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Hungary’s Struggle with Sovereignty

When the Hungarian Communist regime fell in 1989, the transition occurred rather smoothly. The transition to democracy had been encouraged by political parties such as the Christian Nationalist Party and the Hungarian Democratic Forum. Hungary did not witness the same amount of violence that has followed dramatic shifts in governance like in Romania at the time or Iraq in the early part of the last decade or in Libya this decade.

A gradual transformation to full democracy was planned and executed. The main proponent supporting the move to a social democracy was Viktor Orbán. Orbán, then only 26, demanded that Soviet troops withdraw, and free and fair elections are held. Flash forward to April 2010, when Orbán’s conservative party, Fidesz, won a supermajority, commandeering two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, as well as making Orbán Prime Minister.

Since that time, the fears of a return to an authoritarian rule have risen under the watch of Orbán’s government. Recently, Orbán has led an effort to change Hungary’s constitution and institute curbs on free speech and the media. There is also a lurking suspicion among many that Orbán’s agenda includes staying on as prime minister.

The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders writes, “Across Europe, leaders have been reacting with alarm to a man who has used this huge surge of popularity to impose an assertive, intensely nationalistic style of politics. It marks the latest stage in his startling journey – long-haired, anti-communist libertine in the 1980s; democracy-movement hero in 1989; increasingly conservative leader in the 1990s; and today, a figure likened to Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as the most authoritarian-styled elected leader in the 27-nation European Union.”

“Most visible was his media law, which places all Hungarian broadcasters and newspapers under the thumb of a watchdog panel of Fidesz supporters with the power to police newspapers’ pages for ‘balance’ and fine them…That law led to furious denunciations in the European Parliament last week, and worries that Hungary was leading a Central European turn to authoritarianism.” This has created a dispute with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, not to mention, condemnation from the United States.

Orbán’s efforts to roll back freedom of the press and free speech, as well as curtailing civil liberties, has some wondering whether Hungary, under the stewardship of Viktor Orbán, is becoming an authoritarian state along the lines of Russia under soon to be president, Vladimir Putin, or Belarus under Alexander Lukashenko. While objecting, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the United States, must work on a unified solution that will not provoke Viktor Orbán’s government into noncooperation. The EU and others must walk a very fine line in order to avoid forcing Orbán into a corner.

In early 2011, Orban, then acting president of the EU, defended Hungary’s media law. The media law essentially placed broadcasters and print media under the supervision of an oversight panel run by Fidesz supporters and will, if newspapers or media outlets are found errant of the law, fine them accordingly and they could possibly find their licenses revoked. “His (Orbán’s) parliament passed a set of laws governing the media…A new, state-run media council, composed entirely of Fidesz appointees, now has the right to impose fines of up to $1 million for journalism it considers ‘unbalanced,” Anne Applebaum writes in the Washington Post.

The media law was quickly followed by Orbán’s continued defiance of EU’s membership laws when he appointed a third-central bank vice-governor and allowed his Monetary Council to set interest rates. The new law also states that the central bank can merge with the state financial regulator and demote the central-bank governor at his discretion.

This amounts simply to the complete takeover of the state by the banking sector. On top of all of this, adjustments were made in the judicial system that excludes checks and balances on the system and a new flat tax law also came into effect. All of these changes created an atmosphere where all three branches and the banking sector are under the control of one party and subsequently, one man, Viktor Orbán. When these regulations were enacted into law, the threat from the European Commission and the IMF were clear: reform or lose financial assistance.

Recently, Orbán, knowing that Hungary’s reeling economy desperately needed further funding, told the European Commission and IMF officials that he would discuss amending the laws in order to remain in compliance with any EU regulations. However, anywhere from 100,000 to 400,000 Fidesz supporters took to the streets in protest of the European Commission and IMF restrictions. Due to Viktor Orbán’s popularity, the EU needs to be careful in insisting that all of these laws be amended. Although ultimately the EU has significant powers, especially in the financial sector, it would have a daunting, if not an impossible task, of expelling Hungary as a member state.

Moreover, this seems extremely unlikely due to the fragile state of several Eurozone countries, namely, Greece, Portugal, Italy, and Spain, and EU ministers desire to keep the fiscal union intact. Because of the newly ratified Lisbon Treaty, if the circumstance were to arise where Hungary claimed that the situation has changed enough since they originally became a member, they could technically withdraw. This scenario is unlikely. Therefore, compromise will remain the most likely solution.

However, the EU needs to examine its authority in forcing a massive overhaul of any new laws in Hungary. First, both Orbán and his Fidesz party were elected in what was deemed free and fair elections. Also, public support for Orbán’s government becomes problematic when attempting to control a nation, which legally, the European Commission only possesses partial sovereignty over.

The public protests in Budapest prompts the question: are these laws what the people want? If this is true, as it appears to be, then minor changes and cautious negotiation must be utilized to avoid ostracizing an entire nation, or worse, having them reject compromise. Considering the role of social media and mass protests that have ruptured in several European states, European Union officials are wary of forcing change on another European state. The EU needs to consider its options before taking a hard stance against Orbán’s government. Change and a return to a more democratic ideological political system should be encouraged, but not at the expense of the will of the people, the foundation on which democracy is founded.