1. A FAREWELL TO DEMOCRACY
From republic towards re-feudalization
The birth of tyranny
The Hungarian ‘National Cooperation System’, announced by Viktor Orbán after taking power in 2010, is a cover for autocratic rule quite alien to recent European custom. There is a point where democracy ends: it is the point where the line between private and public interests vanishes. From here on, the state becomes synonymous with the private interests of the politicians and entrepreneurs who inhabit that state, and so the state defends and serves these private interests. As one ideologue of the Orbán regime stated all too candidly: “What people refer to as corruption is in effect the central plank of Fidesz policy”.
One of the most important ways that this system deviates from any accepted democracy is the almost complete lack of accountability. In Hungary, breaking rules has become the rule. What was previously considered an abuse of power or the law is now simply the everyday exercise of power. The words and sentences repeated by the regime serve merely to conceal reality. The manipulation of the masses is referred to as a ‘national consultation’. ‘Protection’ means the extortion of protection money, while the ‘defence of pensions’ means the centralized requisition of private pension funds. The ‘protection of Hungarians’ is synonymous with tearing society in two between those loyal to the government and those daring to disagree with it. The scheme of ‘reduced household utility bills, much heralded by the government, has brought centrally-dictated prices and rising costs with a decline in the quality of services. State corruption instigated from above has become part of everyday life; it is now hardly even felt as deviation. Just as a system of public labour for those at the bottom of the pile and a flat rate of income tax that greatly favours those better off, the regime’s legitimacy is supported by grand investment projects demonstrating the symbolic power of the state, and by propaganda campaigns instigated by the government and based on xenophobia.
The unique characteristics of the current Hungarian political system fit the concept of a mixed regime with an ‘uneven playing field’. Those in power unilaterally operate the state in such a way as to violate at least one of the following basic elements of democracy: (1) free elections; (2) the rights of citizens; (3) a level playing field, namely the distribution of material goods, balance in the media, and fair implementation of the law. In Hungary we have reached the point at which all three of these elements are being violated repeatedly; for this reason, whatever epithet might be used to qualify the term, it cannot be called a democracy.
The Orbán regime did not take this form from one day to the next – it has changed steadily, but markedly, over time. But immediately on taking power in 2010, Orbán set Hungary on the path away from liberal democracy. In the years after what the prime minister termed the ‘ballot-box revolution’ of 2010 – during the period of the ‘constitutional coup’ – the country transitioned from the majority democracy emphasised by its supporters to a hybrid regime. This had no respect for the rule of law, for the constitution, or for democratic mechanisms of checks and balances. Hungary turned away from the rule of law in 2013, and Viktor Orbán’s 2014 announcement of the building of ‘illiberal democracy’ represented not the starting-point of a new regime, but rather the further autocratic transformation of the existing one.
The key problem with the regime in the last few years has not been that it is ‘illiberal’, but rather that it is anti-democratic. Indeed, despite appearances to the contrary, Hungary is the first member-state in the history of the European Union to distance itself from democracy.
A network of vassals
Hungary has a multi-party system, but without real competition; elections are held, but without any real choice. Using its two-thirds ‘supermajority’ in parliament, Fidesz acts as a ‘state-party’, and its legislative activity has created a party-state environment. The Hungarian Parliament has been emptied: there are no debates of any value. Legislation is largely carried out on the basis of private members’ bills submitted by deputies on the government side. These are totally devoid of any impact studies or social dialogue. Only the limited constraining force of the European Union presents any kind of obstacle to the further expansion of the autocratic features of the regime. But the EU does not have the necessary legal powers to obstruct such anti-democratic actions: the EU system is founded on the assumption that it is made up of states based on the rule of law. This notwithstanding, the EU’s system of rules stands for procedures that may restrain the development of the Orbán regime into an openly authoritarian dictatorship.
Hungary’s ‘illiberal democracy’ is not democracy, just as ‘people’s democracy’ or ‘socialist democracy’ did not mean democracy either. Such a system is governed by an autocratic leader brought to power through pseudo-democratic elections and supported at the international level by leaders of similar ilk. The leader establishes a centralised, informal system that operates vertically and is dependent on his person, one in which there is no place for horizontal accountability of any kind. In this system political loyalty overrides expertise. It considers heterogeneous solidarity networks, social autonomy, an independent media and civic and non-governmental organisations as dangerous, indeed, as enemies of the regime. In Hungary the state has been taken over by a political clique, one that equally provides a home to family members, proxies who run cover businesses that are fronts for corrupt contracts, party members and loyal clients – those who are really operating the system. This regime, similar to a feudal system, is however in constant flux, making consolidation unlikely.
The role of the leader
The political leader – who identifies himself with the ‘native’ people of the country – confronts the international economic and political elite just as he does immigrants, who are all considered enemies of the people. All things being equal, the leader’s preference is for the exercise of power without violence, and he insists on regular (if not honest) elections being made, in order to guarantee that his rule is enduring and that he be able to present himself to world opinion as a ‘democrat’. The leaders of such regimes learn much from one another: they use similar methods and techniques. And yet, as these regimes are not dictatorships, there can be independent social and opposition activities, legal demonstrations and spontaneous changes.
The leader of the regime promises the democratic re-politicisation of public discourse, but in truth he brings into being a system characterised by a central propaganda machine and chaotic public administration. The promised ‘strong state’ is in reality a state enmeshed in a web of elite corruption, in which the siphoning of public funds is not an infraction, but rather a legitimised phenomenon that maintains the networks of power. The regime can sometimes involve quite brutal methods of redistributing property. The members of the power elite use legislation to achieve the temporary renationalisation of previously privatised assets, in order that these same items of property later are re-privatised for the benefit of themselves or their clientele. In this system, for those in possession of power, all forms of income speedily lose their status as public funds and find their way into the pockets of private individuals.
Politics is much more complicated for the leader exerting autocratic power if the country is a member of a community of democratic states. A commitment to multi-level government, to institutional cooperation and to common, basic democratic principles – such as those which form the essence of the European Union – can make things difficult for populist leaders. It is at this point that the leader enters into a hypocritical, cynical game with the representatives of the international community: he enjoys the financial benefits, but rejects the democratic goals of this cooperation. Such a system is based much more on the habits and fears of its constituency than on any form of ideology. Fear breeds silence, but it is an error to think that this silence signals approval.
This present ‘diagnosis’ seeks to break this silence in Hungary. It identifies and acknowledges the problems caused by this distorted system and hopes to stimulate action that could help the country to return to the path of economic and social advancement that it once chose for itself.