A New Solidarity Movement in Hungary?

I was lecturing about transitions to democracy today, and I mentioned that my colleague Adam Przeworski has argued that no country with a GDP above $6,000/per capita that becomes a democracy has later lost its status as a democracy. I noted that this was one of the few iron rules of politics that political scientists have come up with (democracies don’t tend to get to into wars with each other is the other), when I looked up at a Hungarian student of mine and thought “uh oh….”.

For readers who have been singularly fixated on all things Iowa and New Hampshire of late, you may have missed the fact that between 70,000-100,000 Hungarians took to the streets on January 2nd to protest constitutional developments that they fear could make Hungary the exception to Przeworski’s rule. Another colleague of mine, John Jost, was in Budapest at the time, and he was kind enough to offer the following thoughts from the ground:

On January 2, 2012, between 70,000 and 100,000 Hungarian citizens demonstrated boisterously outside of the historic Opera House, where the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and other members of his conservative Fidesz party gathered for a posh celebration of their controversial new national constitution. The protest was arranged by the “Szolidaritas” (“Solidarity”) organization and supported by various trade unions, students, and others who are increasingly concerned about the government’s efforts to consolidate power, rewrite history, and generally move the country in an authoritarian direction. The slogan of the day was “Hungary Will Be a Republic Again”—a reference to the fact that the new constitution has changed the official name of the country, omitting the word “Republic.”

Critics of the new constitution, which has also been condemned by some leaders of the European Union, say that it was written exclusively by Fidesz operatives in the absence of consultation with other parties and constituencies. Controversial provisions of the constitution and accompanying pieces of legislation include the prohibition of same-sex marriage and progressive taxation (i.e., imposing a “flat tax”); a reduction in the size of Parliament (coupled with district gerrymandering to minimize the impact of left-wing voting); a reshuffling of the courts, including mandatory retirement of older judges (who have been replaced by young Fidesz loyalists); restrictions on citizens’ abilities to complain about violations of their civil rights; and the creation of a new committee to monitor the media (combined with a strategy of squeezing out independent media sources that have been critical of the government, such as ATV and Klub Radio).

The constitution features the rhetoric of nationalism and official Christianity (including a political reference to the “Holy Crown”) and nullifies not only the 1949 constitution passed during the Communist period but also the 1989 revised constitution passed after the democratic transition. Fidesz has declared that the current Socialist party is responsible for the crimes of the Communist party during the postwar period and has sought to bring legal charges against political adversaries, including the previous Prime Minister, Ferenc Gyurcsány. Changes to the new constitution must be approved by two-thirds of Parliament—which is seen by many as unattainable by any coalition other than the one led by Fidesz, at least for many years. A law has also been passed requiring all governmental offices in the country to display the new constitution prominently on a special table.

Since their election 18 months ago, the Fidesz government has taken extraordinary measures to induce citizens to move their retirement savings from private accounts (backed by international insurance companies) to state-held pension funds, ostensibly to lower the national debt to be in compliance with EU requirements. Those I spoke with have no confidence that they will ever see the money again. The government has drawn international criticism for seeking to assert hegemony over the independent central bank, which sets interest rates and monitors inflation; after the controversy over pensions, many citizens worry that the government will appropriate funds from the central bank for its own purposes. Very recently, Fidesz has also slashed the higher education budget by 25%, lowered the age of mandatory schooling to 16, and planned to curtail public health expenditures (on the assumption that wealthy families at least will be able to afford supplementary insurance).

Although the demonstration on January 2 was not sponsored by any of the opposition parties, it was well-attended by representatives of various centrist and leftist parties and organizations; because of the event’s success, future prospects for coalition-building among these previously disparate entities are now being reassessed. The extreme right-wing Jobbik party is backed by as much as 20% of the Hungarian public, but there were only about 50 members (dressed in black military uniforms) at the demonstration. They sharply antagonized a socialist delegation, ultimately prompting the tens of thousands in attendance to chant in unison: “Nazis go home!” But perhaps the most popular line was delivered by László Majtényi, a former ombudsman concerned with freedom of the press, who warned Orbán that, “It is better to be a departing prime minister than to be a dictator who is removed by the people!” Although the events unfolding in Hungary have not received much sustained attention in the West, CNN briefly covered the demonstration; soon thereafter, the station was abruptly dropped by Telekom, one of the country’s largest cable providers.

Disclaimer: The author did not attend the demonstration but was in Hungary immediately before and after the event and spoke extensively with others who attended. Many of the factual statements made here are also contained in the following English articles:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jan/06/hungary-viktor-orban-faces-protest

http://articles.businessinsider.com/2012-01-03/europe/30583227_1_hungary-prime-minister-viktor-orban-fidesz-party

http://www.demotix.com/news/990004/hungarians-protest-against-prime-minister-viktor-orban-budapest

http://www1.presseurop.eu/en/content/article/1351841-let-us-deal-orban

http://hotnewshome.com/2012/01/03/protest-against-new-constitution-in-hungary/9808

http://www.freehungary.hu/component/content/article/1-friss-hirek/674-tens-of-thousands-protest-against-new-fidesz-constitution-as-government-celebrates.html

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.