IN OCTOBER 1956, Hungarians won the admiration of the world for their heroic rebellion against a ruthless, Soviet-imposed regime. Fifty years later, Hungarians are bracing themselves for a different type of revolution. The target this time is not an externally imposed dictatorship but the country’s fragile constitutional democracy. And the world’s admiration is becoming a distant memory.
On one side of the Hungarian political divide stands the Western-style, pro-market, liberal-socialist coalition government headed by Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. On the other, a motley crew of bitterly dissatisfied, xenophobic extremists led by Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party. The latter has lost four national elections over the last 16 years and is leaving no stone unturned in a desperate quest for power.
On Monday, on the heels of a municipal election in which Fidesz scored some impressive gains, Orban issued a startling ultimatum: Unless the prime minister resigns and rescinds his economic austerity package, Orban will summon his followers into the streets every day. Considering that recent anti-Gyurcsany protesters attacked the police and set fire to the Hungarian television building, this amounts to a threat to remove the government by force if necessary. In a few days we shall know whether Hungary passes a new milestone on the road to democracy or does an about-face and starts marching backward into the future.
Orban, a chameleon-like politician, started as an anti-communist leader in the 1980s, helped found the Young Democratic Alliance, yanked the party from liberalism to nationalism in the mid-1990s, then served as prime minister from 1998 to 2002. After losing the 2002 election, he decided to complete his transformation by linking up with Hungary’s xenophobic political right and moving the forum for political discourse from parliament to the streets.
According to journalist Jozsef Debreczeni, who has written biographies of both Orban and Gyurcsany, if Orban’s populist movement wins the street fight, “Hungary’s hard-fought parliamentary democracy will suffer an irreparable blow.”
“It will be replaced by a corrupt, deceitful, paternalistic Balkan-like regime,” he recently wrote in a Hungarian newspaper. “Hungary under Orban will have far more in common with [President Alexander G. Lukashenko’s Belarus] than with Europe’s parliamentary democracies.”
These are obviously strong words about a European political leader who, after all, is one of the vice presidents of the largest political bloc in the European Parliament, the center-right European People’s Party. Should the dire warnings of Debreczeni be dismissed as alarmist propaganda? Or is it possible Orban is leading Europe’s democratic political establishment by its nose, much the way Slobodan Milosevic did before his rampage through the Balkans? There is a growing body of evidence supporting the pessimistic view.
The immediate cause of the current crisis in Hungary was a leaked transcript of a post-election rant by Gyurcsany to his parliamentary caucus, in which he criticized his party for lying to the people about the true state of the economy and emphasized the need for immediate economic reforms. The opposition pounced on the more shocking phrases in the brutally honest speech to attack the government’s credibility on the eve of last week’s municipal elections. Within days, hooligans were rioting and calling for the government to resign.
The deeper source of public dissatisfaction is easy to identify. The collapse of the Soviet empire and the downfall of communism in Central Europe raised great expectations, but the dream quickly turned into a nightmare for those left behind by the new system. And herein lies the key to understanding the public appeal of not only Orban but all of Central Europe’s newly ascendant populist leaders. They are all busy cashing in on their countrymen’s unfulfilled expectations.
I’m afraid the odds of survival for Hungary’s hard-won constitutional democracy are only about 50-50. These will quickly turn for the worse if the European Parliament’s conservative political establishment continues to lend public support to Hungary’s rogue democrat. Like Neville Chamberlain’s kowtow to Adolf Hitler in 1938, the endorsement this week of Orban’s political strategy by Wilfried Martens, leader of the European People’s Party, has given considerable encouragement to Orban’s reckless followers. This was a grave mistake.
Brussels should never encourage or tolerate the abandonment of parliamentary rules and the violent overthrow of a constitutionally elected democratic government in one of its member states. If the ghost of Hungary’s anti-democratic past is allowed to rise again, the democracy of not just Hungary, but all of Europe, will be in peril.