It seems that Hungary has gone a step too far. Once in Europe’s sympathy books, it now stands on the brink of disgrace

 

Last week, the Foreign Minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn, proposed the previously unthinkable — expelling Hungary from the European Union for treating asylum seekers ‘worse than wild animals’.

Hungary has gotten used to such international criticism and brushes it off.  The hardline Right-wing Government of Viktor Orbán has dismissed progressive policies, calling them ‘liberal babble’ and adding ‘This era is now at an end’.

Hungary is not alone in seeing a resurgence in Right-wing populism.  The Visegrad countries, consisting of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have all elected governments expressing similar sentiments. Even mature democracies like the UK, France and the USA are affected.  But Hungary’s current situation has some very specific circumstances beyond geopolitical trends, dating back exactly ten years ago.

Fifty years after the anti-communist protests in the country were ruthlessly crushed by the USSR’s Red Army, the commemorations transmogrified into ongoing anti-government demonstrations.  This came through a twist worthy of House of Cards with an audio recording emerging after the Hungarian Socialist Party had won the general election, showing the Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány, admitting in salty language that he was consistently lying for the two years up to and during the election.

After it became clear that neither the Prime Minister nor his party were prepared to resign following the exposure, on the 18th of September 2006, 40,000 people staged a protest outside the Hungarian Parliament in Budapest.  It was the largest demonstration since the fall of Communism in 1989 — of which the Hungarian Socialist Party was the legacy.

Protests spread to other cities.  In Debrecen, the city mayor, Lajos Kósa, a member of Fidesz (Orban’s party), took an active part in the demonstrations and criticised the (Socialist) Mayor of Budapest for perceived inactivity.  In Szeged, the far-right Jobbik movement came to prominence after organising a demonstration.  There were rallies even in Romania and Serbia, the ethnic Hungarian enclaves in those countries.

This febrile atmosphere continued right up to the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.  Marches against the Government had been taking place every day but on October 23, the police resorted to mounted charges, tear gas and rubber bullets; the discipline of the crowd descended into a riot.  Notably, one set of protestors commandeered an (unarmed) T-34 tank during the open-air anniversary celebrations, driving it at police lines (until it ran out of fuel).  By that time, even a peaceful Fidesz gathering was met with a harsh police reaction.

A candlelight vigil took place in Budapest on the 4th of November — the anniversary of the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. But the demonstrations petered out in the face of the implacability of the Hungarian Socialist Party to remain in office.  As Prime Minister Gyurcsány predicted of the protestors in his speech concerning the lying scandal: ‘Sooner or later they will get bored of it and go home’.  It was a temporary victory.

Eventually, in 2009, Gyurcsány was forced out by a vote of no-confidence and the Socialist-nominated successor lasted barely a year.  In the 2010 elections, the Socialists were annihilated, going from 190 seats to 59 and finishing only a couple of percentage points above the rabble-rousing Jobbik.  The big winner though was Fidesz and Viktor Orbán, who through 52 per cent of the vote gained 68 per cent of the seats — exceeding the two-thirds supermajority required to change the constitution.  Orbán previously held the premiership between 1998 and 2002, now however, he had the opportunity to truly reshape Hungary according to his Right-wing vision.

Presently, securing the country remains crucial given the danger of being outflanked by Jobbik (radical nationalists), who garnered 20 per cent of the vote in the 2014 elections.

Thousands have protested the adoption of the new constitution which, critics argue, removes checks and balances (such as restrictions on the Constitutional Court), allows Fidesz to cement its introduced policies, limits certain civil liberties and is avowedly conservative in outlook, discriminating against those who disapprove.  Amnesty International believes the document ‘violates international and European human rights standards’.

In 2014, Fidesz comfortably won again. But in winning a plurality rather than a majority, it lost its supermajority in parliamentary seats.  Still, the constitution has already been changed which means that if a different government takes over, it will have to abide by the rules laid down by Fidesz.  At the moment though, Orbán is going nowhere and ironically he can thank the Socialists for this.

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