Entries RSS Feed Share Send to Facebook Tweet This Accessible version

Voter registration abandoned but the culture war heats up

January 7th, 2013

Pro-government columnists suggest that the government has backed down elegantly, disproving the charges of arrogance and authoritarianism often levelled against it, while according to centrist and left-leaning analysts, the government tested the water of public feeling and realized it had too much to lose on the registration issue.

Magyar Nemzet’s editorial claims that the government’s move to give up mandatory voter registration for 2014 proves how distorted left-wing interpretations of the government’s actions are. Zsuzsanna Körmendy points out that it was President János Áder (a founding member and former leading politician of Fidesz) who asked for a constitutional review, while many Fidesz politicians expressed reservations earlier on. After the Constitutional Court scrapped the law, the government decided not to enshrine it into the Constitution – an option which some on the government side had floated – but chose to abandon the idea altogether. All in all, claims Körmendy, the new election law is an eighty per cent success for Fidesz, with Hungarians who live across the borders in neighbouring countries getting the right to vote if they request Hungarian citizenship.

In Népszabadság, in an article entitled “a huge step backwards” Róbert Friss quotes the same sentence as Körmendy – when Fidesz faction leader Antal Rogán explained that while they could have used force, they had decided instead to turn to wisdom. This, Friss suggests, is proof that Fidesz “has for the first time given up its credo of political violence,” because it is unwilling to open a new front. Friss acknowledges President Áder’s role in what happened, and pays tribute to former Fidesz Cabinet minister István Stumpf who, although he is one of the judges appointed by Fidesz and a long-time friend of Fidesz leaders, did not just vote for the decision of the Constitutional Court, but authored the text. Nevertheless, the left-wing columnist thinks the Court is about to lose its teeth with the new appointments of the coming year, so the opposition had better refrain from being overly triumphant.

Bálint Ablonczy, commenting in Heti Válasz, and points to the contradiction between the opposition accusing the government of dictatorial tendencies and the fact that it was Fidesz appointees – Áder and Stumpf – who finally struck down compulsory pre-registration. What really happened, he says, is that the Constitutional Court scrapped “the monstrous invention known as  ‘transitory constitutional laws’ ” (statutes enacted by Fidesz with a two thirds majority which were intended to serve as parts of the Basic Law without actually being incorporated into the constitutional text) and thereby had the opportunity to annul “the completely unnecessary” voter registration law. It does not even occur to the opposition that the government may not want to crush democracy after all – he concludes.

HVG agrees with Népszabadság’s Róbert Friss in suggesting that opening a new political front would have been too costly for Fidesz to tackle. The authors, Áron Kovács and András Kósa, believe that on the day before the Constitutional Court handed down its decision, Fidesz luminaries held a phone conversation and decided to “let it go.” They also remind their readers that this was not the first such occasion. The Fidesz leadership had also made a swift decision to drop then-President Pál Schmitt when his plagiarism case proved too damaging, despite initially supporting him to the hilt; then Viktor Orbán suddenly withdrew the cut in higher education funding, although only a few days earlier his minister was still busy defending it. What happens in such cases, the authors claim, is that Fidesz leaders look at the figures – and opinion surveys indicated that an overwhelming majority of Hungarians oppose voter registration. Despite Antal Rogán’s announcement, it is obvious, the authors claim, that the party leadership is strongly in favour of pre-registration. Kovács and Kósa speculate that Fidesz may attempt to pass a similar law later on, as Mr Rogán referred specifically to the year 2014 and exclaimed Fidesz’s acceptance of the Court’s ruling by referring to their desire “not to confuse voters.”

For more on voter registration and the Constitutional Court’s decisions see BudaPost December 31 and January 5.

In another controversial development over the past few weeks, the government has enhanced the status, the funding and the authority of the Hungarian Academy of Art (MMA), an organisation set up by national conservative artists to counter globalist trends. In a new draft statute to be voted on in February, the MMA is to be given the right to ‘meddle’ – in the eyes of its critics – in cultural policy. When the MMA was mentioned in the new constitution in 2010, this did not initially provoke outrage. The storm broke, however, when it was transformed into a “public body” with a fat budget in 2011, and especially with the new act which will give it authority over grant money and two cultural institutions. Prominent players in the Arts world started protesting and several members of the Academy itself resigned. The MMA scandal was exacerbated by the statements of its president, interior designer György Fekete who said the Academy would only admit members who proved their commitment to the nation.  A cultural minority (meaning supporters of modernist art) were trying to impose their aesthetics on the nation, he said, adding that he would not care for a democracy based on the principle of a secular state.

Péter Hamvay in HVG notes that even the right is divided over the “farming out” of cultural policy to a non-elected public body, even if it were not dominated by intolerant arch-conservatives such as György Fekete. Yet, the author claims, “outsourcing” is the essence of the government’s cultural policy, and the expression was used by Human Resources Minister Zoltán Balog to explain why the MMA was going to receive such broad authority and so much funding. Outsourcing is good business for some, the author states, while the rest of the cultural sphere is starved to death. Viktor Orbán promised his voters that he would replace the left-liberal elite, but culture has never been a priority for him, as Fidesz thinks there are not many votes to gain or lose in cultural policy. Hamvay believes that from the perspective of the government the best policy is to let culture wither away. He speculates that Orbán tried to divide his own cultural background, turning government friendly forces against each other, so he could keep some balance among the warring factions. The case of the MMA, however, shows that the initial goal is about to be lost, he concludes, with one right-wing group managing to take all.

In an interview with Heti Válasz, the historian and publisher János Gyurgyák, one of the founders of Fidesz and an iconic figure in Hungarian publishing, has some very strong words about the MMA and the government’s cultural policy. He dismisses leftist accusations that PM Orbán wants to revive Admiral Horthy’s interwar authoritarian regime, but believes Mr Orbán is far better at making quick decisions than at picking the right people or consulting others.  He forecasts that strong centralisation will come back to roost – although Hungarians are not overly sensitive to the issue of political rights, “discontent tends to burst out” just as it did under the pro-Soviet régime. Referring to the debate on anti-Semitism (see BudaPost August 13, 2012), he warns that when the left brandishes the charge of anti-Semitism as a weapon, they do a disservice to the country. Gyurgyák thinks the Hungarian left had better face its mistakes instead, and stop denigrating national feelings. What he calls this “mental syphilis”, a bitterly divided country which the Fidesz generation inherited, and is now passing on to an even younger generation, is killing the nation, he argues, and although bitter divisions are not rare in democracies, the country should, in the end, always come first.

Tags: , ,