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Weeklies on Orbán’s ‘illiberal democracy’

August 4th, 2014

In their comments on the Prime Minister’s speech in Baile Tusnad (Tusnádfürdő) on July 26th, left-liberal weeklies accuse Viktor Orbán of openly opting for dictatorship instead of western democracy. Pro-government analysts retort that the speech has been distorted by the left.

In his weekly 168 óra editorial, Tamás Mészáros admits that the Prime Minister has been successful in discrediting political liberalism in Hungary, but internationally it continues to be relevant. He also distinguishes liberal politics from liberalism as an ideology and liberal democracy as a system of government, which he believes is essential in western societies. Advanced democracies, he argues, are all liberal, without exception. Mészáros thinks therefore that an illiberal democracy can be no more democratic in practice than the dictatorial regime of East Germany, which was known as the German Democratic Republic once was. He wonders why the Prime Minister went public with what the author considers an outright denial of democracy, although he must have known how much international criticism his words would provoke. Mészáros’s guess is that radical right wing voters who have “enthusiastically supported Fidesz’s nationalistic approach, will by now only be satisfied with the open dismantling of democracy”.

In its editorial headline, Magyar Narancs (print) calls the Prime Minister’s speech an “admission” – of his allegedly anti-democratic intentions. The authors accuse him of disrespect for other people’s inalienable rights, in the belief that democracy can be confined to periodically held elections – and contend that he does not even shrink from rigging those elections. They define his goal as an attempt to rid the executive of all kinds of limitations and call his “workfare” or “labour based” state “an accessory reminiscent of fascism”. Magyar Narancs accuses Mr Orbán of regarding China, Russia, India, Singapore and Turkey as alternative patterns of government. They compare attempts at “making Hungary resemble despotic Russia” to the policies pursued by Communist dictator Mátyás Rákosi in the early 1950s, while János Kádár, the Communist Party Chief after 56, wanted to lead the country “in the opposite direction” toward the end of his rule. “Viktor Orbán, on the other hand”, Magyar Narancs asserts, “wants war, and everybody else had better ponder how to prevent him from getting what he is after”.
In one of the two commentaries Élet és Irodalom devotes to the issue, editor Zoltán Kovács interprets the Prime Minister’s remark about the mandate given by the US House of Representatives to its Speaker to sue the President for abuse of power as “laughing out loud, while brandishing his own immunity from punishment”. (Mr Orbán said the President of the United States could stay in office after being sentenced, while he could not if he were to be sued by Parliament.) Kovács contends that the Prime Minister is gradually turning into a dictator and sensible people will sooner-or later disappear from his team. He condemns those young analysts who enthusiastically explain to the public that when the Prime Minister speaks of ‘illiberalism’, he only means the economy, while his regime continues to be a democracy. Kovács believes this is nonsense, because once the economy ceases to be liberal, the opportunities for thought and action will inevitably become more limited.

In another full page analysis of the Prime Minister’s strategy in Élet és Irodalom, sociologist and former liberal state secretary György Csepeli calls the Prime Minister’s speech ”a masterpiece of its kind”, albeit one which only convinces his believers. He sees the condemnation of liberalism as the main “psychotropic” element in the Prime Minister’s performance and explains that by dismissing the free market with all its uncertainties, he offered a sense of protection and safety to his audience. Nevertheless, Csepeli believes that since there are no outside constraints imposing that view on Hungary, the “bubble will burst one day “and “society will find itself again”.

Heti Válasz (print) also devotes two articles to the Prime Minister’s speech, including an editorial by Gábor Borókai, who wonders why Hungary has not managed to embark on an “upward trajectory” over the past twenty-five years, if liberal democracy is the best possible form of government. On the contrary, he believes, left-liberal governance brought Hungary to the brink of bankruptcy. PM Orbán’s concept of a “workfare state” can be subjected to criticism, he continues, but surely either liberal democracy or the pre-2010 ruling élite must be dispensed with. Or both. “Because the two put together are a certain guarantee of failure”.

In a detailed analysis of the speech and of reactions by critics in the same weekly, András Stumpf remarks that most of the theses laid out by Viktor Orbán at Baile Tusnad can be found in several earlier statements, going back to 2003. Nor is his “opening to the East” a novelty, since it has been part of government policies for years. The Prime Minister did in fact mention Turkey, India, China, Singapore and Russia, but “did not call for the copying of Putin’s model”. He spoke about “understanding” rather than copying the various systems employed by those countries, Stumpf explains. He also notes that critics invariably omit to mention Mr Orbán’s assurance that a future model should be sought for, “in full respect for the values of Christianity, liberty and human rights”. As for Putin, Stumpf quotes Mr Orbán as telling his public that Hungary wants Russia to avoid “drifting away from the western (course of) development” and says “opening to the East” was prompted by political realism rather than an ideological stance. Stumpf does not believe that the infamous speech was faultless; he finds for instance that to condemn NGOs critical of the government as subsidised by foreign sources was out of proportion with the small scale of that financing and the few thousand people those NGOs can reach. He asks how they could be considered a serious hurdle to shaping a new form of government. Nor does he believe that people became deeply indebted in foreign currencies because of liberalism, since Austria, for one, could protect her citizens from forex debt. All in all, Stumpf’s main problem is that the Prime Minister didn’t elaborate on what exactly he means by liberal democracy and “first of all, on what the system he envisages replacing it with will look like”.

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