Forgive the frequency, and sometimes the length of these posts, but this isn't 'just politics'. It is a serious struggle. If in doubt read this about the growth of the extreme Right in the whole region.
There are various ways of establishing authoritarianism as a norm. There is finance, there is the law, there is the press, and there is culture. The Hungarian government has been working at all these levels at a furious speed, hoping that by the time the world has noticed what it is doing, especially in the current economic chaos, the deed will have been done and the changes become irreversible. It has tried to keep the momentum going at home through the usual paranoid, patriotic bluster.
Some of it will be familiar here. It concentrates on interference from the EU, since what have a country's internal affairs to do with them? (The answer that Hungary joined the EU of its own free will and is a member of a group that works within the rules of the group doesn't suit them to occur to them), on the depredations of international finance (and we can guess who that will come to mean, in fact already does mean to some), and on all those cynical godless liberal dictatorships outside the sacred borders of the country - which are not wide enough, of course - whose representatives will insist on asking questions.
The cultural take-over goes on. Orchestras, theatres, magazines, radio stations and newspapers are subject to sackings and political appointments. Most recently the internationally admired director of Trafó, György Szabó has been pushed aside for a government backed appointee. If you can control it, control it, if it's awkward make the lives of those you regard as awkward as difficult as possible until it becomes impossible.
Can you imagine a far right wing Tory government (and I don't mean Cameron), supported by the BNP, replacing the leading figures of law, media, finance, the arts, and the rest of the state apparatus with their own candidates, ensuring that the laws they passed cannot be repealed, and handing the BNP a theatre or two just as as a start? That is exactly what the Fidesz government is doing now.
But the Hungarian government has finally come up against stiffer opposition at the EU, as reported, for example by The New York Times where, Stephen Castle writes:
On Tuesday, the European Commission, the union’s executive arm, said it was starting proceedings over Hungarian measures that threaten the independence of the country’s central bank and its data-protection authority, and over rules on the retirement age of judges. Ultimately, Hungary can be forced to change rules that breach European law or, if it refuses, can be taken to the European Court of Justice.
But the dispute has ignited a broader debate. While the union insists that countries meet democratic standards to join, there are few sanctions once a nation is a member. After talks on Monday, Belgium and the Netherlands suggested that European ministers could discuss the situation next week...
...“Hungary is a key member of the European family,” Mr. Barroso said in a statement on Tuesday. “We do not want the shadow of doubt on respect for democratic principles and values to remain over the country any longer.”
This seems limited but it's a start and it was enough to send the Hungarian government scuttling back while pretending nothing had happened, as reported through the Associated Press, here today:
Hungary plans to change parts of its legislation that has prompted EU threats of court action and sparked Western fears about democratic rights, a top European official said Wednesday, but the promise did nothing to appease critics...In other words OK, it's not that important, so yeh, we'll compromise, but actually we'll do it anyway. The article goes on:
...After a heated three-hour debate at the EU parliament Wednesday, Orban said Barroso's complaints about the central bank were "not a matter of life or death for us. If the commission believes this is problematic then we have no problem."
The letter was sent only hours before Orbán faced stinging criticism from the European Parliament and a day after the Commission, the European Union's executive, threatened to take Budapest to court over some of its new laws.
"We are willing to factor in the European Commission position," Orbán said of the criticism of the judiciary.
The Hungarian leader was met with widespread derision as he sought to convince the legislature that the new constitution and laws were necessary to get closer to European democratic principles.
Orban said he expected to find a solution soon to the EU Commission's legal challenges, well before they would reach the stage of going to court.
Hungary could, in theory, be expelled from the EU using article 7 (Respect for and promotion of the values of the Union) of the TEU.
I hope they push Hungary hard on that.
In the meantime there is this excellent Guardian article by the author I am currently translating, Yudit Kiss. She writes::
As is customary in authoritarian regimes, the system's ears are sharp and its arms are long; people think twice before signing a petition, a newspaper article or taking part in public actions where they can be identified. Against this background, the large demonstrations of the last few months, as well as multiplying manifestations of civil courage, have an extraordinary value.