Hungary is on a fast track to the past
A mong 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 .
The bad press Hungary has been getting of late is the result of left-liberal lies. At least, that is what the current government claims. In fact, it argues, Hungary is a perfectly normal country going about its business. Criticising the ruling party, the centre-right Fidesz, we are told, is an attack on Hungarians generally. Fidesz is, in effect, Hungary.
Of course these "lies" have been around only since Fidesz came to power in 2010. The party’s landslide victory handed the new prime minister, Orbán, an opportunity to change the constitution. 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 weakeПing the constitutional court have taken everything back to square one. The minister for economic affairs is now the head of the central bank.
A catalogue of other changes worry Hungary-watchers, and Hungarians themselves. Most importantly, committees have been filled with government supporters and their terms lengthened to well beyond the life of parliament. Then there is the ousting of prominent theatre directors ; the scaling-back of the film industry; the smearing and demonising of internationally known figures such as philosopher Agnes Heller and Nobel-prize-winПing author Imre Kertész ; the financial starvation of magazines and radio stations; the purging of dissenting voices in the media ; the sacking of headteachers – and a great deal more. Women have been told to go back to the kitchen and have children. The party and its properly "Hungarian" values must take precedence.
This sits alongside a tolerance of savage anti-Jewish and anti-Roma rhetoric, including from journalist Zsolt Bayer. a founder of Fidesz and a good friend of the prime minister. In the last few weeks the government has handed out three major public awards to far right cultural figures. After some international embarrassment they withdrew one of them. And now there are laws that render rough sleepers liable to prosecution.
Like all governments, this one claims that it is simply sorting out problems created by its predecessors. But why, if this is so, has there been such a rise in the emigration of young, qualified people. particularly since 2010? There are about 500,000 of them working abroad by some accounts, maybe 100,000 in the UK. Fidesz is having to enact new legislation to deal with it.
The past year has seen changes to the school syllabus to include prewar fascist writers, and the building of statues to Admiral Horthy. the inter-war leader who allied Hungary with Nazi Germany. Fidesz’s notion of national values – so easily "betrayed" by those who do not share their political sympathies – trumps everything. Opposition exists, but the cultural and political ground is being cleared of such voices. The government is on a fast track back to the 1930s.
And the story put forward in defence of developments in Hungary is that the picture painted of Orbán’s programme is distorted – all liberal propaganda. It’s a sign of weakness that the patriotism card is the only one they can play to excuse themselves, but you can bet that it will be played time and again.