Every so often, normal service is interrupted by news from Hungary. Today twice.
Two different accounts of the contents of Osteuropa's Hungary issue.
Writing in the new issue of Osteuropa – entitled Quo vadis, Hungaria? – András Bozóki explains how, after 1989, the Hungarian political system was founded on consensus and a deep distrust of power: hence the retention of so-called "cardinal laws" – laws alterable only with a two-thirds parliamentary majority – from the socialist-era constitution. However, formal stability came at a price, writes the political scientist and former culture minister: "The constitution prevented the system from correcting itself. Accordingly, when Fidesz obtained the two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, Viktor Orbán talked not about a correction but about a revolution." What was originally meant to guarantee democracy now does the opposite: "The new government sees the constitution solely as a technical body of laws that they are able to adapt to whatever their political ideas might be. When they pass a law that turns out to be unconstitutional, they don't adapt the law but change the constitution."
The letter of the law: The new constitution that entered into force on 1 January contradicts European requirements of democracy, constitutionalism and the protection of fundamental rights on several counts, writes Gábor Halmai. It allows the current government to set in stone its economic and social policy on areas including taxation, the pension system and families and marriage, so that any subsequent government possessing only a simple majority will not be able to alter these. Second, the newly defined subject of the constitution – Hungary as national community – allows no place for other nationalities living within the territory of the Hungarian state, while entitling Hungarians living beyond Hungary's borders. Perhaps most starkly anti-democratically, the constitution undermines the independence of regulatory institutions ranging from the national bank to the constitutional court and media, and hence the separation of powers.
The upperworld: Bálint Magyar, former minister of education and co-signatory of the "New Year's appeal" issued by former dissidents, recalls Fidesz's first stint in power from 1998-2002: "[Back then] I called the Hungarian phenomenon the organized upperworld, where, unlike the oligarchic organizations of Socialists, the power operating within the framework of a network of democratic institutions extended its fields of operation downwards, using Mafia methods and state support. In the organized upperworld, the state is not an instrument of the Mafia, but it is the Mafia itself." Nothing much has changed in the nature of Fidesz, writes Magyar, except that a two-thirds majority now place sole power in a single person: "When [Orbán] speaks about certain decisions not as his own but of the Parliament, he finds it very hard to suppress an ironic smile."
The new Osteuropa magazine is dedicated to Hungary, which is threatening to turn its back on the West. Sociologist Balint Magyar describes how under Victor Orban, first the Fidesz Party and then the whole country landed in the populist trap - and is now floundering. "What national and social populism have in common is that they pass responsibility onto others. The nation 'which has not been spared by fate' and the man on the street who is exposed to fate unite to lament their bitter lot. Critical reflection of history and a rational approach to thinking about the future have been systematically banned from Hungary's political culture. They have been replaced by self-pity and the search for scapegoats: communists, bankers, oligarchs, liberals, Jews, gays, gypsies."
The writer Laszlo Darvasi tells the story of a country where strange things are afoot. The story begins: "The next morning strange developments were underway in the country. On the building site where the walls were growing upwards, on the steps of the ladders looming high, on the scaffolding and on the public buildings, loud speakers had been attached overnight. These loudspeakers, however rusty and worn out they looked, were buzzing clearly and intelligibly. They had been lying around in old sound archives…"
In further articles, Krisztina Koenen writes about the world as Victor Orban sees it, Esther Kinsky writes about the hinterland, Gabor Halmai on the new constitution, and Kornelia Magyar on the hardships of the Roma.