[Marxism] On the Surface, Hungary Is a Democracy. But What Lies Underneath?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 26 08:22:25 MST 2018

(This article grapples with the question of whether Hungary is a fascist 
state. It cites Jason Stanley, a Yale professor who wrote "How Fascism 
Works". Stanley argues that “When you govern from a position where 
loyalty to your ethnic group and a mythic past trumps truth and respect 
for people who don’t agree with you — then that is using fascist 
ideology and fascist political tactics to gain and retain power.” 
However, fascism is not just about loyalty to an ethnic group. It is a 
totalitarian system that, for example, would not permit people to 
protest against the new overtime rules in Hungary. In many ways, the 
only true fascist regimes that ever existed were in Germany and Italy. A 
convincing case can be made that Spain and Portugal were not. If you 
really want to understand what Orban is about, you need to look at how 
Pilsudski ruled Poland in the 1930s. This was an authoritarian state 
built on nationalist ideology that still eschewed fascism. In fact, 
Hitler viewed the political party that ruled Poland in 1940s as an 
obstacle to his Third Reich's ambitions. Pilsudski's underlings were 
systematically murdered by Stalin in Katyn forest with Hitler's blessings.)

NY Times, Dec. 26, 2018
On the Surface, Hungary Is a Democracy. But What Lies Underneath?
By Patrick Kingsley

BUDAPEST — When the Hungarian government coerced the Central European 
University, a leading college in Budapest, into shutting some of its 
operations in December, it did not do so by threat of physical force. 
Viktor Orban, the far-right prime minister of Hungary, never jailed a 
C.E.U. professor or ordered the university to close by government decree.

Instead, the Orban government quietly changed the rules by which all 
foreign universities like C.E.U. can operate, allowing Mr. Orban to 
frame its treatment as a merely technical decision, rather than an 
attack on academic freedom.

It is a recurrent paradox of Mr. Orban’s rule: Despite all the steps he 
has taken to erode the Hungarian democratic process, Mr. Orban has 
rarely allowed his government to get its way by blatant force.

And it is this paradox that explains why analysts struggle to judge 
whether Hungary is still a democracy, and why Mr. Orban’s friends and 
foes alike ascribe increasing importance to the inner workings of this 
small and previously marginal country.

Hungary’s path under Mr. Orban has made him an icon to far-right figures 
such as Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former adviser, and 
provided a blueprint for the erosion of democratic institutions in 
countries like Poland.

“The closed regimes of the past were behind barbed-wire fences and 
police watchtowers, and the repression was overt and clear and 
unmistakable,” said Michael Ignatieff, president of the C.E.U. But in 
Mr. Orban’s Hungary, he said, “you can protest, you can leave, you can 
set up a business and you’re a member of the European Union, which is 
supposedly a union of democracies.”

Unlike in Communist-era Hungary, there is a Constitutional Court, along 
with dozens of other nominally independent state watchdogs. There is a 
plethora of private media outlets, whose journalists do not face 
physical danger for their reporting. And there are free elections in 
which anyone can run, but which Mr. Orban has won handsomely since 
re-entering office in 2010.

Beneath this veneer lies a more complex reality.

Mr. Orban’s allies control the Constitutional Court, while loyalists 
control which prosecutions make it to court in the first place. They 
have rarely, if ever, pursued corruption allegations against Mr. Orban 
and his ministers — and even if they did, few would hear about it.

State media, meanwhile, is entirely loyal to Mr. Orban. After state 
television channels failed to broadcast more than a few fleeting clips 
of recent anti-Orban demonstrations, a group of opposition lawmakers 
visited their headquarters last week to request some airtime. They were 
refused, and later ejected by force.

And though Mr. Orban commands a formidable majority, it is partly the 
result of this echo chamber in the media, which has muted alternative 
voices, and the redrawing of electoral boundaries and the restructuring 
of the electoral system to favor his party.

Mr. Orban and his allies proudly acknowledge that their system of 
government has diverged from a model of liberal democracy. But they 
insist that it is still democratic — as long as one widens one’s 
definition of what democracy is. For Mr. Orban, democracy depends 
primarily on the occurrence of elections, rather than on the separation 
of powers or the vibrancy of public discourse.

Opposition to Mr. Orban’s style of governance “assumes that there is 
only a simple model of democracy,” said Gyorgy Schopflin, a member of 
the European Parliament from Mr. Orban’s party. “The people who insist 
that the only democracy is liberal democracy are endangering democracy.”

But for some critics of Mr. Orban, his regime can be understood not by 
redefining the meaning of democracy, but through updating our 
understanding of autocracy.

To Mr. Ignatieff, the Orban regime is a “new thing under the sun” that 
cannot be defined by the templates of 20th-century authoritarianism. 
Hungary in 2018 has the trappings and institutions of a 21st-century 
European democracy, but uses them to exert the same kind of centralized 
control as the autocracies of the Cold War.

“It’s a new form of single-party state, but it’s clearly reproducing 
some of the features of the single-party states of the past,” said Mr. 
Ignatieff. “Which is ironic, because the regime is violently 
anti-Communist in its rhetoric, but in its practice it reproduces 
features of the ancien régime.”

For other critics of Mr. Orban, there is no need to update one’s 
definition of autocracy to understand the nature of his regime.

His strategies do in fact fit the patterns of the past, said Jason 
Stanley, a Yale professor and the author of “How Fascism Works,” a book 
that explores how contemporary leaders, including Mr. Orban, use fascist 
ideologies and tactics to expand their power and appeal.

Mr. Orban has repeatedly called for Hungary to regain the status it held 
before losing much of its land and population following the First World 
War, and often expressed a preference for a racially homogeneous society.

“We do not want our own color, traditions and national culture to be 
mixed with those of others,” he said in a speech in February.

For Mr. Stanley, both these habits are the hallmarks of a fascist. “When 
you govern from a position where loyalty to your ethnic group and a 
mythic past trumps truth and respect for people who don’t agree with you 
— then that is using fascist ideology and fascist political tactics to 
gain and retain power,” he said.

The control that Mr. Orban exerts over Hungarians’ access to information 
means that his government is no longer a democracy, regardless of how 
many votes he receives, Mr. Stanley added.

“Democracy is not just a voting system. It is a culture that respects 
truth,” he said. If a government prevents the public from accessing true 
information, he said, through “a propaganda system that lies to everyone 
in the country, then everyone will vote for the supreme leader every 
time. And that’s not democracy.”

Demonstrators protested against recent legislative measures introduced 
by Mr. Orban’s government last week.CreditLaszlo Balogh/Getty Images
That made the treatment of the four opposition lawmakers at the state 
media broadcaster so remarkable: It was, unusually for Mr. Orban’s 
Hungary, a naked show of force.

It follows a series of similarly blatant power-grabs that suggest that 
Mr. Orban no longer feels obliged to moderate his actions.

After European leaders repeatedly proved unwilling to punish Mr. Orban 
for past misdemeanors, “Orban sees a window of opportunity,” said Daniel 
Hegedus, an expert on Hungarian politics at the German Marshall Fund of 
the United States, a research group.

“Now he can do practically anything without risk of sanctions on the 
European stage,” Mr. Hegedus added.

For years, Mr. Orban was satisfied with infringing judicial independence 
through a series of incremental measures. But in early December, he set 
up a parallel court system in one fell swoop.

Until recently, he tried to leave private news media with at least a 
veneer of autonomy, preferring to let loyalist businessmen take over 
troublesome outlets instead of placing them under a more blatant and 
centralized system of government control.

But in December, he waived a competition law to allow loyalist owners to 
“donate” hundreds of Hungarian newspapers, radio stations and television 
channels to a single, central fund run by three of his closest allies.

And after an opposition lawmaker was dragged, pushed and carried from 
the Hungarian state broadcaster by four armed guards in December, Akos 
Hadhazy, the lawmaker, described his expulsion as a watershed moment.

Until his assault, Mr. Orban’s government had been “a dictatorship of 
disinformation,” Mr. Hadhazy said. “But now we have crossed the line of 
physical violence.”

Benjamin Novak contributed reporting.

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