unrest. But if we do not change direction it is clear that we will hit a very strong wall. The sooner the government understands this, the better.”