Hungary's new 'Little Red Book' harks back to bad old Soviet days


BUDAPEST LETTER:The recently elected government has defied the IMF and is carrying out a summer legislative blitzkrieg, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLIN

WHILE MOST of Europe’s leaders slink off for their summer holidays, Hungary’s new government is cementing its political “revolution”.

The centre-right Fidesz party won two-thirds of the seats in parliament in April’s ballot, driving the Socialists from power and securing the right to change Hungary’s constitution and push through any legislation that it desires.

Prime minister Viktor Orban has placed Fidesz loyalists at the top of key institutions such as the national audit office and the financial regulator, and last week a close ally became Hungary’s president when Pal Schmitt took power in a ceremony boycotted by disgruntled opposition parties.

The government has merged ministries and wants to shrink the size of parliament and local administration, has claimed greater power over the appointment of constitutional court judges and plans to overhaul the constitution itself in the next year.

With an unassailable majority in parliament and the Socialists in disarray after their election drubbing, Fidesz encountered little opposition to its legislative blitzkrieg, until it proposed a Bill that critics say highlights Orban’s hubris and recalls the bad old days of one-party power.

Parliament ruled that a so-called statement of national co-operation must de clearly displayed in all public offices, so “that it is seen, day in, day out, by all Hungarian state employees”, as Orban said. The declaration begins with the statement, “Let there be peace, freedom and accord” and goes on to outline a “new system for national co-operation” based on “work, home, family, health and order” and hails Fidesz’s election victory as a “revolution at the ballot boxes”. The statement’s portentous tone and the order that it hang in every state institution was too much for many Hungarians, for whom the strictures of Soviet rule are not such a distant memory.

Even the beleaguered opposition parties roused themselves to compare it to Mao’s Little Red Book, calling it Orban’s “letter of resignation from western civilisation” and suggesting it be printed on the back of old portraits of Vladimir Lenin to save precious state funds.

“This might seem like a joke . . . but by ordering all public buildings to display the credo, Fidesz created a symbol of its own arrogance, breathing new life into old accusations that Orban is “anti-democratic” and “dictatorial”, wrote political analyst Peter Kreko.

A proposed new law that would dramatically increase government control over all media outlets has also raised questions about Orban’s commitment to open society.

“The proposed laws are highly worrisome regarding media freedom in your country,” Dunja Mijatovic of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe wrote to the Hungarian government.

“Their adoption could lead to all broadcasting being subordinated to political decisions.”

Senior Socialist Ildiko Lendvai put it even more bluntly when she said: “The purpose of this law is to change the public media into the party media.”

Such criticism has made barely a mark on Orban or his government, however, especially coming from a Socialist party that is widely loathed for its perceived cronyism, for the lies that it admitted telling while in office, and for the painful cuts that it imposed despite public resistance.

Orban has made a dramatic departure from the policies of his predecessors, who latterly were praised abroad for bringing down Hungary’s budget deficit to manageable levels.

While much of Europe accepts the International Monetary Fund orthodoxy and slashes spending and raises taxes to balance the budget and reduce debt, Orban is cutting taxes and shunning austerity measures to try and lift the Hungarian economy out of recession.

His refusal to commit to running a lower deficit next year, and his determination to enforce a tough levy on banks to raise cash for his budget, put him at loggerheads with the IMF, which last month suspended talks with his government over funding plans for next year.

This exemplified what Orban and his team say about reclaiming Hungary’s “economic sovereignty”, something that plays well with a nation that is tired of austerity and is traditionally suspicious of outside interference in its affairs.

Since the suspension of loan talks with the IMF, Hungary has defied the sceptics by successfully raising funds on the international markets at reasonable interest rates.

But many experts nevertheless believe the country will ultimately pay dearly for what they see as another example of Orban’s arrogance.

“If there’s an external shock and it turns out that Hungary is not able to finance itself from the markets, this would also mean a fiasco for the government which would need to ask for a new loan package,” said Kreko.

“It appears that the government is willing to sacrifice rationalistic ideas for some symbolic measures.”